Tarasenko skates, progressing; Jackman returns,
Steen out; division title can be clinched this weekend
ST. LOUIS -- Sixteen days after repairing a thumb injury, 'Vova' was on the ice with his Blues teammates Friday.
Vladimir Tarasenko, who has 22 goals and 43 points this season, was originally projected to be reevaluated in six weeks following surgery, but the fact that he's able to grab a stick and skate is a sign he's perhaps ahead of schedule.
The Blues held an optional practice at Scottrade Center ahead of two crucial divisional games against the Colorado Avalanche at home Saturday and at Chicago against the Blackhawks on Sunday.
|Vladimir Tarasenko (back) talks with Blues assistant coach Ray Bennett|
before practice Friday at Scottrade Center.
"He's been skating for 10 days now, but this is the first time he skated with us," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Tarasenko. "He was part of the group, he was excited. He's going to start joining us on the road trip. He's getting closer every day. When he's able to play, we don't know."
No, Tarasenko is not on the cusp of returning to the Blues lineup after being injured in Nashville on March 15, but he's progressing quite nicely.
"Obviously he's not able to shoot the puck full right now, but if he can keep getting better every day, he's going to do nothing but help us when he gets into the lineup," Hitchcock said. "With as much as we're skating him and as hard as he's working, conditioning isn't going to be an issue. It's not like dealing with a broken leg or a shoulder injury where he can't do anything. He's going to be up to speed right away."
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After sitting out a 2-1 victory Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres with a lower-body injury, defenseman Barret Jackman will come back into the lineup against the Avalanche.
Jackman was among the skaters to take the ice Friday and deemed himself fit.
"Other guys got in the lineup and we're rested and ready to go tomorrow," Jackman said. "Two days off. It felt good so we're ready to go tomorrow. ... Every game's a grind from here on out. I got two days rest which is only going to be beneficial down the stretch."
However, Hitchcock ruled out Alexander Steen (upper-body injury) for the game Saturday and ruled him doubtful for Sunday.
Steen, who also missed Thursday's win against the Sabres, leads the Blues with 33 goals and is tied with T.J. Oshie for the team points lead with 60 in 64 games.
"Jackman's in, he'll play. He skated today," Hitchcock said. "He'll play tomorrow and Steen is not going to play on Saturday and probably doubtful for the weekend but we'll see."
Also, Ryan Miller will start in goal and no decision has been made regarding who gets the goal Sunday against the Blackhawks.
"All we're focused on is Saturday," Hitchcock said. "(Miller's) playing Saturday and we haven't made a decision for Sunday yet."
Chris Porter will also get into the lineup Saturday but Hitchcock didn't make a decision who comes out. Dmitrij Jaskin is a likely candidate but Hitchcock said it'll be based on who Colorado plays.
"We don't know yet. We'll probably base it on what we think is going to be their lineup," Hitchcock said. "We'd like to get a little more grit and speed into our lineup tomorrow. ... I think quite frankly our team plays better when Porter's in the lineup. I think that's the reality. We've tried other things, and quite frankly they haven't worked. They haven't worked near as well as when Chris plays. It's time to get him and give him the opportunity. You never have a problem with his work ethic, you never have a problem with his determination. It's time to give him the same opportunity we've given to the other people."
With Jackman coming back in, Carlo Colaiacovo will sit out against the Avalanche but will get back in Sunday at Chicago. The Blues want to keep Jordan Leopold in against his former team Saturday to keep him going after missing two months with a high ankle sprain.
"It went alright," Leopold said of Thursday's game in which he played 16:44. "It was nice to get my feet wet. I made a few errors defensively on reads, but other than that, something to build off of which is good for me. I think it's important that mentally I can understand I can somewhat do what I used to be able to do and be confident with it.
"It's been tough. It's been two months and there's limited amount of practice time that's game-like. To go with that scenario and then pop back in a game at a time of season when everyone's probably playing their best hockey is tough."
"He was good in transition," Hitchcock said of Leopold. "I think he had a difficult time at times down low in the small ice games. I think we knew that going forward that that was going to be the biggest adjustment, that intensity. He came through it physically fine. We're going to play him again tomorrow and then we'll look to put Carlo in on Sunday."
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The Blues' 2-1 victory against the Sabres on Thursday won't go down as a work of art. And it prompted a predictable answer from Hitchcock.
"Move on. Move on. Move forward," he said. "Today's a new day, lets get playing. Two big games on the weekend. Everybody's really looking forward to it. It's two points.
(Brian) Elliott was great. We had timely goals. We probably didn't finish like we wanted to, but today's move on, get ready. We've got two really significant opponents."
"We kind of got away from it last night and fell into their type of game," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
The Blues (52-17-7) got the two points and now have 111, tied with the Boston Bruins for tops in the NHL and three ahead of Anaheim for the Western Conference lead. But their remaining six games will be played against playoff opponents or teams fighting to get in.
The Blues feel like that bodes well for them.
"I think you're more alert in every aspect of your game," Hitchcock said. "They're fun to play in at this time of year. They're like playoff games, they're fun to play in. We're really looking forward to it, lots at stake. They still want to try and catch us, we want to keep them in the rear view mirror so there's lots at stake."
"This weekend's going to be good for us," forward Ryan Reaves said. "They're playoff teams that are going to be in playoff mode. They're fighting for spots. I think we've got to get ready right now and start getting in playoff mode.
"I think sometimes teams kind of look at the standings and you think it's going to be an easier game. I think that's what happened to us (Thursday). We got caught looking at standings and thought we were going to walk away with it and obviously that wasn't the case. I think we know what it's going to be like this weekend. They're really good teams right on our heels."
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With wins against the Avalanche and Blackhawks this weekend, the Blues will clinch their second division title in three seasons.
The Blues lead the Avs by seven points and Chicago by 10 (prior to the Blackhawks' game Friday night at Columbus). Winning both would give them a guaranteed matchup against a wild-card opponent in the opening round of the playoffs.
"Your goal for nine months was to be the top dog," Hitchcock said. "We have a chance to still be the top dog. We're tied right now, it's a great race (with) us and Boston, Anaheim. It's a great race right now. We just want to keep playing well right now and getting points, putting pressure on those other teams. They're talking about the same stuff we are. When you finish it the (13th) of April, you move on quickly. The next day, you're talking about your playoff opposition. You move on quickly, but why not play for something right now? You spend all this time working towards this, put your best foot forward."
"It definitely is within reach, but it's not within reach if we don't take it one day at a time," Reaves said. "Tomorrow's a huge game and we have to focus on that. We can't even be looking at Chicago right now. We've got to be looking at Colorado and once that game's over, we've got to get ready for Chicago and just take it day by day."
And the Blues will take things one game at a time.
"I don't even know how many guys even realize that in this room," Jackman said of the division title scenario. "It's really about playing our best hockey."
"The biggest thing for us is finding our game going into the playoffs," he said. "We know the division, we know the conference, we know the Presidents' Trophy are all there. But when you have an opportunity to find the perfect game, find out where you want to be before the playoffs, these are some good teams, these are some good tests."