By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Six points separates the Blues and Dallas Stars in the Central Division standings.
Call it the prototypical four-point swing, but the Blues (32-17-9) understand the importance of the divisional matchup tonight against the Stars (37-15-5) at 7 p.m. on NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
The Blues, who trial the Stars and Chicago Blackhawks by six points in the standings (79-73), will have 23 games remaining in the regular season after Tuesday, will feel better about their chances of attempting to catch the Stars and/or Blackhawks with a victory. A four-point swing is vital to St. Louis more so than Dallas at this point.
"We know that we're chasing them in the standings," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Stars, who have one game in hand. "We have a couple games in hand on Chicago and every game, every point counts at this point in the season. We want to make sure that we're setting the tone and making sure that we're sending a message for later on down the road when we might have to face them in the playoffs.
"It's been like that all year for our matchups against the Stars. They did a great job at the beginning of the year to give themselves this kind of cushion. But now we know with all the divisional games that come down the stretch that these leads can go and come pretty fast. It's important."
A regulation win moves the Blues within four points of the Stars, who have one game in hand on them. The Blues, including tonight, have two games in hand on the Blackhawks.
"Dallas is a team that everyone wants to beat in the league," defenseman Joel Edmundson said. "We're chasing them tonight and it's a big four-point game tonight."
Center Paul Stastny, who has 34 points (17 points, 17 assists) in 35 games against the Stars, said the divisional stance is of vital importance.
"I think it's more of a divisional game," Stastny said. "Every divisional game, we're either a couple points behind or a couple points ahead. We're either widening the gap or closing the gap.
"The way they've been playing, it's going to be a good game; it always is. We've just got to be ready off the spot because they played last night."
The key for coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team is 2-1-0 against the Stars this season with a shootout victory, is simple.
"I don't think it's anything different. Having played Tampa, we're coming off the same element," Hitchcock said. "A lot of speed up front, a lot of tenacity, a lot of guys that are willing to work for the puck, so puck management becomes critical, never taking a shift off becomes even more important. Dallas, they've had three really good games because they've played hard every shift the last three games, it's given them significant wins against good teams. You win against top teams, Chicago, Washington, teams like that, in Nashville, you can't have many shifts off. That's what they're doing and that's why they're having the good season they are."
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The Blues are 3-0-1 the past four games and are feeling good about their overall game since the return of left wing Jaden Schwartz, which has stabilized the forward lines, and the adjustments made since defenseman Alex Pietrangelo went down with a knee injury four games ago.
"What it's done is it's allowed us to control minutes and balance our time on ice for our lines in a better fashion," Hitchcock said. "(Schwartz) had a game that had good energy in Florida, he didn't have the energy in Tampa, which we kind of thought would happen, we think he'll come back and play well again today. He allows us to control from a puck management and from a gamesmanship in a much better way because you know he can play against any element, speed, size, whatever, you can put him out there against anybody. I think he gives us some really good options that we can play with a higher level of collective energy and I think it really really helps us having a good player like him on a real good line.
"I think two things are happening (on defense). The pair of (Carl) Gunnarsson and (Colton) Parayko are playing great together, they've had a really good year when they've been placed together, but I think the big thing for is (Robert) Bortuzzo and Edmundson have grown into minutes where you can trust them against anybody and that's allowed us to balance the group out more. I think the play for me of Edmundson and Bortuzzo has allowed us to play more guys more minutes down the lineup which I think has kept our energy up the lineup. They really are acting like a group of six right now and I think Shawsie's (associate coach Brad Shaw's) comfortable in playing anybody against anybody. I think it works for us. We're not as hard matching as we were before, when 'Petro' was there, and I think it's helped everybody from a confidence standpoint because it all looks like they're playing well."
Hitchcock talked about all six giving 10 percent more across the board with Pietrangelo, who didn't skate with the team this morning after skating the past two days, out of the lineup.
"That's what we were looking for," Hitchcock said. "We don't need saving. We just need people to amp it up 10 percent and the last couple games, that's what we're starting to get."
It happened in wins against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning after an inauspicious start against Winnipeg.
"I think that the first game was a little ugly, but after that, I think when we went to Florida, things just started to click," Shattenkirk said. "I think after the first five or six minutes (in Florida), things were a little scrambly, but as a group, we seemed to lock into that game. Just realized that it as time to step it up. It's coming from every pair, and that's the beauty of it that we're not a one-pair defense corps. We're not focusing on one group to carry the whole load. We've seen all six of us play against the top players on each line this past weekend. It's been great to see because we all are kind of taking a little pride in taking on this responsibility."
Edmundson agreed the 10 percent across the board is what's been key.
"For sure," he said. "We all know we had to dig in a bit more because Petro's out of the lineup. We have Bortuzzo in the lineup instead of him and I think he's done an excellent job for us. We just want to keep rolling with that and we're just happy to get the four points on the road."
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Brian Elliott will start his 15th straight game, which will set a career-high.
Since Jake Allen injured his knee Jan. 8, Elliott is 9-3-3 with a 1.78 GAA and .945 save percentage in 15 games, including the one relief appearance when Allen went down against the Anaheim Ducks.
"I don't want to talk about him," Hitchcock quipped. "As soon as I start talking, something happens. Just write his number down, that's No. 1, put it on the board, and have him play. That's about all I'm doing now. I'm not looking, I'm not trying to analyze. Just write the number down and let him play."
Also, left wing Scottie Upshall will play in his 600th NHL game tonight.
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Everyone was having fun with rookie Robby Fabbri, who participated in his first NHL fight in Sunday's 2-1 win against the Lightning.
Fabbri fought Vladislav Namestnikov and scored in the game. He was an assist short of his first Gordie Howe hat trick.
"He's got a big heart, a big heart in a tiny little frame," Blues right wing Ryan Reaves said of Fabbri. "He did well. He was chucking them. Has to keep that tie down and his chin down but he did surprisingly well in his first NHL fight.
"I would rather him not do that. His hands are a precious commodity on this team. We're going to try to steer him away from that."
"First thing is I appreciate his sweater getting tied down because not getting it tied down is a bit of a problem because you can't fight when you can't see anything," he said. "I didn't know why the fight happened and after talking to him about it, I'm OK with it. As I said, the tie down is essential. If you're going to start a fight, you want to be tied down so you don't put yourself in a tight spot."
Stastny, Fabbri's center the past few games,
"He does a little of everything. It (the fight) was kind of nice," Stastny said. "I think it kind of jumpstarted the boys. I think we fed off that energy. Obviously, the big goal on that 2-on-0 with 'Brouws' (Troy Brouwer). He didn't even look at him once, but if he's going to put it in like that, I think we're all OK with it."
Stastny, who's played with young stars Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog when they were rookies with the Colorado Avalanche, is getting another chance at helping a rookie shine.
"The boys like the way he plays," Stastny said of Fabbri. "He competes out there. He doesn't worry about what his frame is. He's all over the puck, he's a slippery player out there. Still finds the puck when he doesn't have a shooting lane, he moves the puck and then he gets to spots and then he can score from a lot of spaces just with the release he has and the kind of shot he has."
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Speaking of Reaves, since his return to the lineup the past three games after being a healthy scratch for four games, his edginess has returned.
Reaves has 12 hits in three games, and when he's playing physical, he's playing his best.
"Just trying to get back to my game," Reaves said. "When I play physical and smart when I'm physical, I think my offense takes care of itself and the O-zone play, and the way I feel in games, when I'm engaged like that, I have better games. Just trying to get back to that. Being smart about it still but still trying to lay the body when I can."
The physical aspect has gotten away from Reaves at times.
"I don't know (why). Sometimes it's one of those games where your angles aren't right, you feel like you're a step behind on catching a hit, when you're chasing a hit from a step behind, you're a step behind coming back to the play, a step behind getting into the play," he said. "Just tyring to get my timing back on track and my timing right, that kind of helps the line and helps my game."
Against Tampa Bay, despite the East-West crossover game, there was a sense early to play with an edge. It's unusual, but Reaves loved the way it played out.
"Sometimes the way a team plays works out for my style and sometimes you play a team where the second a D-man touches the puck it's rimmed out of the zone and then you're just chasing back," Reaves said. "I think you get a sense pretty early and sometimes you have to make some adjustments after the first period and you might be able to catch some guys that way.
"Tampa not a very physical team, they're fast, but not very often you catch guys on that team. I think our line just had the timing, the position of our line helped out too. When you have three guys are in the right position you can hem guys in. That way somebody's stuck out on an island, you can take a run at them."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Joel Edmundson-Robert Bortuzzo
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Pheonix Copley will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi and Peter Harrold. Alex Pietrangelo (knee), Jake Allen (knee) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are out.
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The Stars' projected lineup:
Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Patrick Eaves
Antoine Roussel-Cody Eakin-Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin-Mattias Janmark-Ales Hemsky
Vernon Fiddler-Radek Faksa-Curtis McKenzie
Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya-Jason Demers
Patrik Nemeth-Jordie Benn
Kari Lehtonen is expected to start in goal; Antti Niemi, who played Monday in Nashville, is expected to be the backup.
Colton Sceviour, Jamie Oleksiak and Jyrki Jokipakka are expected to be healthy scratches. Jason Spezza (upper body) and Travis Moen (lower body) are out with injuries.