By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Three weeks of preparation have finally come to a boiling point for the Blues.
It's time to drop the puck on the 48th regular season in franchise history when the Blues host the defending Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
The Blues, who have added new pieces to the lineup, including Paul Stastny, Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom and Carl Gunnarsson, who won't play the first two games as he recovers from off-season hip surgery, will look to make another run in an ultra-competitive Western Conference that saw multiple teams load up and improve.
"Get on with practicing with purpose now, playing with purpose, making adjustments," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "The last week has been painful getting ready for it when you've got a veteran team. They want to get going. They want to stay healthy and get ready for the season. There was an amping up yesterday and there was good energy today, too. We're ready to go.
"Come tomorrow morning, most first games have a level of bizarreness to them. Just got to get used to that and starting tomorrow, we get to make adjustments and formulate on things we need to get better at."
The Blues are again getting local and national attention as a team that has the capability of making a run at the Stanley Cup. But they have placed that onus on themselves to accomplish something special.
"I think we set that bar for ourselves every year to accomplish that goal," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "This year, I think we're focusing more on how we approach the regular season, making sure that we stay consistent and get these points early on and have a successful start and a really strong finish because that's some thing we haven't been able to do in years past. Having that momentum going into the playoffs is important."
Placing an onus on a tough opponent in the first game should be just as important as Game No. 82.
"We've been through that the last couple years," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We gave up some points at the end of the year. We know what happens now is going to affect us at the end of the year. We've started off well in the last few years and that just shows the effort the guys have put in during the off-season.
"I think everybody's kind of excited to get past training camp and moving into the season. This is when the fun stuff starts. We've had a long training camp. It's pretty competitive. It's been hard. We're really excited to see what the results are going to be."
That includes Stastny, who makes his long-awaited return to the city where he grew up as a kid.
Stastny, who signed as an unrestricted free agent (four years, $28 million) to leave the Colorado Avalanche, downplayed the dream factor.
"I don't think it was ever a dream (to come back to St. Louis)," Stastny said. "I think the dream was to play in the NHL and just go from there. But I think it is icing on the cake to be able to come back home for a team I grew up watching my whole life. I'm excited to put on the Bluenote.
"They're all the same. Everyone gets excited, nervous at the same time. I think the lead up to it is the slowest, longest part of the day. I think once the puck drops, everyone's excited to get going. I think you want to start off well. You're playing against the defending Stanley Cup finalists. They're going to be ready over there. I think we want to establish our identity at home, be a tough team to play against at home. We want to use the home ice to our advantage."
The Blues know the challenge will be tough against a Rangers squad that fell to the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Final.
"The Rangers know how to win," Hitchcock said. "I said this to the players, we're going to know in the first six games what we got because we play the Rangers, we play L.A., we play Chicago, we play Anaheim ... we're going to know what we've got. Going through what New York went through last year, especially the way Alain built it up, they had a tough start, tough schedule. He built it up real strong at the end of the year and they had great chemistry, they found a reason to compete and play for each other. That's a tough nut. That core is back. I told our players today we're in for a real challenge. They just don't have speed and skill. They've got moxie to them. That's what I think our players are looking forward to. We think we've got moxie and gamesmanship and we know they do after watching them in the playoffs."
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The Blues will debut both Lehtera and Lindstrom, who had strong training camps and hope to make an immediate impact.
Lehtera will make his NHL debut after signing a two-year, $5.5 million contract. He was a third-round draft choice of the Blues in 2008 and spent the past four seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.
"Everybody's talked about Stastny, and Paul's a good player," Hitchcock said. "He's really going to help us, but to me, I'm curious on Lehtera and Lindstrom. These are two guys that have had great camps, they fit in well. Lehtera was a really good player in the Olympics for Finland, he wasa great player in the World Championships for Finland. Lindstrom was arguably one of the best players in the World Championships, and now they got to put it on the NHL surface. I'm curious to see how those two guys fit in because they've done such a great job. They're not young players. They're veteran guys. They've done such a great job fitting in with the rest of the group. I want to see them have success.
"I've said this to you guys since Day 1: don't be surprised if people are shocked and pleasantly surprised by the impact that a guy like Lehtera has on the game because he's got tremendous hockey sense and a great compete level and he's a big guy. So he's really going to help us."
For Lindstrom, it will be his first NHL game since dressing for the Avalanche on Nov. 23, 2011.
"A little bit of everything, but excited for sure," said Lindstrom, a second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2003. "I'm very eager to play. It's going to be fun, but also at the same time, nervous. I don't think I'll ever get away from that -- any game I play, whether it's NHL or not. You're always a little nervous. It's a good thing, I think.
"I feel my overall game is better now than it was back then. I feel confident, more experienced, but one thing specifically in my game from a technical standpoint, I think it's my skating. I'm much more explosive and also I can skate more."
Lindstrom will skate with Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz. The trio were strong in collecting seven points Saturday against the Minnesota Wild in the final preseason game.
"We've only played one game together, but it's two very skilled players," Lindstrom said. "At the same time, they work very hard, too. I think all three of us are very similar in that aspect. I'm happy to play with those guys. They're fun to practice with, so I hope we work out."
Playing the past two-plus seasons with his hometown team (Skelleftea AIK), Lindstrom is banking on that experience to make his new venture in the NHL go much better than previously.
"I would like to have had it like perfect before, but that wasn't the case," Lindstrom said. "The experience that I gained during that time in Sweden, I'm happy to have that with me right now because I know how it is to play in the NHL and what it takes to be successful."
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Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who holds the NHL's Iron Man streak at 717 consecutive games, was not a participant in the morning skate but will play, according to Hitchcock.
The veteran coach put his clever twist on why Bouwmeester was absent.
"He was fixing leaks today, but he'll be fine for tonight," Hitchcock joked.
In Bouwmeester's place, Gunnarsson was out of a no-contact jersey for the first time. He was in gray and according to the Blues, will look for clearance for full contact and game participation after seeing a specialist in Nashville on Monday.
"He can take it to as far as he can," Hitchcock said of Gunnarsson. "He's going to see medical people on Monday and hopefully get clearance. So that will put him in the mix for everybody. He's going to go to Nashville on Monday and hopefully get clearance from the doctor there and get playing.
"He's looked so good right now. We gave up a real good player for him (Roman Polak). We needed this element in our team. Transition-wise, he's a big help for us, but he's looked really good at practice. He really moves the puck, he's got really good vision on the ice, but we need him playing and we need to see what we've got there. For him to miss four months and then ... he really hasn't played a hockey game for a long time, there's going to be an adjustment phase, but I think he's like everybody else, he's looking for clearance and then full contact for three or four days and then get evaluated from there."
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Of Note: According to TSN's Darren Dreger, Peter Mueller has signed with Kloten of the Swiss League, where he played last season. Mueller, who signed a one-year, two-way contract ($700,000 NHL/$250,000 AHL) this past summer, declined to report to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League after being cut from the Blues Sunday. ... Gunnarsson will miss at least the first two games, including Saturday against the Calgary Flames. ... The Blues are the only team Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has yet to beat in his career. He's 0-4-0 lifetime in five games with a 2.82 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. ... Anthony Duclair will make his NHL debut after the Rangers selected him in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. ... Former Blue and current Ranger Lee Stempniak began his career in St. Louis in 2005, where he played three-plus seasons before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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The Blues' opening night lineup:
Patrik Berglund-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Joakim Lindstrom
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Ian Cole-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Jordan Leopold
Brian Elliott will get the start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Carl Gunnarsson (hip) is day to day. Chris Porter and Magnus Paajarvi are the healthy scratches.
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The Rangers' opening night lineup:
Chris Kreider-Marty St. Louis-Rick Nash
Carl Hagelin-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
Anthony Duclair-J.T. Miller-Lee Stempniak
Tanner Glass-Dominic Moore-Jesper Fast
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Marc Staal-Dan Boyle
John Moore-Kevin Klein
Henrik Lundqvist will start in goal. Cam Talbot will be the backup.
Derek Stepan (broken leg) is on long-term injured-reserve and Kevin Hayes (shoulder) is day to day. Ryan Malone and Matt Hunwick are healthy scratches.