By LOU KORAC
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Troy Brouwer remembers the drive down Constitutional Ave. to get to Verizon Center on gamedays. They tended to be scenic and quite therapeutic.
The former Washington Capital, who spend four seasons in the nation's capital, will make quite the different drive today, and enter the building making sure he doesn't take a wrong turn towards the home team's locker room.
"I used to drive down Constitution (Ave.) to get to the game," Brouwer said. "I don't think we will from the hotel, but just seeing the landmarks, seeing things that I saw every day that I saw for four years during the season, it brings back good memories."
Brouwer makes his long-awaited visit to Washington as a member of the Blues, nearly nine months after the trade that sent the right wing along with goalie prospect Pheonix Copley and a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft for right wing T.J. Oshie.
The Blues (44-22-9) visit the Capitals (53-15-5) for the first meeting of the season; the teams play the rematch in St. Louis on April 9, and according to coach Barry Trotz, Oshie's reunion with his former teammates will have to wait until then because he will miss a second straight game with the flu.
The trade at the time sent shock waves around the NHL, and it was one that those around the organization expected after a third straight first-round ouster from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues were destined to make an impact change or more, but it was unknown at the time who would be the player or players sent packing.
Oshie, the Blues' first-round pick in 2005, was deemed expendable.
At the time, Blues general manager called said it's not often that a pure "hockey trade" is consummated anymore, but in this case, these were players that had thrived in the systems they were in, but they were players that perhaps offered different elements that the trading team needed.
The Blues felt they needed Brouwer's grit, playoff experience and penchant for scoring at crucial times, and the Capitals wanted Oshie's energy and skill to add to an already potent offense.
Oshie's 23 goals and 22 assists in 72 games show slightly better offensive numbers, but Brouwer, who has 15 goals and 18 assists in 75 games, has played his best hockey down the stretch at the right time. Exactly what the Blues were hoping for.
It shows the trade has worked out for both teams.
"I do, I really do. I know my production's down a little bit from previous years, but it goes to being in a more defensive conference, being on a team that's a little bit more focused on structure," Brouwer said. "A few things like that, but I feel all-in-all, I've had a great contribution to the team so far this year. Hopefully still a lot more contribution yet to go, but on the other side, I still pay attention to what Washington does and Oshie's having a good year over there as well. Sometimes trades don't always work out both ways, but I feel this trade's worked out on both sides ... so far at least."
Captain David Backes agreed.
"I'm not the NHL insider that's going to break that down for you, but 'Brouw' does bring some different elements than 'Osh' and 'Osh' does bring some different elements than 'Brouw' but both teams are so far in good positions; you just get into the playoffs and you got a chance and we've got to make the next steps," Backes said. "'Brouw's been a guy that's won a Cup before, he's been deep other times and he'll bring that intelligence to our group and hopefully help boost our chances of continuing to move on.
"He's a big body that has a great shot and he's able to create a lot of offense. I think him and Paul (Stastny) are starting to click really well with 'Fabs' ability to be all over the ice, make plays and finish as well. It's another asset we can use. He's great in the room and fit right in. No question that he's going to be playing his best hockey right now."
Brouwer played four seasons with Washington and had 83 goals and 69 assists in 293 regular season games, including career-highs in points (43) in each of the past two seasons; he scored a career-high 25 goals in 2013-14.
"Right when you get traded, one of the first things you when the schedule comes out is see when you're going to be playing your old teams and for me, Chicago, we play them so often, I didn't really have to look at that one, but Washington, I was a little disappointed that we play them so late in the season," Brouwer said. "It's going to be fun, it's going to be exciting. I know always tough going back and playing your old teams. I haven't done it with Washington yet, so the first time's going to be weird playing against that jersey that I played for for four years, and being in that building on the different side of the crowd, but to go in and see those guys again, wish them well going into the playoffs, but it's going to be a tough game against two really good hockey teams."
Oshie spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career wearing the Bluenote, where he had 110 goals and 200 assists in 443 regular season games. But the emotions of the trade have long wore off and the potential first matchup -- which may not happen tonight because Oshie had the flu Friday and his status won't be known until late this afternoon -- may not have the kind of feelings he may have had if the game was earlier in the year.
"You know right away, I think there's a lot of emotions flying, you know feeling like you maybe didn't accomplish what you wanted to accomplish in St. Louis and they got rid of you kind of thing," Oshie said. "Now that the dust has settled a little bit, it will definitely be emotional, but not as emotional if we would have played right away.
"... If it was up to me, I'd be playing. This is the time of year, I think the docs are shutting me down so everybody else doesn't get sick. So I mean, if there's a way, I will find it."
Oshie had great ties to St. Louis. His daughter Lyla was born in St. Louis, and he had built not only his hockey career but personal life to the point that took up roughly 25 percent of his life.
But he went from being a player that held more defensive responsibilities under coach Ken Hitchcock to a more open, offensive style that has seen him score a career-high 23 goals in 72 games playing with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetzov and Nicklas Backstrom.
"I'm still kind of working (skill) back into my game a little bit," Oshie said. "I think just from the years of trying to be defensive-minded that I kind of got that out of my game, I got the creativity out of my game a little bit. Here, that came back a little. It's opened up, they let me play a little bit ... with being responsible at the same time. I think before I had a hard finding that happy medium. Obviously playing with some of the players here, with the skill and talent they have, it's worked out pretty well so far."
"(In St. Louis), there's still definitely an accountability factor. But at the same time, the time and place, there is a time that we can make a play and try to score a goal. I think it's maybe always been like that ... it's just maybe I didn't understand the message as well and just couldn't find that happy medium. Especially lately, I've started to find that a little bit more, where maybe 'Hitch' was trying to tell me not to pass and I just couldn't find the medium where it was either all offense or all defense. I think I've found that a little bit more, maybe that comes with some maturity, as I am getting older."
Some would say Brouwer's slight dip in numbers coming from the Capitals may be an indication of having to be more defensively-responsible under Hitchcock, but that's not the case.
"I would say maybe from their previous years, when (Barry) Trotz took over, he implemented a lot more structure in their systems," Brouwer said of the Capitals. "I think it took a year. We were a good hockey team last year, but they're even a better hockey team this year. That structure's gone a long way towards keeping their goals against down. I think they're in the top three in goals-against, but for us to have that structure, we like to play with that structure. That's how we control games and they're a little more free-wheeling. They're one of the highest offensive teams, if not the highest offensive teams. We've got to try and control that and contain that somehow and try and just ... not slow-play them to death, but we've got to find a way to make the game our game and not the way they want to play it."
There's still a good part of Oshie that regrets not being able to help the Blues move deeper into the postseason.
"I think we had teams that had very good chances to take it deep," Oshie said. 'I don't know, I think some of it is we just underperformed. Some of it maybe the wrong game plan. I don't think there's one thing, I don't think you can (point) to one thing and say this was definitely the reason that we didn't make it past the first round or beat L.A. in the second round. I think it was kind of a collection of things. So, I hope they can get out of that soon. I think the players there definitely deserve to go deeper, hopefully not too deep though."
So with Oshie out tonight, he will get the chance for an even more emotional return on April 9 in St. Louis, where fans still love him.
"I hope I'll be in that game," Oshie said. "Hopefully this will be my little break and I can play in the end."
"... I want to play them both times. You want to kind of go and show them what they traded away, what they're missing out (on). I think that's just the mentality of anybody that goes back and plays their old team. ... I think there's a little of that, a little feeling that you want to go and prove that maybe you could have stayed and helped the team, or maybe you weren't the problem. It's no hard feelings or anything like that ... it's just, I think, human nature maybe. I just want to go in there and play well."
Brouwer was a popular player in Washington who certainly will have some emotions when he steps on the ice.
"It's still great memories that I had there, unbelievable franchise," Brouwer said. "I thank them for everything they've done for me and my family and my career. Going back there, it'll be a special day to see the old guys again. I know we play them again in a couple weeks, but it would have been nice to be able to have a day off before so I can go have some dinner with a couple of the guys and see the girls, the kids and have a little bit more time there but that's how it goes. I'll enjoy the time that I have there and it's going to be fun for me; it's going to be special for me and my family."
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Blues players geared up for the chance to face Oshie, a popular player and close friend to many. It will have to wait.
Close friend Jaden Schwartz said when the trade went down, it hit the players hard.
"I was pretty shocked," Schwartz said. "It was tough to see him go. I was actually in Minnesota at the time. It just shocked me for a few minutes to think such a good teammate, such a good friend would be gone. Lucky for us, we got 'Brouws.' He's a great teammate as well and a big part of our team. He's really helped us out, and that's nice, but when you haven't been as successful as you want to be, everybody knows that this is kind of a business. ... Changes happen at some point, but it was tough for sure. It's win-win for both. That team's doing great over there and we're having a terrific year as well.
"I haven't thought about (the potential matchup) too much yet, but it'll be weird. For me as a young guy coming in, he was such a good teammate, a really really nice guy and always positive. He was kind of guy who was always smiling and a good locker room guy. We obviously miss him, but he's having a terrific year over there. For those two-and-a-half, three hours though, we'll have to treat him a little bit differently but definitely before and after the game, it'll be nice to catch up with him. ... He was a good role model for me to watch."
Said Backes, who played many games on the same line with Oshie: "He's been a good friend, a good linemate, but we'll say pleasantries before and after. But during the game, I've played him before. There's going to be no holds barred and it will be a full-on competition between him and everyone in this room. It's not him against us, it's our team and our squad binding together against his team and what they're doing."
Goalie Jake Allen, who gets the start tonight, said he's looking forward to the chance, should he see an old friend. That chance won't come tonight.
"It'll be fun," Allen said. "It's always fun with that friendly rivalry, but I'm sure he's going to be gunning for us as hard as we are for him. It'll be a good test. He's having a great year and it'll be fun.
"You always like playing against the best. I think Washington is the only team I haven't played against in the league. It'll be a good test (tonight). A familiar face with 'Osh,' it'll be fun too."
Even though they're not teammates anymore, Oshie, like Brouwer, still pays attention to what the Blues are doing.
"Yeah, we keep in touch a little bit," Oshie said. "I talk to 'Berg Dog' quite a bit, 'Schwartzy' here and there, along with 'Shatty.' I'm sure there will be a lot more in the summer."
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Allen gets the net tonight for the first time since losing two straight in Alberta against Calgary and Edmonton, where he allowed nine goals on 43 shots. Prior to that, he played in the 10 straight games that Brian Elliott missed due to a knee injury, winning six in a row at one point.
"I've felt my practices the last week have been great," Allen said. "Get a little bit of rest. Haven't faced them yet this year. Best team in the league all year, so it's going to be a challenge and I'm looking forward to it.
"Definitely the rest is nice to get some quality practice time, which I didn't have a whole lot before this last week. I feel good back out there now and ready to go tomorrow."
Hitchcock said both Brian Elliott and Allen would get "important games" down the stretch.
Elliott didn't even make the trip to Washington for tonight's game and Anders Nilsson will be the backup.
"I think we've both played enough this year," Allen said. "It's not like one guy's played 70 games and the other guy's played 10. I think both over the 40-game mark, which is rare in a season. But to get in the net again, to get a few more games in before playoffs and see where it goes from there, it's going to be good for me. Get back on my feet and feel the game speed again will be nice."
Elliott, coming off three straight shutouts, including a 15-save performance Friday in a 4-0 win against Vancouver, sees the rationale in both guys getting games.
"You want that work to stay sharp and get ready for the big games," Elliott said. "We're all putting that pressure on ourselves to perform and not kind of take a back seat when you do clinch a playoff spot. That's sometimes the hardest part, letting your foot off the gas, but I think we've learned a lesson and we've got to keep it on."
And to go against the Capitals, who have 111 points and the best record in the league, Allen said: "You've got to be on your toes, you've got to be aware of every scenario around you and understand what's going on, know there's so many dangerous threats. You can't take your foot off the gas. ... It's going to be a good measuring stick for us. It's late in the year. It's so weird that we haven't played them yet but we play them twice in the last few games. It'll be a good test for us to see where we're at. We're proud of the group, proud of what we've accomplished so far. We have a few games to polish it off and it'll be a good test for the playoffs."
Added Backes: "They've been playing really well, best team in the league probably right now. We've got to have our 'A' game on the second of a back-to-back with some travel. I think they play the night before as well, so it's going to be a testament of wills. Whoever's got more gas in the tank, plays a harder 60 minutes, sticks to their game will have success and it will be a great contest."
Transitioning from a game like the one against the Canucks to the one against the Capitals will be a great challenge.
"You better be ready to go," Hitchcock said. "Better be ready to go right off the hop. There's no shifts off, there's no breathing room, they're on your ass, we're going to be on their ass so we'll see where we go. It's going to be good."
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When the puck drops tonight, the Blues will know if they have a chance to jump into solo possession of first place for the first time since Oct. 19.
The Blues and Dallas, tied atop the Central Division with 97 points, play San Jose today at 3 p.m. (CT), and depending on that score, the Blues could move atop alone. A Stars win would require the Blues to keep pace, but as long as the teams are tied in points, Dallas has the tie-breaker edge right now based on regulation or overtime wins (ROW's) at 42-39.
"To me, it's just day to day," Hitchcock said. "There's a lot of hockey to get played, and ... we'll wake up (this) morning and we've got the two top teams in the league go at it (tonight). That's a helluva hockey game that we're going to have to play (tonight) to win in that building. So that's the focus and then the focus is ... we're going to get one desperate team on Tuesday against Colorado. There's lots of games to play before then. I think there's lots of things that we've got to get done. This is just Check One of four or five things. We've worked all the way to get to the top of the heap now. I don't want to see us give this up and I don't think the players do either."
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Hitchcock spoke pregame and said defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who sustained a lower-body injury in the win against Vancouver, will not play tonight. Petteri Lindbohm will slot into the lineup.
"It's going to put three young guys back there and they're going to get great experience from playing in this atmosphere and against this team," Hitchcock said. "It's going to be a real good test and it's going to be a good school exercise for a lot of young guys today."
The Blues' projected lineup (defensive pairs will be updated after pregame warmups):
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-David Backes
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Kevin Shattenkirk-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Petteri Lindbohm-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal. Anders Nilsson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Magnus Paajarvi and Brian Elliott. Alexander Steen (upper body) and Steve Ott (hamstrings) are on injured reserve. Jay Bouwmeester (upper body) and Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) are day-to-day.
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The Capitals' projected lineup:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Justin Williams
Marcus Johansson-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Andre Burakovsky
Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson
Stanislav Galiev-Mike Richards-Daniel Winnik
Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Dmitry Orlov-Brooks Orpik
Nate Schmidt-John Carlson
Philipp Grubauer will start after Braden Holtby played Friday night in New Jersey.
Healthy scratches include Michael Latta, Mike Weber and Taylor Chorney. Former Blue T.J. Oshie (flu) will not play tonight.