Thursday, April 17, 2014

(4-17-14) Blackhawks-Blues Game 1 Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The lineup is still fluid, according to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.

It's been that way all week leading into the Western Conference playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks, which begins with Game 1 today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KY 98-FM).

But after watching the Blues roll their forwards lines and defensive pairings at the morning skate, Hitchcock confirmed who is in and who is out.

"It's fluid, but the lines you saw today, the first four and the first six D's, that's what we're going to start the game with," Hitchcock said. "(T.J.) Oshie won't play and (Patrik) Berglund won't play tonight."

The biggest development is the emergence of right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who after only four weeks following surgery on his right hand, will be in the lineup when the puck drops at Scottrade Center.

The Blues, who will be without Oshie (upper body) and Berglund (upper body), are getting Tarasenko back sooner than expected. He was originally expected to be re-evaluated in six weeks following surgery March 19, but through hard work, determination and will, the guy nicknamed 'Vova' will bring with him his 21 goals and 43 points from 64 regular season games and a transition game the Blues have lacked in the 15 games he's been out of the lineup.

"There's no limitations," Hitchcock said. "He deserves an awful lot of credit. He did the double extra duty to be physically conditioned and ready to play. This is going to be a significant challenge for him because first, he's never played in a playoff game very much and secondly, he's missed a lot of time. We understand that part, but between the training staff and his commitment to conditioning knowing that the injury he had would allow him to play right away, he himself deserves an awful lot of credit. He has worked extra hard to be in the best shape of his life right now, which is going to allow him to keep up at this time of year. I think if he doesn't put all the extra work in that he's done off ice, on ice, everywhere, then I don't think we would have been able to play him. But because of all the extra work that Vladi's done, he's been a great participant and there's been some really tough days for him that we've pushed him through the wall on some stuff. All of this was with a chance to play in the playoffs. Originally, it was no-go for the first round and now you're seeing a guy play Game 1, which is really significant."

With Tarasenko, who did not speak with reporters Thursday morning, playing with fellow 2010 first-round pick Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Sobotka, who also returns from a lower-body injury, the Blues are looking for that transition balance that's been lacking but not expecting too much, too soon.

"It was a great line, but we've got to be realistic here," Hitchcock said. "One guy's coming back from long-term injury (Tarasenko), the other guy's coming back from significant injury (Sobotka) so we've got to be careful in balancing this thing. Let's let them get their feet wet, but this line does more off the rush for us than any line we have, and it's done more off the rush all year when it's played together, whether it's Bergie in the middle or whether Sobotka's been in the middle, but this line has done damage off the rush all year and we're hoping that within a couple periods, that they're going to be back up to speed. But we've got to be realistic too. You've got two guys that are just coming back and we're trying to put it together and make it our second line, so we've got to be  realistic here and we've got to be patient with it."

Tarasenko has two goals and five points in seven career games against the Blackhawks, who are certainly aware of his offensive instincts.

"He's a good player," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who's returning himself from an upper-body injury, said of Tarasenko. "He does a lot of things really well. He can score goals, he can shoot, he can make plays. So he's certainly one of the more skilled players we'll be aware of when he's on the ice. 

"But as a whole. whether they have some of their top guys in or out or playing through stuff, that doesn’t change anything for us. We know they're going to be a tough team and tonight's going to be the best test that we've had all year. That's what we have to be prepared for regardless of what their lineup looks like." 

Hitchcock had no update on Oshie's condition, but the Blues' right wing did participate in the morning skate. It's just a matter of when he gets clearance for contact after taking an illegal hit to the head by Minnesota's Mike Rupp on April 10. Oshie has missed two games. 

In Berglund's case, he has not practiced this week and has not been able to do anything after sustaining an injury April 11 at Dallas when he was checked awkwardly into the side boards by the Stars' Jordie Benn.

Hitchcock said as recently as Tuesday that Tarasenko was "on schedule," not ahead of it. But the rehab the Russian put in to get back on the ice is pretty telling.

"You're talking six, seven hours a day at the rink," Hitchcock said. "Two-, two-and-a-half hours on the ice mostly by himself, various conditioning levels, pushing the envelope, getting him into shift shape, which is very difficult when you don't have anybody to play with. First month basically playing with nobody. He's had two practices with somebody and now he's going to play in a playoff game. He's had to do this pretty much all on his own and then when he was able to join the group, it's been a couple hockey practices and away you go. He's been very diligent in working with an against the coaches. They provided the opposition for him until he was cleared to come and join us and how he's up and running."

- - -

With Oshie out of the lineup, veteran Steve Ott will play on the top line with David Backes, who returns after missing three games with a foot injury, and Alexander Steen.

"He's a veteran guy who knows how to play this time of year," Hitchcock said of Ott. "This is why we brought him here, so we expect him to be a good player for us. 

"I think from our standpoint, he's a player that allows us to use Steen and Backes in a more offensive role than maybe even they have all year. They've been great two-way players, but this allows for a little more freedom for Steener and David based on the way our lineup's configured right now."

Ott, who last played in the playoffs with the Stars in 2008, relishes the opportunity as a veteran guy to taste Stanley Cup playoff competition again.

"I'm really excited to be honest with you," Ott said. "My last trip was Western Conference finals (with Dallas). I've watched playoffs for the last five years. I'm a big fan of the game. Watching and sitting there and not competing in the Stanley Cup Finals is absolutely the worst. Now to have this opportunity later on in my career again, I'm definitely looking forward to it, especially with the strong group that we have."

- - -

The Blues, at least at the start, have made their choice for their sixth defenseman to be paired with Roman Polak

The verdict: Jordan Leopold over Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian Cole.

Leopold, who's only played in three of the Blues' past 25 games, has been limited with multiple injuries this season, including the most recent, which was a high ankle sprain sustained Feb. 8 against Winnipeg.

Hitchcock's rationale?

"I think in the last two games, Chicago has been able to control us for the first time in our own zone, and they've been able to hem us in a lot," he said. "They've created a lot of offense from their ability to win puck battles, board battles, 1-on-1's. 

"We just felt like at this time, we needed a more physical presence back there who can still move the puck well but can play with the physical part of the game, win his own 1-on-1's and control people. One of the reasons we had success early in this series is because we spent no time in our zone, but in the last two games, Chicago's done a better job of hemming us in. We feel like Leo to start with can help us exit a little bit quicker."

Leopold, 33, feels like he's prepared despite the limited number of games.

"I've been ready for weeks," Leopold said. "It's a matter of just going out there and playing hockey and letting my instincts and experience carry me through.

"This time of year, there's a lot injuries and that's due to an 82-game season, let alone first round. There's going to be bruises, nicks, cuts, broken things, but it is part of the game. The depth is part of what we've been preaching all year. We've had good depth around here and been able to do good things to propel us back to where we want to be and here we are. We've got a tough opponent, yeah, but I've said it before: to be the best, you've got to beat the best. These guys are the defending champs and they know how to win. We're right here in the cusp of doing that as well. We have to grab this thing and roll with it."

- - -

The importance of winning Game 1 might fall more on the shoulders of the Blues than the Blackhawks, who have won two of the past four Stanley Cup championships.

The Blues come in off a six-game losing streak to end the regular season but have no worries in that regard. With injuries being at the crux of the end of the season, the Blues feel they're close to where they need to be with a full lineup.

"We've won 52 games this year. I don't think we forgot what that feels like," Backes said. "We just started running out of steam, running out of bodies at the end of year. I don't think that's the case after some great rest and some great work by the training staff and guys taking care of themselves that we're going to have all hands on deck. We're going to play with tons of energy tonight and we've got a group that's focused and ready to go.

"It's Game 1. It's one game out of a seven-game series. I think we've got to think of it more as seven one-game competitions. If we take that shoulder-frame, mindset, nothing's going to get us too high, nothing's going to get us too low. Obviously you want to win Game 1, you want to win in your own building. We have home ice and if you take care of all the games in your own building, you win the series. Those are things that we'd love to take care of, but I think we learned against L.A. last year that one game, two games, it doesn't mean it's over. You've got to play a whole series and if you take your foot off the gas for one second, the other team's still got life. Same way on the other side of the coin. If you lose one, it doesn't mean you're done. Until you're shaking hands at center ice, there's still life in both teams. That's our focus right now is Game 1, a hard 60 minutes the way we play. With the way these two teams have played each other this year, I wouldn't be surprised if it's longer than 60 minutes in all seven games."

"This is a new season. That's where it's all at," Ott said. "I was a happy guy on Sunday when we finished and we lost to Detroit knowing that this team's going to the playoffs and that's what you've worked so hard for, home ice advantage and going to a Stanley Cup playoffs, we're very excited about that opportunity and that's what's looked upon more than anything else.

"I don't think it was even talked about. There's other options and other things attributed to why we finished the season the way we did. We know what those all were. This team's ready to go now. That's the most important thing."

- - -

Containing the Blackhawks' transition game will be the challenge for the Blues throughout the entire series. It will fall on not only the defensive six but the backchecking forwards as well.

That's where Backes will come into the foray, and he should see plenty of Toews throughout this series. But with the Blackhawks looking to spread the wealth, the Blues will rely on all their lines to pitch in.

"It's definitely a challenge, it's definitely something that gets your competitive juices flowing because they're some of the best guys in the world," Backes said. "It doesn't take much of a mistake. They're celebrating and you're not feeling very good. We've learned that in the last little while. We're going to have to bring our 'A' game every shift and make sure we're binding together, nothing's getting us off track and that's what we're focused on in here."

Alex Pietrangelo, who along with Jay Bouwmeester log the most minutes on the team, will get their share of ice time this series.

"They spread their lineup out through three or four lines," Pietrangelo said of the Blackhawks. "We've got to make sure all of our lines are checking. You've got to take care of your own end. They like to play with speed, they like to play on the rush, they like to play quick. When we're responsible with the puck, responsible in the neutral zone, where we position ourselves, I think we can create some turnovers.

"They like to play with the puck but so do we. The best defense for us is hanging onto the puck. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing. Maybe a little bit different styles than they do. If we check them hard, we should be fine."

Instead of being too physical, limiting the space might be the way to go.

"You want to be physical, especially on their key players," Pietrangelo said. "They're probably saying the same thing. It's more getting in the position, take away the opportunities for them to make plays, whether it's finishing a check or using your stick to get in the way. There's always an opportunity to take away time and space."

- - -

* -- The AHL announced today that Jake Allen has been voted the winner of the Alege "Baz" Bastien Memorial Award as the league's outstanding goaltender for the 2013-14 season.

The award is voted on by coaches, players and members of the media in each of the league's 30 cities. 

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, Allen has a record of 32-16-3 in 51 appearances for the Wolves, helping them to a berth in the upcoming Calder Cup Playoffs. Allen ranks first in the AHL in victories, goals-against average (2.07) and save percentage (.927) as he bids to become just the second goaltender since 1984-85 to lead the league in all three categories. Allen is also pacing all goalies in minutes played (3,078) and is tied for first with six shutouts on the season, while ranking second in both shots faced (1,447) and saves (1,341).

The 23-year-old Allen represented the Wolves at the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic in St. John’s in February, and was named a First Team AHL All-Star last week. 

Selected by the Blues in the second round (34th overall) of the 2008 NHL Draft, Allen was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team last season after a successful 15-game stint with the Blues. Allen has played 171 career AHL games with Chicago and Peoria over his four pro seasons, compiling a record of 83-74-10 with a 2.55 GAA, a .917 save percentage and 15 shutouts. 

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup:

Steve Ott-David Backes-Alexander Steen

Jaden Schwartz-Vladimir Sobotka-Vladimir Tarasenko

Brenden Morrow-Derek Roy-Ryan Reaves

Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Adam Cracknell

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk

Jordan Leopold-Roman Polak

Ryan Miller will start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian Cole, Magnus Paajarvi, Dmitrij Jaskin, Keith Aucoin and Niklas Lundstrom. T.J. Oshie (upper body) and Patrik Berglund (upper body) are injured and ruled out.

* -- The Blues assigned Aucoin to the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves this afternoon.

- - -

The Blackhawks' probable lineup

Kris Versteeg-Jonathan Toews-Brandon Saad

Patrick Sharp-Michal Handzus-Marian Hossa

Bryan Bickell-Andrew Shaw-Patrick Kane

Brandon Bollig-Marcus Kruger-Ben Smith

Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook

Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson

Nick Leddy-Michal Rozsival

Corey Crawford will start in goal; Antti Raanta will bethe backup.

Healthy scratches include Jeremy Morin, Peter Regin, Sheldon Brookbank, Joakim Nordstrom, David Rundblad and Mac Carruth. The Blackhawks report no injuries.

No comments:

Post a Comment