By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Vladimir Sobotka's return to the lineup is still an area of question, but his presence on the ice gives the Blues added hope his return to the lineup is not far off.
Sobotka, who's been out since breaking his left kneecap on Jan. 31 at Carolina, took part for a limited optional skate Wednesday at the Ice Zone before the team departed for the start of another three-game trip, which begins Thursday in Nashville.
Sobotka's time on ice was his third since the injury and he increased his minutes with teammates from 15-20 minutes to 40 Wednesday with a quicker pace.
"I felt pretty good," Sobotka said. "I skated for the third time and it was probably the best skate. ... Still some soreness in there. I'm going to just keep going to my treatment and get stronger.
"I'm trying to push every day a little more now. We'll see how it goes. The first day I skated for 15-20 minutes. Today I skated for 40. We'll see how I'm going to feel tomorrow and if I can skate the morning skate with the team ... we'll see."
Sobotka, who has seven goals and 25 points in 46 games, would bring a much-needed dimension to the lineup that makes the Blues' forwards go at both ends of the ice.
He won't say how soon he'll return but feels close. Sobotka wants to make sure he's 100 percent.
"I'm still kind of sore a little bit," Sobotka said. "I still have that in my mind a little bit. I want to be 100 percent and I know I'm completely healthy. I've got to get my cardio back a little bit too.
"Doctors said 4-6 weeks and it's going to be close to five weeks now. I think I'm close. I'm going to keep skating on the trip and we'll see if I can do more the next three, four days. We'll see."
Sobotka and Jordan Leopold, who is nursing a high-ankle sprain, are both on the trip. Leopold, according to Hitchcock is 10-14 days from being game-ready.
"Sobe's taking full skates with us now," Hitchcock said. "We'll see here as the trip moves along. He felt good here again today, Leo's getting closer and closer every day, but they're not ready to play yet."
* Elliott will play -- With Ryan Miller now clearly the starting goalie, Brian Elliott has been cast as the team's true backup. Elliott's previous tandem with Jaroslav Halak was more of a 1A and 1B tandem.
But that doesn't mean Elliott will be cast on the bench for the Blues' remaining games. Elliott, who is 15-5-2 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, will get a start at some point on the trip which includes stops at Colorado Saturday and Minnesota Sunday.
"With all the back-to-backs here, Brian's going to get some ice," Hitchcock said. "He'll get a game on the road trip here. We expect him to play one of these games.
"I don't see that being an issue at all. He's played well. Last three games, he's really played well. We want to keep him going."
Elliott was strong in a 1-0 loss at Anaheim this past Friday, the day the team traded Halak for Miller. It was a day Elliott was to back up Halak.
* Top line magic -- The six points combined from David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie Tuesday was a reminder of how good the Blues' top line was earlier in the season.
In the past month or so, which included a break in Olympic action and injuries, Hitchcock had broken the trio up in hopes of balancing his forward lines up.
But with the recent play of Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko gives Hitchcock the flexibility to play his top guns together again.
"Berglund's line's helping us a lot," Hitchcock said. "It allows us to not have to spread the wealth. But we need more back behind that even if we're going to get up to speed here. If Berglund's line can keep producing like it is, we buy more time to get Sobe back in. I think it's going to help us."
Steen and Oshie each had a goal and an assist in the 4-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Backes had two assists and a very heated exchange with Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, which resulted in a slashing penalty. However, Oshie scored shorthanded to tie the game 2-2 and really sparked the Blues' comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
"Their energy's coming back," Hitchcock said of the line. "They had a tough go here with the road trip, the Olympics and everything. Their skating energy's coming back, their feistiness is coming back. They're three really competitive guys. When they've got foot speed and they've got energy, I thought you saw it in Oshie and Steen (Tuesday). Backes caught on in the second half of the game when he got a little bit of anger in his game again and a little bit of emotion. To me, when they're skating and they're cycling the puck, they're hard because there's three strong guys who can protect the puck. That goal they scored is a perfect example of what they're capable of."
* All quiet -- The Blues made their splash Friday with the acquisition of Miller and Steve Ott, and while names like Thomas Vanek, Ryan Callahan, Marty St. Louis, Halak, Marian Gaborik among others were changing jerseys at Wednesday's NHL Trade Deadline, the Blues were silent.
General manager Doug Armstrong said after acquiring Miller and Ott that he liked the Blues as they are heading down the stretch and into the playoffs but would not completely close the door. It would have taken a real knock-your-socks-off deal for Armstrong to pull the trigger on something Wednesday.