By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Now that the Blues are healthy, decisions need to be made regarding which 20 will dress on a nightly basis.
With a number of NHL-ready players at coach Ken Hitchcock's disposal.
Joakim Lindstrom continues to wait in the wings to jump back into the foray among forwards.
And on the blue line, Kirkwood native Chris Butler has not only grabbed the sixth spot on defense, he's pushing those above him for more ice time.
"We're a group of seven, but quite frankly, not just because Ian Cole isn't dressing tonight, he's jumped up and taking advantage of the situation in the group of six," Hitchcock said of Butler. "If you're looking at minutes played, he's not just challenging to stay in the lineup, he's challenging for more ice time when he's in the lineup. He's taken this responsibility and this opportunity and he's really taken advantage of it. He's really pushing other people, not just Ian. He's pushing other people for more of their ice time, too, which is really good. The competition within your team makes you very, very healthy and he's taken this challenge head-on right now, which is a very good sign."
Butler, 28, has two goals and two assists in 19 games, and that may not look like much, but he's providing ample options whoever he plays with. And in these recent strong of games, it's been veteran Barret Jackman.
But coming from a system with the Calgary Flames, that was more using the boards to get pucks out of danger and the defensive zone to a more structured system that stresses puck possession and making direct plays, Butler has started to really thrive.
"It's been a great opportunity," said Butler, who's played 17 or more minutes in seven of the past 10 games he's played in. "There was an adjustment period to start, just the style of game, the way guys played. Then you start getting more comfortable with your D-partner for that night and then the forwards and you start to understand where they like to go. I think as it's gone on, you just got more and more comfortable and helped my game.
"It's a different style of play. You can kind of get stuck in a rut playing an old way obviously. The game itself doesn't change, but your routes, your positioning, things like that."
"The biggest difference would probably be they just want you to hang onto pucks more," Butler added. "We're told to make plays there. We got into a rut last year with kind of beating the puck around the wall. As a result, you spend a lot of time in your own zone and playing a lot of D-zone coverage. Here, it's all puck support, being a good partner, getting open for each other and then communicating. Those are things you always try to do as a player, but maybe they kind of slip when you get away from that style."
Hitchcock is finding the flow of the game much more smooth for the left-handed Butler, who's playing the right side with Jackman.
"Making direct plays, having the trust and patience to make direct plays. He came from a team that plays a very good, strong territorial game," Hitchcock said of Butler. "We challenge our defense to make small plays. Sometimes in critical situations in close quarters, it's hard to have that composure. You want to get it away from the area. He was guilty of over-thinking. It's a big change coming from a different philosophy and it took him time to adjust. But he's more than made up for time now.
"The situations under pressure are easier for him. He's finding a second option on the ice better than he ever has, whereas before it was first option-take it, move it from the territory that you're in and then change the battle. We don't want to play like that. We want to challenge our guys to make direct plays. It's a big change and he's been really able to adapt."
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The Blues (25-13-3) will host the Carolina Hurricanes (13-24-4) at 7 p.m. today (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), and on paper, the Blues have a decided edge in points (53-30). But after seeing the Hurricanes play the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, Hitchcock is making his players aware of who these Hurricanes are and not the ones that labored through the couple months or so decimated with injuries.
"Well, which team, the one that was banged up or the one that's on the ice now," Hitchcock said when asked about Carolina. "The one now's a good team. There's implementation of 90 percent Detroit here, which (Hurricanes coach Bill Peters) was with them a long time. You can see all the principles that the Red Wings have sitting there in Carolina. Very difficult when top players are out to manage the game, manage minutes, stay afloat. The team that's played the last couple games, especially the game that they played in Nashville's very impressive. I'm sure Bill would have liked to have this lineup from Day One. It's unfortunate, but this is a lineup you can win with and I think he knows that."
Carolina center Jordan Staal, who has played in five games (broken right leg), said things are headed in a positive way.
"It's been difficult," Staal said. "Every team goes through it at times. We're not the only ones. But it's nice to have the team back for the most part, fully healthy and feeling good. As of late, we've played some pretty good hockey. We've done a lot of good things. I think we're starting to head in the right direction with the way we want to play."
Peters, in his first season, is finally getting a chance to see a full lineup.
"It's made a big difference," Peters said. "Getting Jordan back in has allowed us to do some different things obviously. We have Jordan and Eric (Staal) playing together, and that's a real good line. Whether it's (Elias) Lindholm or (Jiri) Tlusty, whoever's on the right side, but it's freed Eric up to be more of a power forward. He's responded offensively.
"We've got so much work to do. We've got a lot of room for improvement, and we know that. It's all about us and how we play. We obviously know what the other team's going to do. We have to get out team game in order at a high level and have it at a high level consistently. We haven't done that we well as we would have liked. We've just got to focus on our own game right now."
The Edmonton Oilers are coming into town for a game Tuesday, and the way the Oilers handled the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday and with the way the Hurricanes are playing, the Blues can't afford to take anyone lightly.
"For us, the biggest challenge is we play best when we play with a little bit of an edge," Hitchcock said. "How you're going to create an edge when you don't really know the opposition. If we don't create the edge, they're going to skate circles around us. They're built the same way Detroit is. They've got a similar type of philosophy with the puck, they've got a similar philosophy in the style of play. We don't want to get caught standing and watching. We're going to have to find an edge sooner or later here."
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Blues assistant coach Kirk Muller will face the Hurricanes for the first time since being fired as their coach on May 7. Muller was 80-80-27 in three seasons as Carolina coach (2011-14).
Hitchcock will be in search of his 150th victory behind the Blues' bench tonight.
The Blues will take the NHL's No. 1 power play (26.4 percent) into the game against the fifth-ranked penalty kill with the Hurricanes (86.6 percent). The Blues are 8-for-17 on the power play the past four games, converting in each game, which ties a season-high.
The Blues' penalty kill has not allowed a goal in three straight games and has killed 18 of the past 19 attempts.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Dmitrij Jaskin-Paul Stastny-Patrik Berglund
Steve Ott-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman-Chris Butler
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Martin Brodeur, Joakim Lindstrom and Ian Cole. Chris Porter (ankle) is on injured reserve.
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The Hurricanes' probable lineup:
Eric Staal-Jordan Staal-Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe-Victor Rask-Jiri Tlusty
Jeff Skinner-Riley Nash-Alexander Semin
Brad Malone-Jay McClement-Patrick Dwyer
Andrej Sekera-Justin Faulk
Ron Hainsey-Brett Bellemore
Tim Gleason-Ryan Murphy
Cam Ward will start in goal. Anton Khudobin will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include John-Michael Liles and Andrej Nestrasil. The Hurricanes report no injuries.