Blues confident; injury update; Steen returns; Hakanpaa to Peoria
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Are the Blues back? That's the million-dollar question being asked after Thursday's impressive 3-0 shutout over Phoenix.
The Blues started the season 6-1 but there were some fortunate breaks that went their way. In a shortened season, good breaks are welcomed. But then there was a tailspin that included a five-game losing streak. A team can get away with a slide of that length in an 82-game schedule. But 48? One better right the ship quickly.
After Thursday's win, the Blues are 4-1 in the last five games, and remnants of last year's team have surfaced once again. As coach Ken Hitchcock said following the win over the Coyotes, the Blues are "digging in."
"We were good early (in the season)," Hitchcock said after Friday's optional skate. "I'm not sure if that was this year's energy or last year's energy, but we're starting to re-engage. We're managing the game properly, we're competing on pucks, we're checking better, we're reloading better ... all the things that you need to do to win close games, we're starting to do now. Whether we can keep it going or not, we'll see, but I like the way that our players are engaged right now."
They'll get a stern test once again when the Anaheim Ducks (20-3-3), who beat the Blues 4-2 Sunday, come to town. But according to Hitchcock, the buy-in process started even before this recent 4-1 surge.
"It's a gradual process," Hitchcock said. "You saw minutes in Dallas get played, then you saw more minutes in LA, more minutes in San Jose, more minutes in Phoenix just increasing. I think the players are just engaged in the things that matter.
"It's always a good feeling when work takes over from skill. Everybody has skilled layers, but when the work ethic starts to become more impactful than the skill ... I always find that players look the same when the opposition has the puck, then you know you've got a chance to win close games. I don't think we're doing anything differently offensively. We're not generating any more, but what we are doing is managing a game at 0-0 better, we're managing the game at 1-0 better, and then we're able to extend games because of it."
Maybe the Blues' resurgence has something to do with what rookie Jake Allen has been able to do since his recall from Peoria.
All Allen's done is go 7-1-0 in his first eight NHL starts. He has a 2.33 goals-against average and .915 save percentage and earned his first NHL shutout Thursday.
"I think it may be a little bit, but we played awful well for (Jaroslav) Halak in Anaheim, too," Hitchcock said. "It takes a lot to re-engage. Everybody wants to get there, but it takes a lot to get there. It doesn't happen overnight, a light doesn't go on.
"There's a tremendous amount of effort and discipline and structure that needs to take place. It's not the way most players want to play. This is not easy. The teams that have it, they keep it going for extended years and times and the teams that keep searching for it, you search for it every year. We lost it for a little while, but hopefully we're in the process of getting it back. We're certainly not near to where we want to be, but we look like a team that's starting to make significant progress."
* Injury update -- Forwards Andy McDonald (knee) and Vladimir Tarasenko (concussion) were full participants in Friday's optional skate that included 10 skaters and three goalies.
Hitchcock said both would be reevaluated Saturday morning but was not sure of when the two would return. There's the possibility they could return as early as Saturday night.
However, winger T.J. Oshie (upper-body) was not on the ice and is all but ruled out for Saturday, as he's still experiencing soreness.
"They're just out until they're in," Hitchcock said. "Obviously McDonald and Tarasenko practiced like normal players today. We'll evaluate them in the morning and see where they're at, but I can't give you a date on any of them.
"Oshie was declared day-to-day and that's what he is. These other guys are obviously getting close, but until they're in, I don't know. They go through different stages. It's more how they feel two hours after the practice is over. Are they sore? Are they fine? (Alexander) Steen felt fine after a hard skate for two days. If these guys feel the same way, then they'll probably get to play in the next couple games."
* Steen's return -- Steen, who has informed all media members through the Blues' PR staff that he prefers to go by his full name of Alexander rather than Alex, returned and made an impactful presence with a goal and two assists Thursday.
Steen, who skated with David Backes and Chris Stewart, returned after missing eight games with an upper-body injury. He said it was tough watching.
"It's really hard for me," Steen said. "Just the way that my injuries have gone the last little while, the last couple years, the types of injuries I've had ... it's been hard sitting on the sideline watching. I'm not the type of guy that has an easy time sitting. That's why I played during the lockout because I knew mentally, spiritually and emotionally, I had to play. It's not my character to sit out."
Look for Hitchcock to use this line filled with speed, skill and bulk moving forward.
"They were a threat," Hitchcock said of the line, which produced eight points. "That's a very difficult line to play against. It's a line that carries skill and weight, can score off the rush. It's a very difficult line to play with if they play at that tempo and that speed."
Steen totaled 19 minutes, 12 seconds of ice time in his return, which prompted Hitchcock to joke: "I was kind of aghast when I saw he played 13 minutes after two periods, so I think I cut him back in the third. What did he play, 20? Close to it? I tried to cut him back a minute or so.
"I wasn't worried about it. When a guy says he can play, you're there to win hockey games. He was competing at a high level. He wanted to get on the ice. It was a good sign for us."
Steen wasn't concerned.
"We kind of talked about it. But the way the schedule is, it's tough to get me in at practices," he said. "I really hadn't skated that much before (Thursday) either.
"We wanted to make sure (the injury) got the rest that it needed. I thought Hitch did a really good job. I was grateful to be back on the ice."
* Hakanpaa to Peoria -- The Blues made official that defenseman Jani Hakanpaa will join the AHL's Peoria Rivermen for the remainder of the season.
Hakanpaa, 20, played in 34 games for Espoo of Finland's SM-liiga this season, posting five points.
The 6-foot-5, 218-pound 2010 fourth round selection was picked 104th overall.