By LOU KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Last season, it was smooth sailing for the Blues.
Injuries were far and few between during much of the regular season until they hit an avalanche over the final six games.
It didn't take long for the injury bug to derail the Blues' plans for the start of 2014-15 as defenseman Carl Gunnarsson began on the shelf recovering from off-season hip surgery. And now with the addition of center Paul Stastny out week to week after injuring his left shoulder against the Arizona Coyotes and with center Jori Lehtera shut down the past three days with sickness, the Blues are seeing their forward depth tested early this time around.
That's why they stocked the cupboard.
"We'll kind of evaluate it here on the weekend," Hitchcock said of Stastny, who has four points in four games. "It gets better every day. ... If he's week to week, IR's what, seven days? This weekend will probably be the evaluation to see is he going to come back right away or is he going to take another few days. We'll do the evaluation here on the weekend here and see how he's doing.
"It tests (the depth) a lot. It was tough to absorb the loss of really your first and third icemen with no chance to practice. But allowing us a couple days of practice, I think we'll recover nicely. Everybody goes through this stuff, but I think with having time to practice and put your lines in and having that good practice tomorrow; hopefully Lehtera's in and that'll give us a chance to regroup and get ready."
The Blues, who host the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday before getting another crack at the Chicago Blackhawks here Saturday night, must soldier on.
"He's a great player," captain David Backes said of Stastny. "He's a huge addition, huge part of this team. We're going to have injuries this year. Get them out of the way maybe earlier in the year than later in the year and find ways to shed the responsibility of other guys, guys stepping up. We'll be fine. We've just got to keep it all together, make sure we're playing our game, supporting each other, picking each other up and take care of business.
"We're not going to dwell on one injury. We've got new guys, old guys ... it doesn't matter. We're a group of 23 and we've got guys in the minors that can step up and play, too. We're going to have injuries. We're going to have guys that are in and out of the lineup because they're hurt. It's an 82-game season in the best league in the world. Do we want Paul in the lineup? For sure. He'll fix his injury, he'll be back and he's a guy with his smarts and his abilities, he'll be right back in the lineup and won't miss a beat for sure."
Teammate Jordan Leopold, who also played with Stastny with the Colorado Avalanche, doesn't expect Stastny to be out very long.
"I've played with Paul in the past. I've known him for a long time," Leopold said. "He's going to bounce back from this just fine. We've got guys who are stepping in and doing the job for us. Who that's going to be night in and night out, we don't know. We have to stick to our game plan now and what we've done in the past. We have to get points. It's as simple as that. We've got a light month and we have to take advantage of it and come out on top here by the end of this month.
"It sucks for him, especially when you come to a new team. You want to make an impact, you want to be able to stay in the room and see how things work and learn what's going on.When you're injured on the outside looking in, it's really hard. He'll be at every meeting, he'll be around. It's unfortunate, but he'll be there when we need him."
But with Stastny out and Lehtera fighting the flu bug, the Blues were forced into mixing and matching lines at practice Tuesday.
"It really blew up three lines," Hitchcock said. "When you lose a winger, it's one thing, but I think when you lose a couple (of) center icemen, it blows up your lineup.
"Today was a really good day to recover on the ice and get some continuity back in our lines and get some role definition back again, so you make the adjustments. I look at Tampa, they've got four guys down, three in the last two games. Those are the adjustments you've got to make. I think any coach knows if you just get a day or two to catch your breath, you can regroup your group and other guys will step up and make account of themselves."
The lines included an all-Swede combination of Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund and Joakim Lindstrom.
"They were told to speak English today, which is something they were challenged with and they did a good job of it," Hitchcock joked. "... I don't know. They looked good at practice today. If you can move that onto the games ... if they look like they did today, that's a significant move for us. That really makes us dangerous when Lehtera comes back. That can really make us look dangerous right now."
Versatile Steve Ott was back on the top line with Backes and T.J. Oshie.
"Our hope is that in some period of time during the competition, we'll flip him and Magnus (Paajarvi) and see how both sides look," Hitchcock said of Ott. "We'll have Magnus practice there again tomorrow, but we'll see during the game depending on what the opponent is. I would look for him and Magnus to flip positions during the game. He's going to play in both spots."
* Back to familiar ground -- It didn't take long for Hitchcock to reunite defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, the team's top defensive pairing the past season and a half.
After spending much of training camp trying to figure out a way to balance the D-pairs out by splitting up Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, Hitchcock went back to them during the 3-0 loss against the Anaheim Ducks Sunday.
"Continuity, plus Gunnarsson's getting closer and closer to (being) ready," Hitchcock said. "Looking at the opponents coming up, we're going to need one pair that carries yeoman work 5-on-5. They're the pair that does it, so we're going to use them."
Pietrangelo's been playing with Ian Cole, and Bouwmeester has skated with Kevin Shattenkirk, who's thrived in the role. On Tuesday, Shattenkirk was skating with Cole and Barret Jackman and Leopold were on the third unit with Gunnarsson filtering in.
"That's the coach's decision. Whatever they want to do ... we played together a little bit there at the end of the Anaheim game," Pietrangelo said. "They're going to do whatever they think is right.
"Inside and out is an understatement. I think when you play a year and a half together, go to the Olympics together ... you can go on and on about on the ice, off the ice. You come to know each other. When we get back together, it seems natural. Anybody that goes with Bouw, it's an easy transition. He's a world class player."
As for Gunnarsson, who was cleared for contact a week ago Monday, Hitchcock said, "He's getting better and better. We'll kind of have a real firm evaluation after tomorrow's practice. He did fitness again today. He passed it with flying colors, so let's see where the next step's at. A lot of it's in his hands now."
* Assessing a 1-1-1 trip -- The Blues dominated play against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings but were thwarted of a point by nemesis Jonathan Quick in a 1-0 shootout loss, then blitzed the Coyotes 6-1 Saturday as Jaden Schwartz recorded his first-ever hat trick and four-point game before the team's flattest game of the season Sunday against the Ducks.
"Three in four after a long break early in the season," Backes said. "It's not an ideal schedule, but no excuses. We played a good game in L.A. We won a game pretty handily in (Arizona) and then we came out and played pretty flat in Anaheim. Whether that's back to back or whatever happened there, that's where we needed another 60 minutes to make that a great road trip."
"I think we definitely would have liked to get that last one," said Leopold, who was a healthy scratch Sunday in favor of Petteri Lindbohm, who Hitchcock raved about. "Maybe short on gas or whatever it may be, but we look to regroup this week. We've got two good days of practice, a day off here and here comes Vancouver rolling into town and here we go again. It's been a light month for us and hopefully we can take advantage of that."
* Special teams start -- The Blues come home to play four of the next five (Jake Allen will start in goal Thursday against the Canucks). They do so tied for second in power play efficiency (6 of 20, good for 30 percent) but needing some fixing on the penalty kill, where the Blues gave up two goals in the loss Sunday.
The Blues enter Thursday tied for 17th in penalty kill efficiency at 80 percent, allowing four goals on 20 opportunities that included 2 of 3 to the Ducks.
"Our power play's been great," Hitchcock said. "Our power play, even when we don't score, I don't know ... what do we've got, six or seven goals already in the season? That's pretty significant. It's our penalty killing we're probably concerned about. We're letting too many goals go in, we're making too many errors, and we've got to get that cleaned up quick because when you let in goals on the penalty kill, that's what loses you hockey games. Power plays can help you win games, but you don't need them every night. But when you don't have your penalty killing going, you're going to be in trouble. We need to get that cleaned up."