By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock wouldn't play his card Monday. He did Tuesday: T.J. Oshie will return to the Blues' lineup for Game 1 of the conference quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Kings.
Who will Oshie replace? It was assumed one of the fourth-line players would be taken out, with Adam Cracknell at the top of the list. But Hitchcock will instead sit rookie Vladimir Tarasenko ... at least for the first game.
"I've always believed that the first kick at the can in playoffs is for veteran players," Hitchcock said. "You give them a go. Tarasenko, (Dmitrij] Jaskin will probably get some time during the playoffs, but you want to give the veterans a chance to prove -- unless they've really underperformed -- they want to take the ball and run with it. That's what we're going to do. If somebody under-performs, then we won't hesitate to replace and move from there."
Oshie, who has missed 15 games after blocking a shot against these very same Kings March 28, required a surgical procedure to repair what ultimately turned out to be a stress fracture in his left ankle. The Blues went 12-3-0 without Oshie in the lineup, but he will return to play with David Perron and Patrik Berglund.
"I'm as ready as I'll ever be, I think," Oshie said after Monday's practice. "I feel good. It's going to be up to the coaches whether I'm in or not.
"One big hit can lift the team up, one big blocked shot can get a team going or a hard back-check preventing a goal. It's little things like that that can turn around a series. Hopefully I'm able to do one of those at least."
Hitchcock called Oshie a big addition.
"I don't know that he can be a difference-maker, but he certainly carries the conscience of the team," Hitchcock said. "When he's in the lineup, we're better. I don't care if it's just 5-on-5 if that's all he can contribute right now, but we're better if he's in the lineup."
As for Tarasenko, it's been the most challenging season of his hockey life. After playing 30 games in the Kontinental Hockey League for SKA St. Petersburg and another 38 playing for the Blues, Tarasenko has found scoring tough after coming out of the chute blazing.
He came out with five goals and five assists in his first eight National Hockey League games, but after suffering a concussion Feb. 20 at the Colorado Avalanche, Tarasenko had seven points in 21 games and scored only twice -- in the same game against the Kings March 28.
"In reality, this has been a very difficult season for him," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko. "Not from a competition side of things, but from an intensity, games played, no practice, no rest ... I think he's found this season at times overwhelming just based on proximity of games, 48 games in 100 days. He's found this to be challenging to say the least.
"He's played his best hockey when he's been rested. We expect him to come into the series and be a rested player, but he's a really good hockey player that's has his eyes opened about ... this has been a strange season. I think if this would have been an 82-game season, probably energy-wise he probably would have been a little bit different. This has been a very difficult season for him because he's never been through anything like this in his life."
Probably the biggest reasoning is that it's hard for Hitchcock to break up the effective play of fourth-liners Chris Porter, Cracknell and Ryan Reaves.
"You're all talking about our fourth line being our fourth line, but they're more than our fourth line. They score. Fourth line is an energy line ... those days are gone," Hitchcock said. "Those are dinosaur lines. They don't work anymore in the league. The hockey's too good. Your fourth line needs to contribute and boy, ours has come through in spades. They've scored, they've pressured on the forecheck, they've been able to play against other than the other team's top line, they've been able to play against top six forwards. They're a lot more than a fourth line. You've got effectively two scoring players that play there, two players that really light it up in the American Hockey League, but they've learned to play a different game up here. When you give guys like Cracknell and Porter a chance, they score. I think Revo's even caught onto that. He's got more puck patience than he's ever had. The banging around, running around lines, they're not effective any more. Everybody plays right through those lines. This is a very, very good line that can play against top players, which makes us a lot more effective."
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Five players will be making their playoff debuts tonight (four for the Blues and one for the Kings).
For the Blues, it will be the debuts for forwards Jaden Schwartz, Cracknell and Porter as well as defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who ends the longest active drought at 764 games. Defenseman Jake Muzzin of the Kings will make his playoff debut.
Bouwmeester is the least likely to have nerves, since he's played in pressure situations for Canada in various capacities. But for the others?
"No I'm not actually," said Porter, who will center a line with Cracknell and Reaves. "I slept great last night. It might be different come game time, but I think a little bit of nerves is good. Watching last year, I was able to take a lot not even playing. I was able to take a lot from the series. I don't think anything really changes for myself or anybody on the team. Every little play matters just a little bit more.
"I had never seen a playoff game until last year. The crowd was amazing and I think the guys fed off that. It'll be exciting to be a part of that. ... I'm looking forward to seeing what that energy feels like on the ice. With our line, we're hoping to bring that energy to the crowd. Whether that be through physicality or just energy on the ice kind of buzzing around in the offensive zone. We're going to continue to do what we've done for the past month and build on that."
For Schwartz, who will play on left wing with David Backes and Alexander Steen: "I'm really excited. I think I've got a few butterflies and I'll probably feel more tonight. The first playoff game, that's expected. Once you get your first few shifts in, I'll calm down a little bit. I just want to make sure I'm sticking to the things I've been doing and working hard. It's another hockey game, so I've got to approach it that way.
"Same routine throughout the whole day, especially before the game. Everyone knows what's on the line and how important these games are. I'm excited and anxious, but I'm not going to change too much.
Cracknell was the only to admit nerves but the good kind.
"I'm nervous. I think it's a nervous excitement," he said. "I don't have the playoff experience some guys do and winning championships. I've always been on a team that you think could but we under-succeeded. ... At the end of the day, we're going to go out and play a game that we've been playing a long time with the extra craziness and you know what you're battling for. These are the days I've always thought about playing in. Very exciting. Just got to take it one game at a time right now and one shift. I know our first shift, we're going to be buzzing around and so are they."
Muzzin, who had 16 points in 45 games playing for the Kings, probably wouldn't have even been on their radar this season had it not been for the injuries suffered by Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell.
"I feel pretty good," Muzzin said. "I haven't really got the nerves yet. Maybe I'll get them later. I'm definitely excited. This is what you play for all year to get into the playoffs. This is definitely exciting. I'm looking forward to it.
"I just want to play my game, solid defensively. If I can add offense on the power play or make things happen, if the chance is there, then I will. For me, I've just got to be a good, strong defender and go from there."
Hitchcock, who has been involved in a playoff game or two during his coaching career, said the message to his players
"I think the day of the game is a lot of wasted energy if you don't watch yourself," Hitchcock said. "We told our guys to save every piece of energy they can. They're going to need it tonight. I think you can really overcook it if there's too much hype before the competition. The competition itself will take care of the hype. It's just such a fun time to be involved. The pressure to win is great. There's no real stress like there was during the regular season, but the pressure to compete and play is what everybody yearns for and we've all got it now. Regardless of what happens, it's a fun time for everybody in the organization, both teams. You play for the right reasons this time of year. It's an area where you don't want to waste any energy on the off-days."
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Both Hitchcock and Kings coach Darryl Sutter met with Rob Shick, the NHL supervisor of officials in charge of this series. They went over some things about how the officiating will go in the series as well as other bits.
Hitchcock said his message to Shick and the officials was simple:
"My message to the referees was to just stand on the third row, just get the hell out of the way," Hitchcock said. "Let us play, because there's two teams that know what's at stake, two teams that play the game the right way, two teams that know how to play. This is a series that deserves to be played 5-on-5. Both teams are great 5-on-5 teams. It deserves to get played that way. I think the referees will act accordingly. I think they're very good at understanding that these are two teams that really pride themselves in discipline and can play with emotional control most of the time. Sure, we've got guys that can take it over the edge. They've got guys that can take it over the edge, but organizationally, this is a team that gets on their players just like we do about taking bad penalties. I think if they just let us play, these teams will decide it 5-on-5, which is what we all want in the playoffs."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-David Backes-Alexander Steen
Andy McDonald-Vladimir Sobotka-Chris Stewart
David Perron-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Adam Cracknell-Chris Porter-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Jordan Leopold-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott will get the start in goal; Jaroslav Halak will back up.
Healthy scratches include Kris Russell, Ian Cole, Tarasenko, Jaskin, Scott Nichol, Jake Allen, Andrew Murray, Jeff Woywitka, Jani Hakanpaa, Taylor Chorney and Evgeny Grachev. Winger Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) is still on injured-reserve but close to being among the healthy selections.
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The Kings' probable lineup:
Dustin Brown-Mike Richards-Justin Williams
Kyle Clifford-Anze Kopitar-Jeff Carter
Dwight Kings-Jarret Stoll-Trevor Lewis
Dustin Penner-Brad Richardson-Jordan Nolan
Robyn Regehr-Drew Doughty
Rob Scuderi-Slava Voynov
Jake Muzzin-Keaton Ellerby
Jonathan Quick is the starter in goal; Jonathan Bernier is the backup.
Healthy scratches include Alec Martinez, Colin Fraser and Tyler Toffoli. Defenseman Matt Greene (undisclosed) missed the last regular season game and was on the ice with extras this morning. Defenseman Willie Mitchell (knee) is on season-ending injured-reserve.