By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues have spent the entire season managing on the fly because of injuries to key players.
But the injury to top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who sustained a right knee injury Saturday against the Minnesota Wild and will be reevaluated in three weeks, will be more of a challenge.
It starts Tuesday when the Blues (30-17-8) go up against the Winnipeg Jets (23-26-3) today (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMO 1120-AM).
Pietrangelo was averaging 26:40 ice time per game, which is fourth in the NHL, and getting players to step in and fill the minutes and roles that Pietrangelo leaves behind will be a tall order.
"We aren't 100 percent on this one because it involves special teams, but we think we'll have something that will work," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "You get situations like this, it's not a Rembrandt at the end of the night; it's about wins. Winnipeg's going to be a helluva test for us. That'll give us a good indication of what elements we need to adjust even from here."
Guys like Kevin Shattenkirk, who will move up and play alongside Jay Bouwmeester as Pietrangelo's partner and rookie Colton Parayko will absorb more responsibilities.
"Obviously, there's going to be a lot more falling on my shoulders now," Shattenkirk said. "... I think more than anything, I just have to be ready to play more minutes, keep my body fresh and be ready to get out there in a few more situations.
"You have to look at every game as an opportunity to grow your game. This is obviously a chance for me to kind of assume that role and just make it seem like it was a seamless transition while he's getting better. Until Alex gets back, I think that's my focus, to really make it seem like we didn't really lose that big of a hole. We don't want it to be that big of a hole. That's the job for the rest of us now to fill it in as quickly as possible."
Said Parayko, "Losing a guy like Petro's huge. I think as a group, we're just going to have to come together. Obviously it's going to be tough to pull the weight that he does, but we have a very strong d-corps here and I think we can come together and do that.
"I want to come in and prepare myself the same way as any other game. I just want to come and play my best and give the team the best opportunity to win. I'm not going to change too much. Obviously just be ready for anything that might come my way and be prepared."
What's the part the Blues will most the most with Pietrangelo's loss?
"I think it's on exits," Hitchcock said. "He's one of the best exit players in the world. We're going to have to make some adjustments on some of the things that we do. We've already practiced it yesterday and talked about it again today. We'll be able to make those adjustments.
"That's the part I like about us. We've had to deal with reality and we know the end game, as do the players. We're dealing with it from a very practical sense. Expecting someone to take 40 percent more, 30 percent more is unrealistic. We talked about it yesterday with the D's; you give us 10 percent more and that'll cover it over. We've learned that lesson early in the year and it's a good lesson to learn. We've made proper adjustments when other significant players have gone down. It's really helped us."
It's not just the defensemen that are affected by Pietrangelo's loss and have more responsibilities. It trickles up to the forwards, too.
"As a forward group, we've got to recognize that we probably have to control the game a little bit better," center Kyle Brodziak said. "We can't be getting into an up-and-down, back-and-forth game. We've got to manage the game a little more. When we get the puck into the neutral zone, we've got to get it deep. It'll just help and put a little less stress on the guys back there. I think we have to realize that's a lot of minutes that we're going to be missing, a lot of good, quality minutes."
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Robert Bortuzzo, a healthy scratch the past seven games and 11 of 15, will get a huge opportunity to move into the top six while Pietrangelo's out and play on a regular basis.
The Blues haven't recalled a defenseman from the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League yet but will do so ahead of the two-game trip to Florida.
Bu this is Bortuzzo's opportunity, one similar to what goalie Brian Elliott jumped into when Jake Allen went down.
"This is where he kind of came in last year during the season when he came into our team," Shattenkirk said of Bortuzzo. "I was out at the time and he came in and played great right off the bat. For him, this is for him a great opportunity to get back in the lineup and prove himself again. He's in a way like 'Ells,' hes one of those guys who just comes in every day and works and does the right things away from the rink so that he's ready to play for these opportunities."
Elliott knows how Bortuzzo feels.
"'Borts' has been a great team guy all year," Elliott said. "He probably would like to play more than he has. I think everybody's kind of been through those types of situations. He's handled it awesome. A great guy day in and day out, always happy to come to the rink. He'll get an opportunity now. When a guy like that steps in, everybody kind of works for him. It allows him to get his feet wet again. He's just a tough guy back there and as a goalie, you love seeing him clearing those guys out. Him and 'Eddy' are kind of the twin towers back there.
"(Pietrangelo) talks all game long. It's kind of rare to find a guy like that who keeps talking either on the bench or on the ice. It helps you to know where your guys are and you can kind of communicate. We'll overcome that. But when you lose a guy like that, it's not easy."
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After being a healthy scratch the past four games, Ryan Reaves rejoins the lineup and Dmitrij Jaskin will be a healthy scratch.
With the Jets, who seem to always play a physical game with the Blues, in town, it's the perfect game for Reaves to get back in.
"Since they've been in the league and jumped into our division, it's turning into quite the rivalry," Reaves said of the Jets. "Built just like us, big, strong, like to play physical, get in deep, like to agitate you, get under your skin. I don't like sitting out, but this is a good one to jump back into.
"The biggest thing is we haven't been scoring a lot of goals lately and I haven't been putting the puck in the net. I haven't obviously been working hard enough for chances, getting bounces we need. When that's happening to a team, you look for more of an offensive lineup. The last couple weeks, I've tried to work on little things that might create a little more offense. Hopefully I can come in and help out and still play the big, physical body game. ... We're built the same way. When two teams like that clash, it's going to be a big body, heavy game and that's just how these games are built."
Hitchcock hasn't singled out Reaves in a sense. He's just looking for more from more people that play on the fourth line.
"I think it's just the fourth line. We just need the fourth line to keep the puck in front of them," Hitchcock said. "That's the whole thing for us, just keep the puck in front of you and build us some strong momentum from there. I think it's like anything else ... in the league now, the fourth line has to play like a third line because the league is so fast, there's so much speed in the game now, that your fourth line was a line of specialists before and now it actually has to be a line that competes and plays with continuity. Our fourth line is more a line that has weight and size on it, so proper pressure and positional play is important for them. That combination - that balance of pressure and position - is important for them to be effective. When they keep the puck in front of them, they're forechecking it, they're getting scoring chances and they're not giving up odd-man rushes and that's the key thing."
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What has given the Blues an edge against the Jets? Not much, according to Hitchcock.
"It certainly hasn't been outplaying them, but one thing we've been able to do is absorb the body blows," Hitchcock said. "They overwhelm you with their work, they overwhelm you with pressure and we've been able to sustain a competitive level that hasn't allowed them to do that like they did even in the last game they played against Colorado. We've been able to work at the same pace they've been able to work at and we've had a couple big late goals or a couple big late plays that really helped us."
But with t he style of game the Jets bring, it gives the Blues exactly what they want, and guys like fourth-line players seem to thrive in this atmosphere.
"I think we can have an impact for sure," Brodziak said. "We've just got to come out and play that type of game. We know there's going to be a lot of board battles and we've got to make sure we're winning those board battles. It's going to be a big part of tonight's game. It's going to be a lot of forechecking and a lot of board battles. You've got to make sure you're winning those battles."
The Jets, who will be without Drew Stafford, who was suspended one game for a high-sticking infraction Saturday at Colorado, see a model of what they want to be when they see the Blues.
"We're both big, fast teams," Jets right wing Blake Wheeler said. "I think we're kind of built in their image a little bit. We're trying to achieve kind of the level that they've gotten to the last few years. I think we look up to them in a certain sense in that way with all the success they've had. When we go out there, they seem to bring out the best in us. We'd like to get the better end of the result more, but they're always pretty competitive games."
Said Jets coach Paul Maurice, "These are really physical games, but they also seem faster and faster. There's a real speed component. Their lineup has changed over the years with the Tarasenko effect. There's also a real speed component. As much as guys are finishing checks, the rhythm off your bench may be just as important."
Vladimir Tarasenko has four goals and three assists agaisnt the Jets this season. How do the Jets stop him?
"I'm not sure there's a simple solution to that," Maurice said. "He gets into holes and he's just one of those rare players that the shot option for him seems to come in the entire spectrum of when he holds the puck. Once it's on his tape, you've got to expect a shot at any point, but he moves well and can change the angle on the shooter. You hear cliche's on time and space because they're true, but everybody has come in with that game plan on these guys. All elite players draw attention. He's special."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Patrik Berglund-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Scottie Upshall-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Troy Brouwer
Magnus Paajarvi-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.
Dmitrij Jaskin will be the healthy scratch. Alex Pietrangelo (knee), Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Jake Allen (knee) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.
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The Jets' projected lineup:
Nikolaj Ehlers-Bryan Little-Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault-Mark Scheifele-Alexander Burmistrov
Andrew Ladd-Adam Lowry-Joel Armia
Chris Thorburn-Andrew Copp-Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom-Dustin Byfuglien
Ben Chiarot-Tyler Myers
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Connor Hellebuyck will start in goal. Michael Hutchinson will be the backup.
Drew Stafford (suspension), Adam Pardy and Paul Postma are healthy scratches. Ondrej Pavelec (knee) and Grant Clitsome (back) are on injured reserve.