By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Paul Stastny has been skating with his Blues teammates for the better part of a week or more. It was a matter of time before he would be deemed fit and ready to return.
And after missing a plethora of bodies recenrly, the Blues will add another key piece to their lineup Thursday in a rematch against the New Jersey Devils.
Stastny, out the past eight games with a shoulder injury, will make his return to the lineup when the Blues and Devils go head-to-head for the second time in three days (7 p.m. on FSN, NHL Network and KMOX 1120-AM). The Blues won 1-0 in Newark, N.J. on Tuesday on a third-period power play goal by Vladimir Tarasenko.
"It feels good. Practice is one thing. I think games are different things," Stastny said after the morning skate. "It's just getting back the rhythm, getting back the timing things. That's the most important. The first couple shifts, I've just got to get my feet under me and get back out there and get playing.
"... It's been tough sitting out this whole time, but better to be hurt early in the season than late in the season."
Stastny, who had one goal and four points in three games before being injured in the first minute against the Arizona Coyotes after a hit from Martin Hanzal, said it was an unfortunate play and one he'll be aware of in the future.
"I put myself in a vulnerable position early in the game there," Stastny said. "Went to dump it in ... we were changing. I usually don't put myself [in that position]. I was just totally reaching for it, just trying to block the puck and (Hanzal) just kind of went between me and the puck. Sometimes things like that happen. It's a learning experience. I usually don't do stuff like that, but it happens. The last couple weeks I've been upgraded. Every day's been better and better. I haven't had any setbacks from Day 1 to now, so it feels good."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team is riding a six-game winning streak and is 8-3-1 on the season, welcomes back Stastny with open arms.
"We've got great structure going right now," Hitchcock said. "(Stastny's) going to add and be able to help us quite a bit. But as long as we don't get that 'loose' affair that was exciting for the fans and was the reason I have less hair and it's gray.
"I hope we just stay with the same structure and he's going to add to the mix and make plays down low. He's a gritty guy. It'll really help us, but we just don't want to get that loose game going that we brought into the start of the season."
Stastny was officially activated from injured reserve and T.J. Oshie (concussion) was placed on IR to make room for Stastny, who has taken the final hurdles of contact and getting into a rhythm in order to deem himself fit to play.
"Not even that. I think it's more about controlling the puck, different motions," Stastny said. "It's whether you're reaching for it, whether it's in tight. I just want to be comfortable with that first and then afterwards, it's more about battling. That's the last step. Once you get there, a couple days and you're ready.
"... I always protect myself. I'm not a reckless player. I don't play a physical game; I try to play a smart game. ... I don't want to come back and be thinking about it. If I'm coming back, that means I'm not thinking about it and I just want to play. ... It's been tough sitting out this whole time, but better to be hurt early in the season than late in the season."
Stastny, who will play with Alexander Steen and Joakim Lindstrom, is glad the team won without him but is eager to get back on the ice. After missing David Backes one game with concussion-like symptoms and the team dealing with the bacterial infection, the Blues are close to a clean slate.
"It's good. We're finding ways to win, a lot of one-goal games, but we've been shorthanded," Stastny said. "A lot of sick guys, with myself going down, Backs, Osh a couple games. Every guy's stepped up well. All lines are chipping in."
Veteran forward Steve Ott agreed.
"We're finding ways to win," Ott said. "Playing the right way, playing the game the right way. We missed Backs, obviously Staz and this guy right here (point to his locker) T.J. Oshie, these are players you can't replace. They're too important to your team, they're great players. Collectively, you have to find ways to do it. We've had that way. Individual play, team play, great goaltending. Obviously Vladi's stepped up his game. We've needed a good power play goal, good penalty killing in the right situation. Collectively, you really have to make up for lost players of that caliber."
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Jake Allen, who leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.00) and save percentage (.959) and is coming off his second straight shutout in the 1-0 win against the Devils on Tuesday, will get the start again tonight.
Allen is riding a shutout streak of 127 minutes, 26 seconds dating back to the third period of the Oct. 23 game against Vancouver.
Brian Elliott will start for the Blues on Saturday against the Nashville Predators, and Hitchcock has a plan in mind for his goalies.
"Mostly Saturday," Hitchcock said, referring to why Allen will start again against the Devils. "We wanted Elliott playing on Saturday night against the Preds. It's a reward for Jake, too. He's had two shutouts in a row. Hopefully he can keep up the good streak that he's got going. But it was also to set up Brian for Saturday night."
Allen is the second rookie in Blues history to earn consecutive shutouts (Ernie Wakely in the 1969-70 season).
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Kevin Shattenkirk was simply leaving the puck for Vladimir Tarasenko. Little did he know what would transpire next.
It was Shattenkirk leaving the puck for Tarasenko, and the next thing you know, the 22-year old was weaving his way past three New York Rangers players before scoring the highlight reel goal.
"I just dropped the puck and went for a change for Alex Pietrangelo to get on the ice," Shattenkirk said. "Next thing you know, it's in the net.
"... I didn't see much of it. Not until he had kind of woven his way through the entire team. Then I saw the finish, which was amazing. It was just a phenomenal play when I saw it on replay. I obviously didn't expect from a drop pass to be getting an assist like that."
Tarasenko comes into the game Thursday with nine points (seven goals) in the past five games and seems to be taking all the extra attention in stride.
"He's a great kid," Ott said of Tarasenko. "Obviously I don't think there's any factor that's going to go to that kid's head. He knows what his abilities are. I think his expectations are that of himself to continue to push forward and to be the player that we all see in him and what he's been doing. It's no surprise to any of his teammates that he's going to be a great player for a lot of years to come.
"There's a lot of special players you play with throughout the league, and when you have an up-and-coming young one of those that you know is going to be one heck of a hockey player for years to come, it's exciting. It's great when your team has a general happiness to see him succeed. That's the fun part of the game. It couldn't happen to a better kid."
Shattenkirk added: "He's creating offensive plays and he's doing a great job of not forcing it either. He knows when the opportunity's there to make a play and when it's there to put it in deep and work and do it the hard way. He's playing smart hockey right now. That's why he's been so successful. It's great to have that on your team."
"I don't think guys in here are surprised," Stastny said of Tarasenko. "... We've seen it all coming together."
For a 22-year-old, Hitchcock appreciates Tarasenko's maturity level and the fact that he doesn't think Tarasenko cares for the attention.
"I don't think it matters to him. He's such a humble kid," Hitchcock said. "I just don't want to see it take away from the rest of the group. He's not going to allow that. That's just who he is. He's not going to allow it. He's going to defer all the time. His focus is on ... if he has points and the team doesn't win, he's an unhappy guy in the locker room. He's all focused on winning and that's what you appreciate.
"He's one of the most popular guys on the team because he supports everybody else and he's so happy for anybody else's success."
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Oshie was at the rink for the first time since being declared to have a concussion. He continues to be out of the lineup indefinitely.
"Osh showed up today ... and left," Hitchcock said. "He came for a visit. That's a good sign. He's out, he's walking around, there's a sighting. That's a good sign, but he's nowhere near getting close to playing."
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Dmitrij Jaskin will play with Backes and Patrik Berglund tonight, and Chris Porter, who played on the fourth line, will be a healthy scratch along with Magnus Paajarvi.
"Jask played great the last game," Hitchcock said. "He's played really well two of the last three games. We just feel like he's a similar player to Osh. He's got real grit. That line should be a tough line to play against, but I don't think I'd go to the bank. We're going to move Backes around a little bit today. Backes is going to play some center and some right wing, so he's going to play on a couple lines tonight and see how it looks."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Patrik Berglund-David Backes-Dmitrij Jaskin
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Joakim Lindstrom
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Ian Cole
Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Jordan Leopold, Chris Porter and Magnus Paajarvi. T.J. Oshie (concussion) is on injured reserve.
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The Devils' projected lineup:
Ryane Clowe-Travis Zajac-Jaromir Jagr
Danius Zubrus-Patrik Elias-Michael Ryder
Damien Brunner-Jacob Josefson-Steve Bernier
Tuomo Ruutu-Stephen Gionta-Mike Sislo
Andy Greene-Damon Severson
Bryce Salvador-Marek Zidlicky
Eric Gelinas-Adam Larsson
Cory Schneider will start in goal. Keith Kinkaid will be the backup.
The Devils are without injured players Adam Henrique (lower body), Mike Cammalleri (jaw), Martin Havlat (lower body), Jon Merrill (arm) and Jordin Tootoo (foot).