By LOU KORAC
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Little by little, the Blues are beginning to get healthier, and another key piece returns a little sooner than expected Monday against the Buffalo Sabres.
Center Paul Stastny, who's missed the past 16 games with a broken right foot, will return slightly less than the projected five weeks the Blues initially placed on his timetable.
Stastny, who was projected to miss five weeks, will take up his position back on the top line between Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko. Stastny broke a bone in his right foot blocking a Matt Bartkowski shot against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 16.
The Blues (13-6-2) play the Sabres (8-10-2) at 6 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) for the second time in five days.
The Blues won 3-2 in a shootout at Scottrade Center last Thursday.
"It feels good," Stastny said after an optional skate at First Niagara Center. "I think it was just more about every day pushing it more and more. I didn't have any setbacks; it kept getting better and better and the docs checked it out the other day and said it was good to go. When it comes to the bone, I think it's different than it is a ligament. Sometimes it's just kind of like a wait-and-see approach and you have to wait until it heals. The older you are, the longer it takes to heal.
"Good to be back with the guys. There's only so many skates you can do by yourself on full ice or with two guys out there. That's what I've missed the most, being with the guys and being part of wins and losses with them and being part of the ups and downs."
Stastny, who had five points (four assists) in five games before being injured, has been skating the better part of roughly two weeks and continued to amp up his intensity, which led to the belief that his return was imminent, and it gives coach Ken Hitchcock options down the middle and stability not seen since the early part of the season.
"It's good. It puts us in a more organized position there," Hitchcock said. "It's going to be a little bit of time before he's up to speed, but I think that line was an awful good line before Paul went down, and we'll see how quickly we can get up to speed. I think he's really going to help us on special teams. He was obviously very good on the power play and equally good killing penalties. So moving forward, if you get a three-dimensional player who can can play both ends on special teams and five-on-five, it's a good add."
With Stastny returning, veteran Scott Gomez will be a healthy scratch. It gives the Blues their starting four centers from the beginning of the regular season with Stastny, Jori Lehtera, David Backes and Kyle Brodziak.
"I'm not looking at options; I'm just looking at ... we squeezed a lot out of ourselves lately," Hitchcock said. "We're not going to rest just because a good player comes back, but I've said this before, every team loses players. But when you lose a player that plays in all three dimensions, it's significant, so we get a player that's played in all three situations and plays very well in them back, and that's a significant add. When you're adding an 18- to 20-minute player back in your lineup, that's very significant, and I think what it does, it puts people in the right spots in the lineup and it allows you to play with depth rather than you're chasing the game all the time. You're allowed to play with depth, and over time in the next three or four games, he's really going to add to the mix because he's really going to allow me to use matchups with Backes and with Lehtera in better situations.
"... I think you've got to know if it's not tonight, in the next two or three games (Stastny's) going to hit the wall, and it's going to be a tough go for him, and you've just got to battle through it. We've got to have some flexibility in center position where we have to push Lehtera in there a little bit at times; we'll see. We have three strong centers, actually four strong centers, so we've got some flexibility there where we can help him out if he gets tired."
Stastny's teammates are glad to have him back.
"I think other than his smarts, we finally get to have some depth at the center position," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "When it gets late in the game we can juggle the lines a little bit and use him in defensive zone faceoffs, offensive zone faceoffs, if we need that. He helps that line. I think he helps 'Steener' and 'Vladi' as a solid guy who can distribute the puck to both shooters."
Stastny, who injured his shoulder early last season against the Arizona Coyotes that set him back after a fast start, will work his way back in as quickly as possible.
"Early on, take a couple shifts not too long," he said. "You play the game at a totally different speed. I think for me, it's trying to get the timing back as quickly as you can.
"Early in the game, take shorter shifts and start to get more and more comfortable as the game goes on."
The Blues went 9-5-2 with Stastny out of the lineup and considering some of the players that they've been without because of injuries, the fact the Blues are among the top teams in the Western Conference speaks of the depth that stepped in and filled gaps.
"We're realists. We know we're not going to win every game," Shattenkirk said. "It's a tough league this year and every year. For these guys to play the way they did and manage to find those points while we had a lot of key guys out was huge. We come back, we're not in a hole, not trying to chase anything. In our division, you can't really let any game slip away. It can get away from you very fast. It speaks a lot to our depth and lot of guys that stepped up and a lot of young guys that stepped up."
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Speaking of Shattenkirk, he was announced Monday as the NHL Third Star of the Week.
Shattenkirk, who has a five-game point streak (two goals, five assists), had two goals and four assists in four games last week.
"It's very cool," Shattenkirk said. "I think, more importantly, I feel like I'm finally playing hockey like myself again. We've been battling. The team's been doing a really good job to get wins here while we had a lot of injuries. I'm glad I can come back and be part of it and help contribute."
Shattenkirk, who missed 10 games with a groin injury earlier this season, finally feels like he's up to speed and over the mental aspect of thinking about what ailed him.
"I think I'm 100 percent over that," Shattenkirk said. "Feel like I'm regular old me again. So it's nice.
"... More than anything, it was a mental hurdle to get back up to the speed of the game and make plays at the right time. Now with a few games under my belt everything feels like it's starting to come back to me."
Hitchcock, who said Shattenkirk's best attribute is "vision on transition," agreed.
"He's starting to get up to speed; not there yet, but he's had two significant injuries and missed extended time both times," Hitchcock said, including Shattenkirk's 25-game absence a season ago with an abdominal/groin tear. "Now it looks like he's getting comfortable playing minutes that we need.
"We've got to have him playing 20-plus minutes every night for us to be effective. These two injuries have held him back from that, but last two games, we got into the big minutes that he needs to play. If you have gifted offensive players, they've got to get on the ice a lot. He's starting to show signs of where he was at when he was arguably a first-team all-star player until he got the injury."
Shattenkirk attributes his point streak to finally feeling up to speed in the game against the New York Rangers on Nov. 12.
"Really when I started to feel well physically was the Ranger game. I felt like I was skating like myself," Shattenkirk said. "Mentally I wasn't up to speed, that was a fast game, a great game. After that was when things started to click. Everything else started to catch up. The power play has been better now, that always helps when get to feeling well and start to play with more possession on the power play. But I think for me, just been pushing myself to skate more and jump in the rush. When I seem to play more aggressively and do that it seems to lead to better play from me."
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Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo will play tonight for the Blues, and rookie Joel Edmundson will -- in better terms -- get a breather tonight and he a healthy scratch.
Bortuzzo, who has one goal in 12 games, has sat out seven of the past nine games but played in two of the past three while Colton Parayko was out with a lower-body injury.
"We need his energy," Hitchcock said of Bortuzzo. "We missed having him in the lineup. We've got to get him in the lineup. He's got great energy, he's skating really well, he's playing really well. We need his energy."
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Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo played a career regular season high of 32 minutes, 54 seconds on Saturday in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit.
Hitchcock spoke earlier in the season of trying to cut down on Pietrangelo's minutes for the sake of not wearing him down as the season moved along.
But in games where the Blues are chasing the score, Hitchcock tends to use Pietrangelo more so than not.
Pietrangelo is second in the league behind Minnesota's Ryan Suter for average minutes per game at 27:20, or 19 seconds behind Suter.
"He gave us some looks from the bench like, 'What the hell are you guys doing,'" Hitchcock said half-jokingly. "But we were chasing the game. We were behind most of the game, really from the end of the first period on. We needed him there. We needed him to help us out, same thing with 'Shatty.' They were playing every second shift. I think 'Petro' played 10 or 11 minutes in the third period and did a helluva job. I don't think we want to get in a situation where we're playing a guy 30 minutes. I don't think it's healthy."
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The Blues, who have won 17 of the past 19 games against the Sabres and outscored them 66-31, are getting a team that is winless in its past four games (0-2-2) but playing much better and much harder than ones in recent past.
Hitchcock said the Blues learned some valuable lessons in the game at St. Louis last week.
"We just can't let them get loose. They got loose on us a lot," Hitchcock said of the Sabres. "Their forwards are really quick, they put a lot of pressure on you on the forecheck and because they've got such good footspeed, they're willing to gamble on the forecheck, they're willing to take chances, pour more people in on it than we're used to and I thought that gave us fits. I thought that really was a problem for us until the third period and we'll be a little bit more adjusted to it. I thought their pressure game and their gap game ... they played very well against us. If we can get out a little bit cleaner and get out using numbers, then that's advantage us. They hemmed us in there pretty good the first part of the game."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Magnus Paajarvi-Jori Lehtera-Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall-David Backes-Troy Brouwer
Steve Ott-Kyle Brodziak-Robby Fabbri
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Colton Parayko-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Scott Gomez, Ryan Reaves and Joel Edmundson. Jaden Schwartz (ankle) and Patrik Berglund (shoulder) are out with injuries.
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The Sabres' probable lineup:
Matt Moulson-Ryan O'Reilly-Brian Gionta
Evander Kane-Jack Eichel-Sam Reinhart
Marcus Foligno-Johan Larsson-Tyler Ennis
Jamie McGinn-David Legwand-Nicolas Deslauriers
Josh Gorges-Rasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabe-Zach Bogosian
Carlo Colaiacovo-Cody Franson
Linus Ullmark will start in goal. Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Tom Schaller is the healthy scratch. Zemgus Girgensons (upper body), Mike Weber (knee), Robin Lehner (ankle), Cody McCormick (blood clot) and Mark Pysyk (lower body) are out with injuries.