By LOU KORAC
PITTSBURGH -- At the end of a lengthy and arduous road trip, the Blues can look ahead and see that there will be three off days before they compete in a game again.
It's been a 2-1-2 trip thus far, and even though it's the ninth game in 15 days and sixth in 10 days on this current trip, there's only one way to approach it.
"For me on road trips, the last game feel like a big game because you want to win and fly home in a good mood," center Jori Lehtera said. "... I'm obviously pumped up, the last game (of the trip). I felt good on the ice. I felt like today we're going to have a good game. It's our last and everybody wants to give everything on the ice. Then we have like three days with no games."
But make no mistake about it. The Blues miss their own beds and can't wait to see their houses, spouses, kids, pets, etc, etc.
"I've envisioned my bed quite a few times in the last few days," captain David Backes said. "It'll be nice, but we've got some work to do first and we'll move on to getting home and getting some home cooking after that. But we've got to make sure we take care of task one before task two."
For coach Ken Hitchcock, this is a big test, but not just because the Blues (45-21-7, 97 points) are trying to stay ahead of both the Nashville Predators (one point back) and the Chicago Blackhawks (three points back), but to finish off a grueling trip at 3-1-2 would be worthwhile.
"If we can go three wins, one loss, two overtime losses, which is a great road trip; from where we started and the amount we've traveled and where we've been, to be able to finish with that record would be terrific," Hitchcock said. "We're going to pour it in because we've got a heck of a chance to have another good road trip and that's what everybody's focused on right now; get this win, try to get this win and come out of here feeling real positive. There's a huge difference between 3-1-2 than .500. There's a huge difference."
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There will be a reunion of sorts for players on both sides.
From the Blues' perspective, it's the first time center Marcel Goc and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo will play at Consol Energy Center since being traded.
For Goc, who was acquired for Maxim Lapierre, he faced the Penguins when Pittsburgh was in St. Louis on Feb. 21, but for Bortuzzo, who was acquired for Ian Cole, it's his first game against Pittsburgh.
"It's been a very smooth transition," Bortuzzo said of being in St. Louis. "The locker room's been great and the staff. The city's been great. Things are going very well so far.
"We can go through a couple guys' tendencies (from the Penguins) and try and help out over here. That's what we're going to do. I'm pretty familiar with their game plan, some of the speed and offense they're good at generating. We need to taker some of that time and space away and contribute in that way. That's where they'll have some success.
Both Bortuzzo and Cole were drafted in 2007; Cole in the first round and Bortuzzo in the third round.
For Cole, who like Bortuzzo played his entire career with the same team before the trade, he was able to spend time with former teammates on Monday with dinner, is looking forward to the matchup.
"Obviously I have a lot of friends, but being a professional, you're able to curb that and do your job," Cole said. "I think that's kind of the mentality going forward. It' just another game, play them hard like anybody else.
"It's definitely weird seeing the Blues paraphernalia walking around that's not from my team anymore. It's a little weird, but we're just going to try and approach it like any other game."
Bortuzzo has seven points in 46 games this season, including one assist in eight games with the Blues. Cole has 10 points in 64 games, including one assist in 10 games with Pittsburgh.
Lapierre, along with former Blue David Perron, have done their best to welcoming Cole into the fold with the Penguins. It's been a smooth transition for Lapierre, too.
"We always know it's tough to get on a new team," Lapierre said. "Even if the guys are nice, it's a big change. It helps when you see the guys you've played with all the year before. He's a good player for us and guys are happy with him.
"We've got a good team. I like my role here. I'm just doing the same thing, killing penalties and taking faceoffs and things like that. It was a big change and shocking a little bit at the beginning, but I'm really happy with my new team and enjoy it."
And lets not forget Blues defenseman Zbynek Michalek spent two seasons (2010-12) in a Penguins uniform before returning to the Arizona Coyotes.
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Defenseman Petteri Lindbohm continues to impress, and he will play tonight alongside Alex Pietrangelo on the Blues' top defensive pairing.
Lindbohm, who has three points (two goals) in 22 games, has been one heck of a find for the Blues being a sixth round pick in 2012.
"Guys love him; he plays like crazy," Hitchcock said of Lindbohm. "One of the things where he doesn't get enough credit is he really adds to our mobility. He's up the ice, he's got a bomb for a shot, he's not afraid to try stuff; you've got to love that. Sometimes you get into playoffs and if you don't worry about the consequences and you just play, you get a few of those guys in your lineup, they become contagious. He's just playing hockey. He doesn't even know the next opponent. He just comes to play and let's go."
Blues scout Ville Siren was responsible for making the Blues aware of Lindbohm, who played for Jokerit in Helsinki, Finland before coming to North America.
"One year after we drafted him, when we were in international play, one of the Finns ... their locker room was just down from us; they said, 'Wait til you get a load of this guy,'" Hitchcock said. "They said he has everybody in the Finnish League terrorized. That was in Sochi. They said, 'When you see this guy play, you're going to be really impressed.'"
The Blues have, and Lindbohm continues to get more and more comfortable.
"Every day, you get to know these more guys," Lindbohm said of his teammates. "You do stuff together, so it's easier to be here. Guys go over things and it makes things easier for me. They have a lot of experience and stuff like that playing here. That helps me a lot.
"Every game, you try to do your best and learn. If you make mistakes, I just try to be better and better."
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The Blues will insert Chris Porter into the lineup tonight and for the first time in 29 games, Dmitrij Jaskin will be a healthy scratch.
Jaskin, who has no points in the past 10 games, last sat out a game on Jan. 17.
"He's a young guy that needs to watch for a game and then get back in the next game and get playing again," Hitchcock said of Jaskin. "He's a young guy that's learning how to play in a top-nine role. He's hit the wall a little bit, so hit the reset button and come back and play on Saturday."
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (upper body) skated, but "he's not ready," Hitchcock said. "He's close, but not ready. He'll be ready for the weekend."
Gunnarsson was injured Saturday at Minnesota and will miss his second consecutive game.
Also, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, out since Feb. 1 following abdominal surgery, took part in the morning skate and even got ice time on the team's second power play unit.
Hitchcock said Shattenkirk's return is "pretty quick," but today's involvement was more team-oriented than anything else.
"We haven't had a hockey practice in 10 days, which is incredible, but we haven't had one in 10 days," Hitchcock said. "We're making a go of it based on effort, not structure. This is a little bit of structure that we put in today, just reminders. We'll turn up the heat ... as much as we're looking forward to getting home, as coaches, we're looking forward to having hockey practices. We could have six, seven hockey practices before the end of the year, which is going to help us immensely. To not have a hockey practice for 10 days is unheard of, but we opted for rest and took it. The only time we've ever skated as a group in full, even before this road trip, is the pregame skates. Today was a little bit of a practice, get some things in place, get ready for tonight."
Shattenkirk stayed on long after his teammates left to get in some extra work on the ice.
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The Penguins will play tonight without two of their key forwards (Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist) so they'll utilize 11 forwards and seven defensemen, which is something the Blues have used in the past. It's something Hitchcock likes and could foresee doing himself when everyone is healthy fully.
"We've done that before and it's been some of our best games we've played like that," Hitchcock said. "I think that has real value moving forward in playoffs for us and for other teams who have depth on defense ... when you look at it, it's who's going to give you 10 or 12 minutes and where you're going to get it. I think some teams can get it better on the back end, us included. I think we're a better team playing 11 and seven if we get healthy here. We might be looking at that thing, too. The only thing that scares you is if you have an injury up front, then you've got to become a three-line team pretty quickly. That's a little bit of a problem, but man, the two or three times that we've used it, we've been able to give extra ice to (Jaden) Schwartz and (Vladimir) Tarasenko, which has really been a problem for the oppositions. Doing that again would be something we'd certainly look at, especially with the guys we've got back there and we've got Shattenkirk coming back pretty quick here. We could really present some problems for people."
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Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, aside from the one he plays for, has scored on every other team in the NHL except for one: the Blues.
Crosby has 298 goals and 843 points in 617 career games, including 24 goals and 74 points in 67 games this season, but only has five assists in nine games against the Blues.
It will be up to Jake Allen to keep the streak alive.
"I've personally never squared off against him, but it'll be fun," Allen, who starts tonight, said of Crosby. "He's the best player in the world for lots of reasons. He can do it all. We're going to have to be keying on him. I'll definitely have to be aware of him when he's on the ice and have some fun with it."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Chris Porter-Paul Stastny-Patrik Berglund
Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves
Petteri Lindbohm-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Zbynek Michalek
Barret Jackman-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott is the backup.
Healthy scratches include Chris Butler, Olli Jokinen and Dmitrij Jaskin. Kevin Shattenkirk (abdomen) is practicing and closer to returning to the lineup. Carl Gunnarsson (upper body) is day to day.
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The Penguins' projected lineup:
Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-David Perron
Blake Comeau-Brandon Sutter-Steve Downie
Daniel Winnik-Nick Spaling-Beau Bennett
Maxim Lapierre-Craig Adams
Paul Martin-Kris Letang
Christian Ehrhoff-Ben Lovejoy
Rob Scuderi-Ian Cole
Marc-Andre Fleury will start in goal. Thomas Griess will be the backup.
Injuries include Evgeni Malkin (lower body) and Patric Hornqvist (undisclosed) are day to day. Pascal Dupuis (blood clot) and Olli Maatta (upper body) are on injured reserve and out for the season.