By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Zbynek Michalek wanted to make sure he was symptom-free first, then get his conditioning up to speed before making his debut for the Blues (43-19-5).
Michalek, who has not played in a game since sustaining a concussion Feb. 14, will step into the lineup and make his Blues debut when they host the Minnesota Wild (37-24-7) at 7 p.m. today (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) after eight consecutive days of being on the ice to test the injury.
After talking it over with the Blues' medical staff, it was determined that Michalek, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes along with a conditional 2015 third round pick for prospect Maxim Letunov, is deemed fit and ready to return.
"First, the symptoms I had went away. That was the most important thing and then my conditioning," Michalek said. "When I felt like I was ready to go, I let them know and that's how it goes.
"It's been very frustrating the last few weeks. It's been tough mentally not being able to play coming to a new team, but right now, I'm very excited and try to hopefully win the game and help the team win."
Michalek will be paired with veteran Jay Boumeester on the Blues' second defensive unit. He will play the right and Bouwmeester can return to his natural left-landed side after playing the last little while with Petteri Lindbohm on the right.
Bouwmeester feels the transition should be easy.
"Little things you just talk about. More communication stuff on certain plays," Bouwmeester said. "Every guy has a tendency to call different things and use different words. That's one thing. I know him from being around for a long time. He's a pretty solid guy that plays good defense. We'll just try to play a simple game and try not to confuse each other.
"... What you see is what you get. Guys like that are always easy to play with."
Michalek said the two haven't spoken much but will before the game.
"Honestly, not too much. At least not yet," Michalek said. "We will talk before the game a little bit and go over things. We've both been in the league for a long time so nothing should surprise us. To me, it looks like the team plays a similar system that I was used to in Arizona. It should make things easier for me hopefully to adjust."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Michalek, who has two goals and eight points in 53 games this season, won't have high expectations placed on him to start.
"He's got to feel like he's ready to play; we'll see," Hitchcock said. "Our expectations probably aren't going to be as high for a player that maybe came after a week to week injury; he's been out a month. First of all, we have to see how he fits with us and who he fits best with and then see how many minutes he can play. He played a lot of minutes, heavy, hard minutes in Phoenix, but we've got other people to share that load, so we'll ease him back in and see how he looks.
"Other than the little on penalty killing, the 5-on-5 game are very similar; it's not a big adjustment. There is a pretty significant change in the way we kill and the reads. He's a smart player, he's been practicing that. He's been doing a lot of that here for the last 10 days. He's up to practice speed. He's going to get some of that in the game so he gets used to it, but that's probably the biggest significant change is the reads down low especially."
Michalek has maintained that full team practices will be the telltale story. Hitchcock felt the same but there have been few of those with a busy schedule.
"I think just get back physically," Michalek said. "I haven't skated for a while, so get my conditioning back, get to feeling the puck. Everything's been going well and I'm happy to be back.
"I'll probably be nervous, yeah. At least for the first shift playing for a new team. It's always exciting. Some nerves will be there, but hopefully after the first shift, everything will be back."
With Michalek back in the lineup, once he plays, the third round pick the Blues acquired goes back to Arizona.
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Forward Patrik Berglund will return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Berglund, who has eight goals and 12 assists in 62 games, will go in on the fourth line and said sitting out is never something a player likes to go through but certainly understands
"Well absolutely, but I'm always honest to myself, too," Berglund said. "I'm not going to sit there and lie to myself. I had a talk with (Hitchcock). I had a feeling even before that (Thursday) morning skate that I probably would sit out because I haven't played well. It's not fun, but it's also something you've got to go through. I know I haven't played well, so I'm a believer that the guys who earn their ice time, earn their spot, they should play. And guys that don't play well should not play. That's my belief, so it's a fair deal for me."
Berglund doesn't have any points the past four games. He will play with Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves.
"I just know that when he plays like he did before the break, he'll do fine," Hitchcock said of Berglund. "Since we've come back off the road, he hasn't been the impact player that we want. Now he has a chance and we hit the reset button. He knows what he has to do. I'm sure in my mind he's going to play that way. We don't need him to set the world on fire, but we need him to do the stuff that he did before. He's had a two- or three-game ... he's been off-kilter the last three games. This is reset. Let's get going and playing again the way he was before. The way he was before, that's good, and that's the program that we need."
Berglund, 26, had a good conversation with Hitchcock about his game and understands he has to be better.
"Absolutely and it's true though," Berglund said. "My game hasn't been good, and we have a really good team here, so you really got to fight for your spot. What he said is correct and that's how I feel too. Obviously I need to come back in, play much better, start today and I have to go from there. Like I said, this team is really good. Right now, if you don't play good and if you stack up two or three games in a row where you're game is not really the game that I should play and that I'm good at, that's the way it is.
"It's probably what he said, winning the battles. I've got a big body, but I haven't come up with as many wins both in the d-zone and o-zone. You can't really create a whole lot and you're kind of chasing the game. That's what I've been doing. Now I sat out the last game and I'm working really hard, and I also got some rest as well. So hopefully I can come back and work my way back into being myself again."
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With Michalek back and Berglund in, that means healthy scratches tonight will be Lindbohm and veteran Marcel Goc.
With the Blues gaining their health back, there will be players sitting that either don't deserve to sit or are because of inconsistent play. There are 25 players on the roster currently and all are NHL- ready.
"It's going to take a team-first mentality to keep our heads right so that if a good player's not playing tonight, they may be playing tomorrow night and we're going to need them all-in and team-first to help us win the next game," captain David Backes said. "I haven't seen it; it's going to be something new for us, but I think good teams have that depth and in a playoff series when guys are getting hurt or carted off and doctors are telling them they can't go anymore, we're going to need someone else to fill that void. The good thing is we have a lot of bodies to do that.
"You shouldn't need some incentive like that, but who knows. Healthy competition's always good for us. If we've got guys like (Olli) Jokinen that can play from first through the fourth line, it'll be good for us."
"Are we going to look at different people in different positions down the lineup? Yes. But we're not moving around the first eight or nine up front and we're not moving around the first four or five on the back," Hitchcock said. "Not going to do that. You can start to tinker too much and get yourself in all kinds of trouble and you can start pulling people in and out of the lineups and break your chemistry. Once chemistry's broken, it's hard to fix it. For us, if there's a guy that's nicked up and we can get a better player in there, we're going to do that, but we're playing our best 20. If we feel like a guy's under-performing, we're going to pull him out. But if we feel like a guy's going, we're going to continue to play that way. The flexibility is for us, not for the players. The players play and they want to play. There isn't a guy that wants to rest here; there isn't a guy that want to be pulled out of the lineup to rest. He doesn't see that at all. But we're going to have to do what's best for the hockey club and what's best for the hockey club is to play the players that are going."
As for Lindbohm, he falls into the category of a guy who belongs in the lineup. Hitchcock's message to the players: don't fall asleep.
"Yes. Hasn't deserved to come out based on his play, but other guys are playing well too," Hitchcock said of Lindbohm. "That's the nice part. It's hard on the players, good on the coach. You've got guys who are playing well. They get to watch and they're going to be hungry when they go back in. If you're in, don't play poorly because you're going to be out; doesn't matter who it is. There's three or four guys that probably gets second wind on that stuff, but don't step back too far because someone's going to jump in and take your spot."
And after sitting out Thursday, a player like Berglund knows anyone is at risk.
"Yeah, it's what I said, the team is so good now," Berglund said. "Obviously it's really good for the playoffs to have real depth on the team. Hopefully that will do us really good. You know you've got to be on your game. These last games, we're up there, but we are not satisfied yet and we have a bunch of teams that are chasing playoff spots. They are fighting for their life right now. We're getting 'A' games from everybody. We can't have games where you're not very good, that's just the way it is right now."
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The Wild did not skate on Saturday other than defenseman Christian Folin and forward Jordan Schroeder, who've been healthy scratches the past three games and goalie Darcy Kuemper, who is likely to back up Devan Dubnyk.
The Wild lost 2-1 on home ice to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.
Coach Mike Yeo will speak to the media regarding any lineup changes and a starting goalie at 5 p.m.
The Blues have faced the Wild once this season, a 3-2 victory in Minnesota on Nov. 29 on the second of back-to-back games and Jake Allen stole two points for the Blues that game with a 36-save effort.
"The last time we saw them, they're no different, because other than our goalie, they kicked our ass," Hitchcock said. "They kicked it hard. We got a great goal in the third, we started to compete. We came off a back-to-back, we were exhausted and played that way for half the game and got going half way through. They kicked us hard. Only thing they didn't do was finish. I don't see any change in the way they play other than there's a little bit more calmness with the goaltender in there, but other than that, they play us hard, they play in our face, they give us a lot of tough games. We seem to get the right goal at the right time to either tie it up, especially in Minnesota. But we're going to have to play a heck of a lot better than we did back in November if we expect to win the hockey game because we were not good in that game and still ended up getting two points."
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If Dubnyk starts tonight, it will be his 27th consecutive start after being acquired from the Coyotes on Jan. 14th and 28th overall.
But keep in mind, Dubnyk is 0-7-0 with a 4.72 goals-against average and .843 save percentage lifetime against the Blues. Brian Elliott, who will start for the Blues, is 6-0-0 with a 1.75 GAA and .915 save percentage with two shutouts lifetime against Minnesota.
The Blues are 9-0-3 against the Wild on home ice since their last regulation loss, which was Oct. 20, 2007.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Chris Porter-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Dmitrij Jaskin
Steve Ott-Patrik Berglund-Ryan Reaves
Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Zbynek Michalek
Barret Jackman-Robert Bortuzzo
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Marcel Goc, Chris Butler and Petteri Lindbohm. Olli Jokinen (upper body) is day to day and Kevin Shattenkirk (abdomen) is on injured reserve.
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The WIld's probable lineup:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Mikko Koivu-Chris Stewart
Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine
Sean Bergenheim-Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Nate Prosser-Matt Dumba
Jordan Leopold-Jared Spurgeon
Devan Dubnyk is the projected starter in goal. Darcy Kuemper is the projected backup.
Healthy scratches include Niklas Backstrom, Jordan Schroeder and Christian Folin. Injuries include Jason Zucker (clavicle), Marco Scandella (undisclosed), Keith Ballard (concussion/facial fractures), Matt Cooke (sports hernia) and Ryan Carter (upper body).