Elliott's return to the lineup close; Tarasenko fine; Porter being Porter
ST. LOUIS -- For Blues goalie Brian Elliott, getting the routine feel for the puck, having his own net and being around his teammates felt gratifying on Sunday.
Especially after Elliott was smiles following a practice session that gave him a strong indication that he's closer to a return to the lineup than not.
Elliott, who sustained a knee sprain Nov. 25 against the Ottawa Senators, was medically cleared by team doctors and it's only a matter of time when the Blues remove Elliott from injured reserve and insert him into the lineup.
The initial prognosis was good following practice.
Elliott, who is 8-4-1 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, could perhaps return as soon as Tuesday's game against the Nashville Predators, according to coach Ken Hitchcock. The likelihood of that happening is a stretch, but with the way the 29-year-old Elliott was bouncing around the net Sunday, it's not out of the realm of possibility.
"I was able to get a whole net for a whole practice," Elliott said. "Just tested it even more. It gives you a workout really. It's tough to get an actual workout without getting out there with the guys and kind of battling through drills. You get tired and you've got to press on. It's more of a mental challenge as well.
"(I felt) good. Just trying to get up to the game speed. Just following pucks. It's one thing when you're off for a little bit, even like a three-day break like Christmas, some of the hardest things is just following the puck with your eyes so you're tracking pucks well. It's what I've been trying to do since I've been back on the ice. Today was another step forward."
The Blues will start veteran Martin Brodeur on Monday against the Colorado Avalanche, and once the coaching staff, trainers, Elliott and goalie coach Jim Corsi come to a conclusion, then there will be a concrete timeline for a return to action.
"This is like three or four days in a row," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of Elliott's workload. "We're going to start Marty tomorrow, but our hope is that (Elliott's) ready the next couple days. We're hopeful that after Jimmy works with him today that he feels good and he's up and running and ready to go.
"It's up to (Elliott) and Jimmy. I think the doctors have cleared him. It's how he feels and how he feels like he's game ready. We'll see. Hopefully we get good news after Jimmy comes off the ice with him, see how he feels."
When Hitchcock was asked if Elliott would be ready for the upcoming three-game west coast trip beginning Friday in Anaheim, Hitchcock said, "We'll see. Might be before that. Two games left, so we'll see, but all we know is it's one day at a time. We're playing Marty tomorrow and we'll figure it out from there."
With the Blues mired in a 0-3-1 slump and allowing 18 goals in that stretch -- 44 in the 13 games since Elliott has been of the lineup -- a boost in goal might be what the doctor ordered.
"You hate to see a little bit of a struggle here, a bump in the road," Elliott said. "I know we have the team to get out of it. It's just about having trust in teammates, having everybody doing their own job and coming together. I definitely want to be a part of that. It's tough when you're watching everybody go through it, some frustrations. But it's part of building a team as well through those things together. It's good to be back in the locker room going through it with those guys."
Blues goalies Jake Allen and Brodeur have given up three or more goals in nine of the 13 games since Elliott has been out, or 3.38 goals per game.
"... It's coming closer for me personally," Elliott said. "It definitely wants to make you get out there and help. It's a fine line between knowing that you're ready and wanting to be out there. I know the guys know I want to be out there with them, but we've obviously got two other capable goalies that have done a great job. We've just got to put everything together as a package as a team. There's no magical solution for getting out of a hole, like a four-game losing streak. It's doing all the little things right together. Not one guy's going to do it."
The Blues put Elliott through a hard test Sunday, and there was an obvious jump in the team's game knowing the teammate they call "Moose" is on the verge.
"He works his tail off every day," winger Chris Porter said of Elliott. "It doesn't change from the day he came in here. He's been working hard to get back. I think he's really excited too. Seeing him out there gives you a little extra jump in your step knowing he's close. As soon as he's ready, obviously we're ready for him too."
It's all up to Elliott to give coaches the green light.
"I don't know what our protocol's going to be here, but it's just going to be a discussion about how I'm feeling, what the trainer feels and what the coaches feel," he said. "I just want to be able to give my all out there for the guys and now be any kind of liability or anything.
"... In a league like this, when you go out there, you're always going to get scored on in practices and stuff. You never know how you're going to feel confidence-wise. It's just being within yourself and feeling good about the saves you're making, save selection and following pucks and controlling rebounds. It's all the little things. If you feel comfortable doing that in practice, you're definitely ready to go in the game. "
* Tarasenko misses practice -- Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko was the lone member to miss practice on Sunday.
Tarasenko, who leads the Blues in goals (21) and points (38), blocked a shot in the third period that saw him limp off to the bench. But Hitchcock said there should be no restrictions as to his availability on Monday.
"Maintenance day today," Hitchcock said. "I think we're pretty confident he'll be ready to go tomorrow."
* Practice makes perfect? -- With the Blues' penalty kill woes in full light recently (they've allowed 10 goals in the past 32 opportunities spanning six games), it gave the coaching staff ample time to get extensive PK work in.
The Blues came into Sunday 23rd in the NHL (78.3 percent) on the penalty kill and it's compounded matters with the plethora of penalties the Blues have taken.
"This is really the first time we've worked with PK," Hitchcock said. "The risk is when you work with PK, and you're using the same people that play on the power play, then somebody gets a shot off the foot, but we just feel like we've got to get better at it.
"You can talk about it, but I think by practicing at it, paying more attention to it, we bring a stronger focus that way. That's really what we're doing is bringing a stronger focus into working on that. It's hurting us right now and we really need it to help us. It's been a real help for us for a number of years now. Now it's hurting and we need that to change."
One-on-one board and puck battles are a contributor why the team has spent more than their share of time in the defensive zone.
"It's more our first touches," Hitchcock said. "When our first touches are cleaner, or exit quicker, I think it's like anything else. When you're defending and you're tired, you're going to have a difficult time. Sometimes we've gotten bogged down in our own zone. Not very often, but when we do, we seem to get extended out there and then that's when the big mistakes come for any team. We did the same to Dallas yesterday. We bogged them down. So I think from that standpoint, we're working like every team, trying to get better at first touches as much as we can."
* Move on -- Petteri Lindbohm's mistake in the first period that led to Ryan Garbutt's goal and gave the Stars a 2-1 lead won't be the first mistake the rookie defenseman makes.
And it's not going to be one the coaches or the player dwells on too much either.
Lindbohm tried to make one of those cross-ice dangerous passes through the slot to the far boards to a streaking forward. Instead, the puck was intercepted by Garbutt, who read the dangerous pass, picked it off and drilled a slap shot top shelf past Allen from the left circle.
"You move on," Hitchcock said when asked about it Sunday. "That's a lesson that he'll ... knowing his conscience and how good he is that way, he's not going to make that mistake again."
* Porter's energy -- Porter once again gave the coaching staff plenty of reason why it's a good idea to keep him in the lineup with his play Saturday.
Porter, who filled in on left wing playing with Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera, was able to create space for the gifted forwards and led the team with seven hits in 13:46 of ice time.
"He was real good. He was excellent," Hitchcock said. "Him and (Dmitrij) Jaskin have really given us good energy, both guys have been excellent. Jaskin since he came up, Porter when he went in did exactly what we wanted them to. He was in on a few scoring chances, created a lot of energy for the line. That's a good sign.
"He makes it a good option. You're always looking for more because you think someone else is going to give you scoring, but before we can think about scoring, we need to think about energy. The energy that he gives is real positive and that's what we want to build on."
Porter played like ... well ... Porter and provided the necessary space for his linemates to operate.
"That's the way I play," Porter said. "If the hit's there, I'm going to try and finish it. Playing with two skilled players like that, the more space you give them, the better it is for yourself. I think I was able to do that. I created some offensive zone time for that. Vladi had a couple great chances in the slot, and so did Jori. Hopefully we can continue to do that.
"With those guys, they don't want to dump the puck all the time. It's a little bit different transition for myself wanting to play north. But anytime they have the puck, they create their own space. If you can give them one or two more inches, they can make it pretty good for yourself. I try to stay out of the way a little bit, but also not be afraid to make plays yourself."