Blues-Blackhawks set to get reacquainted;
Oshie to return, Monday aftermath; Paajarvi close
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Eighty-one days will have gone by since the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks have stepped foot on the same sheet of ice.
It hasn't even been in this calendar year. Dec. 28 to be precise.
And the Blackhawks, who played Tuesday night in Philadelphia, will attempt to do what no other Central Division team has done this season: defeat the Blues in regulation.
The Blues (47-14-7) will carry a 20-0-2 mark into United Center and atop of the NHL standings with 101 points. The Hawks, who came into Tuesday's game with the Flyers nine points behind the Blues, have dropped all three matchups with their rivals to the south this season. Two of them, including a 6-5 Blues victory the last matchup, have come via shootout and the other came in the first matchup of the season when Alexander Steen scored with 21.1 seconds remaining of a 3-2 victory.
"We haven't seen them in a little while," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Hawks. "Now always seems to be the time when we play them down the stretch in crucial moments. It's going to be good for us because they're a team that's chasing us in the division and it's going to be a high-intensity game. It's going to be a playoff game so we have to be ready for it.
"Both teams play each other so often the games can go either way, but we've been able to bury our chances and I think really limit their offense as much as possible. They're a team that likes to get that run-and-gun game going, especially when they get on the power play and their top-end players can feel the puck a lot. I think that's when they get a little dangerous."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is curious to see how Chicago is playing these days.
"I don't think a lot," Hitchcock said when asked how much the Blackhawks have changed. "I was just looking at the game we played against (them), the 6-5 (shootout) game. They've got five different forwards playing now, we've got five different forwards. We've obviously added Steve Ott, but we had a lot of guys that weren't in the lineup. It was interesting watching it because they've got different players also. I'm curious to see how they look since some of the changes they made and then how we look with different players playing also.
"There's not much difference in any game (against Chicago). Scoring chance-wise, they're almost even every game. I think the big difference has been the overtime. They got caught twice taking a risk to score a goal and they just about scored and 20 seconds later, it's in their net. I think that's a big difference for us. Neither team's outplayed the other team. All these games have gone into extra sessions mostly. It's going to be the same. There's very little difference between both teams. We're curious to see if we've gotten any better or if they've gotten any better. It's a good test for us. This starts four great road games for us to get a great test in."
* Road test -- The Blues will return home from the game Wednesday night, then head back out Friday for a three-game East Coast swing against the Flyers on Saturday, Pittsburgh on Sunday and Toronto on March 25.
"Good teams. Good teams playing well, on top of their game," Hitchcock said. "Philadelphia's playing as well as they've played all year, Pittsburgh's a good team, Toronto's great at home. I'm really looking forward to seeing how we stack up and where we stand here with these opponents."
It makes the game against the Blackhawks one of much importance.
"Very important to start out on the right foot tomorrow," Shattenkirk said. "We're playing a Philadelphia team that I got to watch play a little bit this (past) weekend. They're looking like they're going in the right direction come playoff time. Pittsburgh is a little beaten up, but at any point, they have their two superstars (and) they can hurt you (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Obviously Toronto is a team that offensively can kill you. We're going out East to play some high quality, offensive teams. I think it's going to be important that we're staying on top of our game defensively and making sure that we keep moving in the right direction tomorrow."
* No stopping now -- The Blues' 101 points gives them the lead in the race for the Presidents' Trophy, which would be the franchise's second in 47 years. The other came following the 1999-2000 season in which the Blues were 51-19-11-1, good for 114 points.
Heading into Tuesday's games, the closest competition for the Blues came from the Boston Bruins, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, who all had 97 points. All three teams were in action Tuesday night.
"Full steam ahead," Hitchcock said. "I guess if you lose two or three in a row, you look over your shoulder, but right now it's just play, stay healthy, stay fresh and integrate new people. With (T.J.) Oshie coming back for the game tomorrow and integrating (Dmitrij) Jaskin more and more, who played very well (in a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday), but getting him more and more speed is a primary objective right now."
* Oshie to return, Paajarvi close, Leopold on hold -- Magnus Paajarvi, who suffered an upper-body injury in a 6-2 victory against Paajarvi's former team, the Edmonton Oilers, this past Thursday, was back on the ice Wednesday as the Blues held an optional skate in which only six skaters participated.
Paajarvi, who missed the 4-1 victory against the Nashville Predators on Saturday, is questionable against the Blackhawks.
"He skated hard today," Hitchcock said of Paajarvi. "We're looking to see if he gets through today to have full clearance to be part of the mix here, too. We'll probably show up tomorrow and really the only person that will be missing is (Vladimir) Tarasenko."
Paajarvi, who has six goals and 12 points in 44 games this season, was injured on a Ryan Smyth check between the benches 3 minutes 35 seconds into the second period.
"I didn't see him whatsoever," Paajarvi said of Smyth. "I took the puck and spun around for some reason. I don't know why, I never do that. Then it was right there, boom! He didn't intend to harm me or anything. I know him.
"It doesn't matter how much you work out. You can never really simulate ice. I wasn't 100 percent, but I felt better for sure. I felt better. ... It's getting there. Hopefully I'll be back soon."
Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who was supposed to play Monday but missed because of the flu, was not on the ice but his comeback has been put off for a couple days.
Leopold, who missed 10 previous games prior to Monday, was nursing a high ankle sprain but got clearance from doctors.
"Better, but we'll probably get him back to skating a few days and have him hopefully playing on the weekend here," Hitchcock said. "We were anticipating he plays yesterday but not there. We're not going to allow him to just take one day of skating and then come back out and play again."
Oshie, who missed Monday because of the birth of his daughter, Lyla Grace, will return to action against the Blackhawks.
* Step up -- With Tarasenko scheduled for surgery on his right hand Wednesday, it's a chance for the likes of Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin, who played Monday after being recalled from the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves, to really grab a top-six role in the lineup with Tarasenko expected to be sidelined roughly six weeks.
"That's why I want to get back as soon as possible," Paajarvi said. "... It really sucks that we lose a player like 'Vova' because we've all seen him this year and he can score from anywhere. He's got a wrist shot that very few people in this league have. It's sad, but on the other hand, we have a really deep team and we need guys to step up and I want to be one of those guys."
Jaskin played with Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka against the Jets.
"I like the way he played," Hitchcock said of Jaskin, who played a career-high 15:22 Monday night. "The one thing is he's a young player, but he's had a big advantage because before he came to North America, he played two years with men. So he's played one year of junior and three years of professional hockey. You can see it in his disposition on the ice, the way he carries himself, his positional play. It's not like you're teaching this young guy to still try to sort it out. He's got that part of the game down pat and that's why we trust him. Every time he comes up here, I trust him as a player. You're hoping that the things he does offensively in the American (Hockey) League can transfer to here."
Tarasenko leaves a void of 21 goals and 43 points out of the Blues' lineup.
"It's tough, especially with a young player to have it two seasons in a row now," Shattenkirk said of Tarasenko, who was lost for 10 games last season after suffering a concussion. "But I think he's got a little experience from last year. He knows that he'll keep himself in shape and he wants to play. He didn't get much of a shot last year and he's chomping at the bit this year to make a difference for our team in the playoffs. It's going to be important that he stay on top of things. We'll be right there to help him along the way."
* Managing the schedule -- March has been good for the Blues record-wise, where they're an amazing 8-0-1 thus far, but it hasn't been kind in terms of down time.
The Blues' game Monday against the Jets was their ninth in 16 days. When they play the Blackhawks Wednesday night, it will be their 10th game in 18 days. Somewhere, sometime that week off in the third week of October -- who wanted that then? -- had to be made up sooner or later.
But the Blues have managed it as well as one could expect, picking up 17 of a possible 18 points.
"It hasn't been too bad," Shattenkirk said. "I think Hitch has been doing a great job of giving us our time off and giving us the option to feel it out whether we want to skate on a day like today or stay at home. He's really doing a great job with the rest part of it. We're all old enough now and mature enough now that once gameday comes around, it's time to skate in the morning, get your legs going. Everyone's been ready to play at every drop of the puck."
After Wednesday, the Blues will (not including the Winter Olympic break) have back-to-back off days between games Thursday and Friday for the first time since Feb. 2-3.
"That's going to be a little incentive to pour it all into tomorrow night and really just play a hard game because it's not going to be a blowout for us and they're really going to be chomping at the bit to get a whack at us," Shattenkirk said.
* Fourth-line success -- It's no coincidence that when the Blues win, their fourth line usually has a hand in the success or their minutes are at 10-plus for the game.
Monday night, Chris Porter, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves were front and center when it came to offensive zone time and puck possession. But Hitchcock is eager for the unit's scoring prowess to be on display.
"I love their energy. I love what they bring. We've got to convince them that they can score more," Hitchcock said. "You look at last night, I don't think there was a shot on goal and there was a ton of chances to shoot the puck. Maybe we've got to give them more confidence, put them on the power play or whatever once or twice, but we've got to find a way for them. They have the ability to score.
"I'm going to talk to that line tomorrow. Our expectations are that they can chip in here. They are working hard, they are creating pressure, they're getting all this zone time, but I want to see them to have the confidence to make plays when they get it in there because they're more than capable. I think if they have that attitude, you never know. They're going to chip in and help us here, too."
"Every time we get on the ice, we want to set the tone as far as energy goes and work ethic," Porter said. "We feed off of everybody else, too. Whether it's a big goal, blocked shot, whatever it is in the game."
* End of game aftermath -- The afterthoughts of the skirmish that got very heated between the Blues and Jets at the end of the game were pretty much the same as they were following the game: it happens.
A total of 100 penalty minutes (51 for the Jets, 49 for the Blues) were given in which Porter thought he had his first goal of the season with .1 seconds remaining.
"I think the last 10 seconds was a build-up of the third period," Hitchcock said. "Both teams played each other hard. It looked like some of the people that had played the Winnipeg players hard, Winnipeg players looked at it and said, 'This is the last game, a chance to get back,' and they went at it physically. ... When you watch the game back, there were some hard hits in the third period. We got hit hard, they got hit hard. This was just the boil-over from it at the end."
Porter's first goal of the season and 11th of his career was denied in the end.
"I thought it was a goal," Porter said. "The ref on the ice called it a goal. We really didn't have too much time to celebrate because we had to get back to the other end and kind of deal with the shenanigans down there. They made their decision and we'll live with it.
"At first we weren't sure if they were celebrating the win (on the bench) or what and then we looked down the ice and made a bee line for the other end. You never want to see two guys going at it without any help. ... That was a first."
Porter, Lapierre, Reaves, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak were involved for the Blues. The Jets had Dustin Byfuglien (who started the whole ruckus by going after Jackman and Polak), Jacob Trouba, Olli Jokinen, Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler on the ice.