By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- After scouting the Florida Panthers and their 4-2 season-opening win at Dallas, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock defined the Blues' opponent tonight in two words:
"Really quick," Hitchcock said. "I know Dallas is fast, but they got out-skated (Thursday). It was really surprising to me. Then when you look at the personnel and the way (the Panthers built their team, their forwards are quick. They get up the ice and I think with adding 'Whit' (defenseman Ryan Whitney, who was let go by the Blues last week from his professional tryout) and (Tom) Gilbert, they've added transitional defensemen.
"They transition the puck really quickly and they've got speed. They've got four lines that can really fly. You forget some of those guys ... (Tomas) Fleischmann and (Kris) Versteeg and (Marcel) Goc and (Scott) Gomez, (Jonathan) Huberdeau, those guys can flat-fly. Controlling their speed is going to really be the challenge for us."
And let's not forget about Russian phenom, 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, the second pick from the 2013 NHL Draft who scored in his NHL debut and became the youngest player since Jan. 8, 1944 (Ted Kennedy) to score at 18 years, 31 days.
"He's a great player," Hitchcock said of the 6-foot-3, 209-pound center. "He plays like he's 25 years old. It's one game, but it looks like a really mature player."
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A staple in their team game since Hitchcock's arrival, the Blues' coach is looking for improvement in the team's 5-on-5 game.
The Blues also opened with a 4-2 win in their season-opener over Nashville Thursday but two of those goals came on the power play and the team was even on the night in even-strength goals.
"Our 5-on-5 play, I want to see marked improvement (tonight)," Hitchcock said. "Hopefully we can get it done. Hopefully we can build on that.
"The games are just so revved up, it's hard. It's hard when you're revved up to play and then you've got opposition that you're not comfortable with. I think emotion does that. The game's still hard, it's going to be quick and if we can get it slowed down in their head a little bit, I think that's going to be good for us."
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Jaroslav Halak, who earned his first win Thursday since shutting out Edmonton (3-0) on March 23 last season, will once again get the start tonight and if his strong play Thursday continues into tonight, look for Halak to get the bulk of the work here in the early part of the season.
After tonight, the Blues won't play again until Wednesday against Chicago, then have two more days off until their next game -- a week from tonight against the New York Rangers.
"Not really yet because there's such a big break between games," Hitchcock said when asked if he had a plan for the goalies, specifically Brian Elliott. "We'll go with Jaro tonight and see how it goes, but with all these big breaks between games, there's no reason one guy can't play to start the season.
"I think you're looking probably on back-to-backs and three in four nights, we're probably going to certainly make the move then. Brian's last two days were the best we've ever seen from him this year, and that's been great. He looks like he's ready to go. Jaro looked like he had a strong outing. We're kind of just focused on one day at a time and seeing how Jaro feels and things like that. He played very well in game one and we want to just keep going with it."
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The play of Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Tarasenko caught Hitchcock's eye Thursday, but not so much early on as much as as the game went on.
"I think that line was a little bit (looking to) kind of make the next play early in the game like the rest of our team and then as it dug in, they just started to dominate down low," Hitchcock said. "I thought they were really, really effective."
Tarasenko, who has a lethal shot, can probably use a dose of selfishness but at times chooses to defer instead of shooting the puck in obvious situations. But Hitchcock said that comes with the territory.
"I think it's just the respect factor. It's very similar to Schwartz," Hitchcock said. "Sometimes when you're playing with a veteran player, you want to get him the puck or you don't have the trust and confidence in yourself to do it. I like the part that he really was dominant on the cycle. When you cycle the puck like that, you're going to end up with a lot of scoring chances, a lot of shooting opportunities. It's not easy to get shooting opportunities off the rush. Maybe at practice you do but not very often in games. That line was really effective when they needed to be in the third period and if they play that way most games, they're going to be hard to play against because they've got weight and size and a compete level that's pretty high."
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Whitney's unfortunate exit from the Blues turned into another opportunity with the Florida Panthers.
The 30-year-old defenseman, who came to the Blues in a professional tryout, was the victim of a numbers game and the obvious lowering of the NHL salary cap this season. It's something that's hit many veteran players trying to find a job this year, but Whitney's strong camp in St. Louis helped him parlay that into a job with the Panthers when they signed Whitney to a one-year contract.
Whitney, who was in the Blues' locker room last week, returns to face the guys he barely got to know when the Panthers and Blues square off today at Scottrade Center.
"It's a business," Whitney said. "I had a real good time in camp here, a lot of good guys over there. But I was lucky enough to get signed by Florida after camp ended. I thought I had a good camp, so it's good to be here and getting to know these guys quick on the go because we're playing. It's a good group of guys and it's a fun to room to be a part of.
"I think it was important I was playing exhibition games (with the Blues). I thanked (Blues general manager) Doug Armstrong when I left. It's good to be here now and hopefully we can build something here."
When the Blues let Whitney go without a contract, they didn't necessarily want to do so but had no choice. With seven defensemen already signed to one-way contracts, it was difficult to squeeze Whitney into the foray despite his solid showing, which is what the organization told him upon his exit.
"It's always good to have guys on your side," Whitney said. "You can just tell being here that (Blues coach) Ken Hitchcock's a very good coach. He has guys organized and ready to play. That's the biggest thing. Doug Armstrong's one of those guys who's real easy to talk to. Same with (Florida GM) Dale Tallon here and (head coach) Kevin Dineen. It's been easy for me to kind of come over and talk to. Everyone's been honest and that's all you can ask. I came here wanting to be over there, but now I'm here and I'm real happy.
"I knew going in it was going to be real tough. A lot of it was I needed to play exhibition games and happened to be seen by them. I knew it was important that I make a good impression. ... I made some friends in there in a couple weeks, which is cool. It's a group that's easy to be a part of over there. After tonight, I wish them luck."
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It'll be a reunion of sorts when the Panthers and Blues engage today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM)
Not only will Whitney be in the lineup for Florida, but former Blues Brad Boyes and Mike Weaver will suit up for the Panthers. And on the Blues' side, former Panthers Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold will line up against their former foes.
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The Blues won't make any changes to their lineup. Alexander Steen missed practice Friday but will be in the lineup tonight after taking a high stick from Predators Predators defenseman Victor Bartley that cost Steen a pair of lower teeth. But after a visit to the dentist Friday, Steen is good to go tonight:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Chris Stewart
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Tarasenko
Vladimir Sobotka-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves/Adam Cracknell
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Jordan Leopold-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will get the start; Brian Elliott is the backup.
The Blues, who have no injuries, will make Magnus Paajarvi, Adam Cracknell and Ian Cole healthy scratches.
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The Panthers' probable lineup:
Tomas Fleischmann-Marcel Goc-Kris Versteeg
Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Brad Boyes
Jesse Winchester-Scott Gomez-Tomas Kopecky
Scottie Upshall-Shawn Matthias-Krys Barch
Brian Campbell-Tom Gilbert
Ryan Whitney-Erik Gudbranson
Dmitry Kulikov-Mike Weaver
Tim Thomas gets the start in goal; Jacob Markstrom will be the backup.
Panthers healthy scratches include C Drew Shore, RW Joey Crabb, and D Matt Gilroy. Nick Bjugstad (concussion), Steve Pinizzotto (hip), Ed Jovanovski (hip) and Sean Bergenheim (groin) are out with injuries.