By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Veteran coaches Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues and Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars have been around long enough to understand that anything can happen when teams return from the Christmas break.
Games tend to be wide open, scoring is up and defending is normally lacking.
The Stars and Blues are two teams that get back to the grind of the NHL schedule Saturday after three days away from the rink, away from watching video and away from the rigors of the job.
"I find these games quite frankly are loose, very fast, very loose and that's not to our advantage," Hitchcock said. "We have to get the bruise on bruise feeling going quickly, so that's going to be important for us. One of the things when you take three days off, your body really kind of mellows out, and getting back engaged and getting alert again is going to be important. If we're not alert against Dallas, they're going to just be blowing right by us like they did against Toronto. We've got to get really alert early, we've got to get to our game early. If we get to our game early, I really like our chances. But if we're chasing the game, then it's going to be advantage Dallas."
Both teams are coming off shutout losses. The Blues fell 5-0 to the Colorado Avalanche and the Stars dropped a 4-0 game to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"These games for me, you don't know what to expect," Ruff said. "For three days, the players have been out of your hands. You don't know how much they ate. Christmas is a great time, but you have no control over them. Some players pay attention to what they do, some players don't. So for me, there's been games after Christmas where you get really disappointed with some guys, and there's some guys where you know they've obviously taken care of themselves, got some fitness in.
"I think you'll see tonight, you'll see some, just like our practice this morning, you'll see some pretty loose plays. You're going to see maybe some bigger mistakes. I think (once) you get through 20 minutes, usually that improves."
In certain instances, like for Blues goalie Jake Allen, who will start in goal after being pulled after two periods from the game against the Avalanche, a mental break for all players and coaches can be good.
"Yeah for sure," Allen said. "I'm sure everyone around the League says the same thing. Those (three) full days off was nice. It's good to be back though after a few days, you sort of don't know what to do with yourself. It's good to be back and exciting to have another chance at redeeming ourselves tonight."
Allen, who allowed five goals on 31 shots, will get the chance at redemption. In a previous instance in which Allen was pulled from a game (Dec. 6 against the New York Islanders), he came back in his next start with a victory.
Allen, who is 11-4-2 with a 2.69 goals-against average and .903 save percentage, will look to do the same tonight.
"It's a new start, new break," Allen said. "Three days to energize yourself. Tough test tonight. We have three tough tests before the new year. It's a good opportunity for all of us to get back on track and back on one page."
Hitchcock felt like it was a no-brainer to get his young goalie back in there.
"He's had some very emotional games," Hitchcock said of Allen. "The last two games have been very emotional for him, but that's the NHL. He's a good, young goalie. He's on the job learning. We didn't expect him to have to carry this type of load, but that's the cards we're dealt. He's got to get in and get playing and see what he does. This experience is, as hard as it is right now, it's going to be good for him in his career and moving forward."
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The Blues will look to get back on track after an 0-2-1 trip, their longest winless stretch of the season.
And according to Hitchcock, a blast from the past is the way to do it.
"I think it's going back," Hitchcock said. "We're not built like Dallas, we're not built like Colorado, we're not built like Nashville. We're built differently. We've got to get our game in more minutes during the competition. We have got the record we've got by extraordinary performances at times during the competition, but we haven't had enough of that real sound team game on the ice for as many minutes as we've had in the past. That's the key, to find better minutes from our whole team game."
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Since Jaden Schwartz (broken foot) has been out of the lineup, finding the proper linemate to play with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko has been challenging, to say the least.
Tonight, when the puck drops for the Stars (14-14-5) and Blues (21-10-3), it will be Chris Porter to the plate.
Porter, a healthy scratch in six of the past nine games, will draw back in and Joakim Lindstrom will be a healthy scratch.
"Obviously two great skilled players," Porter said of Lehtera and Tarasenko. "I'm not going to come in and try to change anything. Just coming in and playing my game. Hopefully it complements them a little bit and hopefully I can create some room with my physicality.
"When I come in, I'm obviously happy to be in the lineup. Playing with them is obviously an added bonus. Happy to be in tonight. Hopefully we can get back on the right track and start doing the right things."
Porter has typically been a fourth-line left wing but saw minutes recently on the team's third line with Paul Stastny.
"He's a similar player in conscience to Schwartzy," Hitchcock said of Porter. "He has a real conscience on the ice at keeping the puck in front of him, he's a great forechecker, he's a great backchecker. He plays without ego, he plays with a kind of a real north mentality, which is what Schwartzy does and that's what I think that line needs. There's a tremendous play-making chemistry between Lehtera and Tarasenko, but somebody's got to create the space for them to work in. That's what Schwartzy did. We're real hopeful that that's what Porter can do."
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Criticism has been levied towards the Blues' top defensive pair in Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, who are a combined minus-17 on the season.
Hitchcock has split the minute-eaters up in recent games in hopes of sparking something, but tends to go back to them when the game is on the line.
Tonight, they will start together.
"I think they're like our team. I don't think we've seen their best yet," Hitchcock said. "I think their best is yet to come. ... What we're looking for is the more consistent throughout the lineup.
"We're built with team momentum. We've been really good at doing that, but when we go in fits and starts, then we rely on individuals to come through for us. That's to me, a red flag. We're not built that way. We're not built on relying on two or three guys carrying us every day. We're built a different way and we've got to get to that game quicker."
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Schwartz will miss his fourth straight game after sustaining a broken foot blocking a shot against the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty on Dec. 16.
Hitchcock had no real timetable for a potential return.
"I can't really tell you until he puts his skate on, which we're hoping is in the next few days but we're not sure yet," Hitchcock said. "I can't really give you a defined program on that until he puts the skate on. ... But really until Schwartzy comes out on the ice, I can't tell you "
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who's been out since sustaining a concussion on Dec. 6, was a full participant in practice and is not considered day to day.
"Gunnarsson was full-go with us and we'll just see where he is," Hitchcock said. "We'll just go day to day with him and see if he's ready to do. ... He's getting himself ready to be a player, so we'll bring up the evaluation every second day or every day or so and tell you when he's ready to go."
Goalie Brian Elliott, who has been out with a knee injury sustained Nov. 25 against Ottawa, continues to progress towards a return.
"I think the practice tomorrow for Brian is really important, full go and see how he does," Hitchcock said. "We'll give you a full evaluation after practice."
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Hitchcock got a good look at the three Blues prospects that played Friday night at the World Junior Championships.
Forwards Robby Fabbri (Canada) and Ivan Barbashev (Russia) as well as goalie Ville Husso (Finland) had strong debuts.
Hitchcock was particularly impressed with Fabbri, the Blues' No. 1 pick this past summer.
"He looks the same way he did in the NHL," Hitchcock said. "I was laughing ... what would have happened if he didn't get hurt ... who knows? He looks the same as he did in the NHL to me. That goal he scored, that's the same goal he scored in exhibition. Looks like he has a chance to be a special player. That's really good news.
"The goalie in Finland, he looked really good. Good stuff."
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The Blues are 7-0-1 in their last eight at Scottrade Center and have averaged 4.37 goals per game. The Blues are 12-3-1 on own ice, and only Nashville has fewer home losses (12-2-1).
Stastny turned 29 today.
The Stars are winless (0-7-3) against Central Division opponents.
Kari Lehtonen will start in goal for the Stars. He is 10-4-2 in his career against St. Louis with a 1.99 GAA and .931 save percentage. Allen will make his first appearance against Dallas.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Chris Porter-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Patrik Berglund-Paul Stastny-Dmitrij Jaskin
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Chris Butler-Kevin Shattenkirk
Petteri Lindbohm-Barret Jackman
Jake Allen will get the start in goal. Martin Brodeur will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Magnus Paajarvi, Joakim Lindstrom and Ian Cole. Brian Elliott (knee), Jaden Schwartz (foot) and Carl Gunnarsson (concussion) are all on injured reserve.
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The Stars' projected lineup:
Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Colton Sceviour
Erik Cole-Jason Spezza-Ales Hemsky
Antoine Roussel-Cody Eakin-Ryan Garbutt
Shawn Horcoff-Vernon Fiddler-Travis Moen
Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg
Jyrki Jokipakka-Trevor Daley
Jordie Benn-Jason Demers
Kari Lehtonen will start in goal. Anders Lindback will be the backup.
Healthy scratches are Travis Morin and Cameron Gaunce. Patrick Eaves (ankle), Valeri Nichushkin (hip) and Patrik Nemeth (arm) are out with injuries.