By LOU KORAC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Blues begin their final push towards the end of the regular season tonight against the Nashville Predators with a bit of a different look.
It's one that will see Alexander Steen embark on a new challenge and have David Backes back to familiar ground.
Instead of using Steen on the left, he will center the line with Backes on right wing and Patrik Berglund on the left.
The idea is to have Steen get more involved and often in rushes from behind while the big bodies work for pucks.
From the sounds of it, it might stick like this even when Jaden Schwartz, who skated again and continues to get closer towards a return from a fractured left ankle, is activated.
"We're going to have fun with it," Steen said. "Big bodies on both of my wings and we're going to try and utilize that as much as we can.
"I'm going to try and get up on the rushes and plays as much as I can from behind. If I'm going to be a little (critical) of myself, I've still got to work on draws. It's been a long time since I was like in a rhythm with draws when I took them all the time. I'm expecting to take a few games before I get into that rhythm again. Other than that, I feel fine."
The idea came from coach Ken Hitchcock.
"He brought it up; I'm not opposed to it," Steen said. "The one thing is when you don't take faceoffs regularly like centermen do, you feel like you're out of the loop a little bit. At the same time, maybe I catch guys off-guard because they don't know what I'm doing on faceoffs. I don't even know what I'm doing."
Steen, a regular wing by trade, said it won't change the way he plays and won't alter his style.
"Not really. It changes your connection with the five guys that are on the ice a little bit more," Steen said. "As a center, I like to be more connected with the 'D.' My goal is to try and create a relationship with all the 'D' pairings where we can exit the zone with a little bit more puck possession, more speed, try and find solutions -- the three of us -- to break it out so that our wingers are able to maintain their speed a little bit more. Just starting from a standstill and things like that. I'm looking forward to it. ... I've jumped in a few times (at center) when we've had injury trouble this year, maybe three games at center. Now it looks like it's going to be for the long haul here."
By getting to play on a more prominent line, Berglund, who has six points in 12 games since returning from a shoulder injury, will have the chance to etch his imprint on the hockey team.
"He's on a high profile line, so high profile expectations are there," Hitchcock said of Berglund. "This is a tremendous opportunity for 'Bergy' to really enhance his position on the hockey club and I'm really looking forward to seeing how he does with this. This is a great opportunity for 'Bergy' and I think he's going to take advantage of it."
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The Blues (28-16-8) enter tonight's game in a 0-for-18 slump on the power play going to Jan. 12 against New Jersey. They've gone six games without a goal on the man advantage.
"I think we've just gotten a little too slow, especially up top," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "The three of us, we work so well when we're moving pucks quickly and more importantly, shooting. We just have to get back to that mentality. Most of the teams we played there before the break were applying a lot of pressure, so it was hard to be able to set up and make those clean passes. We just have to react to that better. When you make one or two passes and make them on the mark, it slows things down and we were able to set up. We just have to know where we're going with it sooner and be able to get pucks to the net because that's what we do best."
Hitchcock said the Blues must go back to being a shoot-first team.
"I don't think you can have a good power play if you have too many quarterbacks," Hitchcock said. "I think we're a shooting power play that needs to shoot the puck. The quarterbacks, there needs to be as few quarterbacks ... you can't play football with two quarterbacks on the field, not very well. I think it's the same on the power play. You need to have one quarterback, a guy that manages the game, controls the puck and then everybody else needs to be a threat to shoot, and that's where all our success was. And when you have that attitude, you stay ahead of the checking pressure, you stay ahead of the structure and they become unpredictable, and that's what we have to do. Shooting the puck creates an uncomfortable stance by the opposition; that's what we need to get back to. One guy's a quarterback and four guys are shooting the puck; let's get back to that."
When the Blues had success, they were A) starting with the puck more often by winning faceoffs and B) gaining entrance into the zone quicker and more often.
"We've been a little helter-skelter in trying to figure out what works best for us," Shattenkirk said. "That's one thing that changes game by game because teams have different forechecks. More than anything, whatever we decide to go with, we just have to be a little more consistent with our routes and make sure that we're all getting back to support the puck and making sure that we're coming up as a five-man unit and using that to our advantage.
"That's a huge thing (winning faceoffs). That's something for years, we've been fantastic at. We've got great centers who win those pucks back for us. Sometimes you get in one of those little ruts where they're not going back for you."
Hitchcock said he and the coaches analyzed some things over the break, and starting with the puck wasn't as bad as he initially thought.
"Not as much as it felt like," he said. "That's one of the things we analyzed. The coaches looked at the last 20 power plays and we all had our own discussion. What's amazing is we all came up with the same solutions. We had the puck a lot more than I thought, but we had a lot of clock-killing going on, we had a lot of playmaking going on, we had a lot of times when we were in full control but we were outside the structure and stayed outside the structure and when we went in, we didn't go in with numbers. It's a simple fix. It's not complicated, but it does require the players' acquiescing to who's the quarterback, where's the puck, who handles the puck and who shoots the puck. I think if we get to that attitude, we're going to be really good."
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With Magnus Paajarvi returning to the lineup tonight, Ty Rattie will sit.
Paajarvi, who's missed the past seven games with an upper-body injury, will initially start with Paul Stastny and Vladimir Tarasenko. But that could change.
"We'll see how Magnus does today," Hitchcock said. "I think you'll see some flexibility on that left side. We might use a couple guys there depending on Magnus' energy level.
"What I like about him and what I like about the way (Scottie) Upshall is playing right now is they're doing a lot of legwork for whoever they're playing with. That's the part I like the most. They're covering a lot of ground for people so that the linesmates they play with can stay a little bit longer on offense and hang in the zone a little bit longer because they know they've got Magnus and 'Uppy,' who are doing a lot of legwork to retrieve pucks, to get back into the zone to get back into structure defensively, which is really helping whatever line they're playing on. Whatever line 'Uppy' plays on right now, he makes it better and Magnus was doing the same thing."
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Tarasenko was happy and anxious to rejoin his teammates. He waited in Nashville for them after taking part in the All-Star Game.
"It was really fun," Tarasenko said. "My family enjoy it too and now it's time to work again.
"It was pretty fun, and I think it was more fun for fans, too. ... I was really proud to represent the Blues for All-Star Game."
Tarasenko, who brought his wife and best friend, said they grew to like Nashville the past few days.
"They like it. They go to the Fanfare and play some challenge games," Tarasenko said. "It was pretty fun. I won though, I won over my friend."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Magnus Paajarvi-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Troy Brouwer
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Pheonix Copley will be the backup.
Ryan Reaves, Ty Rattie and Robert Bortuzzo are healthy scratches. Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Jake Allen (lower body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.
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The Predators' probable lineup:
Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-James Neal
Calle Jarnkrok-Mike Ribeiro-Craig Smith
Viktor Arvidsson-Mike Fisher-Austin Watson
Miikka Salomaki-Paul Gaustad-Cody Bass
Roman Josi-Shea Weber
Mattias Ekholm-Petter Granberg
Barret Jackman-Ryan Ellis
Pekka Rinne will start in goal. Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Anthony Bitetto is a healthy scratch. Gabriel Bourque (upper body), Colin Wilson (lower body) and Eric Nystrom (foot) are out with injuries.