Friday, April 3, 2015

(4-3-15) Blues-Stars Gameday Lineup

DALLAS -- There was one defining element in the Blues' 4-1 victory against the Calgary Flames on Thursday.

Well, there were two, but the one shining moment was clinching that Stanley Cup Playoff berth and striking one check mark off the to-do list.

The other was getting their game back on track, which the Blues did without their top two scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, who are nursing upper-body injuries.

But the Blues (47-23-7), who play another important game today against the Dallas Stars (37-30-10) at America Airlines Center (7:30 p.m. on FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), it's a chance at catching the Nashville Predators in points atop the Central Division standings. And with the Chicago Blackhawks, who play at Buffalo tonight, breathing down the necks of both the Predators (103 points) and Blues (101 points), the Blackhawks (100 points) have made this a three-team race.

"We stop looking at the standings below us," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of clinching Thursday. "One of the problems until the 'X' is besides your name, you're always counting below you. Now we get to look above, so it's a really important game (tonight) for us because before Nashville plays, we can tie them. If we win (tonight), we can tie them, so it's a really important game for us. We could really put pressure on them and we're getting heat from behind, too, because Chicago's winning. They're going to be right behind us."

Of the remaining four games for the Blues after tonight, two will be against the Blackhawks, including an Easter Sunday game at United Center at 6:30 p.m. 

"It sets up the two games against the Hawks as unbelievable competition, which is what I think every hockey fan in the to cities wanted, games with real meaning at the end," Hitchcock said. "They're going to get them both. But (tonight's) important. If we can get those two points and keep the heat on Nashville, that's going to be good."

The Blues are hoping for a repeat of the previous four meetings with the Stars this season. Each team has won on the other's ice, so it's been a visitor's delight thus far.

The Blues won 3-0 here on March 15 behind a 28-save effort from Jake Allen, who will give way to Brian Elliott tonight after Allen stopped 17 shots Thursday.

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Even before he instinctively jumped to the aid of defensive partner Barret Jackman, Robert Bortuzzo, who had been a healthy scratch in two previous games before Thursday, had been gaining immeasurable respect from his teammates. And Bortuzzo, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline for Ian Cole, is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Bortuzzo immediately jumped in and fought Calgary's Brandon Bollig after the Flames winger belted Jackman from behind into the back boards, causing a bloody gash above Jackman's right eye.

"You can't say enough about Bortuzzo, what he did for 'Jax' there, changed a lot of momentum; stuck up for a teammate like that with a tough customer like Bollig," Allen said. "He's great. First day he came in, you could tell he was a great guy off the ice. He's showing on the ice what he can do. 

"He's got a point to prove for himself, but he's helping our team. We needed that physical aspect on the back-end, that mean, sort of shutdown guy and he played with Jax tonight. He's been a great presence since the trade."

Since being acquired, the Blues are 6-3-1 with Bortuzzo in the lineup, 1-2-1 without him.

"I think we see what he means to the team," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "There's an edge, there's a competitiveness, he's a good player. 

"I think 'Shatty' had a tough go at times adjusting to playing the left side (Thursday). He more did us a favor, so those are things we've got to figure out, but Bortuzzo in our lineup makes us a lot better right now."

Bortuzzo said instincts kicked in when he saw Jackman down.

"I didn't see (the hit) fully," Bortuzzo said. "I was kind of looking back seeing who was coming on the forecheck, but you could tell by the emotion and him being down you want to step up for your teammates."

He certainly helped after being a healthy scratch the past two games.

"I felt pretty solid," Bortuzzo said. "I had to sit for a while there in the second period, but I attribute a lot of that to working hard in practice and working a little bit extra after with the coaches and what-not. I want to be ready when called upon."

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Speaking of Jackman, career game No. 800 will wait another day. The Blues an limited optional skate Friday morning, but Jackman will be scratched tonight in favor of Carl Gunnarsson, who was a healthy scratch Thursday. It's not believed to have anything to do with Jackman taking that check from behind.

Jackman passed Brett Hull and Brian Sutter earlier this season on the team's all-time games played list. Jackman, drafted by the Blues in 1999, only trails Bernie Federko (927) on the all-time list.

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With a goal and an assist Thursday, left wing Jaden Schwartz established a career-high in points with 58 in 70 games, surpassing the 56 he had in 80 games last season.

Schwartz, who is tied for career-high in goals with 25, has made his mark playing mostly this season on the "STL Line" with Jori Lehtera and Tarasenko.

"I'm just trying to build off last year. I felt last year I took another step," Schwartz said. "I just want to continue to get better. I think my role on this team's bigger now. I've played a few years, a little more special teams for me. I think just that consistency of bringing it every night in a long season ... I felt last year there were stretches where I might have been a little tired. Didn't play as well as I liked, so that's something I've been focusing on trying to do that."

Thursday, Schwartz was on a line with Paul Stastny and T.J. Oshie. The trio accounted for five points.

"He's fun to hang with off the ice," Stastny joked, when asked about Schwartz. "He works hard. He's good at bringing guys to him and then finding open guys. He always holds onto it. He can fight guys off. He's really powerful on his skates. When there is someone on him, you just try and get open because with him, you play that give-and-go game. He does a good job at that."

The biggest adjustment for me with with 'Schwartzy' is he has used his checking to create offense, so it's a little like (Pavel) Datsyuk," Hitchcock said. "He strips people of pucks, he surprises people with his quickness and his strength and when you fall asleep on the ice, he takes advantage of it. He's scored a lot of points this year taking advantage of people sleeping on the ice. He did it again three times today. He stripped guys, he catches you from behind, catches you from the side. I think he's used that element of his game, his tenacity, his strength and his quickness on a checking role, not just offensively. That's really helped him ... a lot."

Schwartz helped the Blues break their 10-game drought without a goal in the first period. His goal 1 minute, 16 seconds into the game gave the Blues a 1-0 lead and snapped a 206:56 run of goalless hockey in the first.

"It was nice breaking that streak," Schwartz said. "It's not always fun chasing games all the time. It got the crowd into it early and it was nice to get the first one."

Coincidentally, Schwartz was the last player to get a first-period goal on Match 10 against the Winnipeg Jets.

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Allen's 20th win last night joined him with Elliott (24) with 20 or more wins. The Blues' duo matches that of the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist (27) and Cam Talbot (20) as the only teams with two goalies at 20 wins or more.

"It was a pretty slow game for me pretty much the first two periods," Allen said. "Guys did a great job, but that's my job to make a save when guys need it. Fortunately we killed those penalties off and then Jori with that huge goal with three minutes left, that 3-5 minutes left by the forwards was pretty impressive work.

"We knew we needed a good performance (Thursday), especially in our own building; get our confidence playing back here. Guys did a great job from our goal line to their goal line. Guys played hard along the wall and won a lot of battles. Forty-something shots on net, guys played great up front, too. ... We needed guys to step up without 'Steener' and 'Vladi,' two of our top contributors. 'Rats' came in, (OlliJokinen's been playing well since he came in."

Allen made a pair of key saves in succession when he stopped former Blue Dennis Wideman, then Jiri Hudler from the side of the goal on the rebound. Allen took a Wideman shot off the mask earlier in the game after a big windup that caused him to joke.

"Yeah, that didn't feel too good," said Allen, who is 20-6-4 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. "He's got a heavy shot. He just sort of got me right between the eyes. Didn't have time to react. That rings for about 10 minutes, but it happens."

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The Blues' probable lineup (updated to indicate two changes with Chris Porter replacing Jokinen and Gunnarsson replacing Jackman):

Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie

Dmitrij Jaskin-David Backes-Patrik Berglund

Chris Porter-Jori Lehtera-Ty Rattie

Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Kevin Shattenkirk-Zbynek Michalek

Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo

Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches will be Barret Jackman, Olli Jokinen and Chris Butler. Alexander Steen (lower body) and Vladimir Tarasenko (lower body) are day-to-day and will not play tonight.

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The Stars' probable lineup:

Jamie Benn-Cody Eakin-Tyler Seguin

Patrick Eaves-Jason Spezza-Ales Hemsky

Antoine Roussel-Vernon Fiddler-Ryan Garbutt

Travis Moen-Colton Sceviour-Valeri Nichushkin

Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg

Patrik Nemeth-Trevor Daley

Jyrki Jokipakka-Jason Demers

Kari Lehtonen will start in goal. Jhonas Enroth will be the backup.

Center Shawn Horcoff has been battling illness and is likely out for tonight, according to reports. Defenseman Jordie Benn has been battling a back injury and is out, per reports, despite rotating into the Stars' defensive rushes Friday morning.

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