By LOU KORAC
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- For those that wondered, the Blues do in fact still play in the NHL.
It doesn't seem like it since they haven't played since Tuesday, a rarity this late in the season when the Blues (37-20-9) are normally accustomed to a heavy workload in March, but they do begin a tough stretch this week beginning today against the Minnesota Wild (31-25-10), who have won four in a row after a 3-2 shootout win at Buffalo on Saturday afternoon.
It's the first time the Blues will get a look at the same Wild team but under new coach John Torchetti, who took over after Mike Yeo was fired Feb. 13.
Minnesota has gone 8-3-0 since Torchetti took over after a 1-11-2 stretch in 14 games under Yeo that ultimately cost him his job
"I don't think you can make enough change in your system of play," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "When we watch them play, they play the same way. They've got great structure, good discipline. They play the game without giving up very much. I don't think there's a lot of changes, to be honest with you.
"We've had good games against them. It seems the team that's outplayed the other team has lost in most of these events. That's something that we'd like to see change. They outplayed us the the last game we won in our building. We outplayed them the last game that we lost in their building. Hopefully we can get a change here and play well for 60 minutes."
If anything, the Blues, who came into Sunday two points behind Chicago and Dallas -- who both played Sunday, too -- in the Central Division race, got the chance to rest and heal for a week that includes games Wednesday against the Blackhawks, Friday against red-hot Anaheim and at Dallas Saturday.
"It's a little time to rest and recover and let some bumps and bruises (heal), but hopefully make some new bumps and bruises this evening when we're playing the right way and sacrificing and doing all the little things it takes to win in this league," captain David Backes said. "We've got a team that's been on a roll, they've got a new coach that's added some new life and we've got to make sure that we're focused on the two points that are up for grabs tonight.
"There's benefits to staying in a groove and keep playing, but there's also benefits to being rested and having energy and letting some bodies heal, especially in our circumstances. We'll need to get back into the groove in a hard, direct way."
The Wild, who won the first four under Torchetti, lost three in a row and have now won four straight again, are playing the third in four days.
"I don't believe when you come home, you're tired off of a short road trip like that," Hitchcock said. "When you don't have to come to the rink and play an afternoon game, there's a big difference. I think three in four nights, back-to-back games are to me, the most over-ridden term around. I think a lot of those players have played three in three nights in the American (Hockey) League, three in three nights in junior, three in three nights in the USHL (United States Hockey League). I don't think it's irrelevant at all. But it does feel like you get a big break when you play in the afternoon and then don't play until the next night. It feels almost like you had a day off."
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Center Jori Lehtera will return after missing three games with an upper-body injury, the result of being hit in the mouth with an inadvertent puck against the New York Rangers on Feb. 25.
Lehtera, who has seven goals and 27 points in 63 games, will center the "STL Line" with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
"When he went out against the Rangers, he went out in the first period early and the line had five scoring chances in five shifts, which was really good," Hitchcock said of Lehtera. "It looked like the line of last year for the first time. They've had good practices here. Hopefully we get them up to speed."
Tarasenko said: "I think we have good chemistry when we play together. It's always nice when somebody who plays with you for a long time comes back into the lineup. We're looking forward to playing better in the end of the season. We all know what our goal is. We try to be prepared for the playoffs. ... We understand each other well, Jaden, Jori and me."
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The Minnesota High School state hockey championships were played the past four days at Xcel Energy Center, with the Class A and AA state title games taking place Saturday night in front of nearly 20,000 fans.
Backes, a Minnesota native who attended and played for Spring Lake Park High School from 1999-2002, recalled his days of attending games but never getting the chance to play in any.
"Upper bowl, skipping school, watching," Backes said. "That was the extent of my involvement with the state tournament unfortunately. We never got to make an appearance. It's something I feel like I missed out on.
"It's quite a festive weekend for the state and it's pretty cool to see a professional building sold out for high school games. It's pretty cool. I missed out on it, but I was the 20,000 watching and cheering. It's just a great celebration of the game in the state."
Backes' high school career consisted of 77 goals and 112 assists in 73 games over three seasons but the Panthers were never able to qualify.
"No. We were in a heck of a conference, but the team that beat us my senior year, they ended up winning the whole thing," Backes said. "I don't know if you take solace in that or not, but it was always a battle from a a small town that anyone who tried out for the team at least got a spot on the varsity or JV teams. We had slim pickings, but they made their first appearance last year so it's trending in the right direction."
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Goalie Jake Allen was on the ice for a heavily populated morning skate but left early. He left the final 35 minutes of practice Saturday but Hitchcock said again Sunday that Allen will start in goal.
It appears that forward Magnus Paajarvi and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo will be the healthy scratches.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Patrik Berglund-David Backes-Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal. Anders Nilsson will be the backup.
Magnus Paajarvi and Robert Bortuzzo are the healthy scratches. Alexander Steen (upper body), Brian Elliott (lower body) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured reserve.
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The Wild's projected lineup:
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Jason Zucker-Mikael Granlund-Thomas Vanek
Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Jason Pominville
Chris Porter-Ryan Carter-David Jones
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella-Matt Dumba
Jonas Brodin-Mike Reilly
Devan Dubnyk is projected to start in goal despite playing Saturday. Darcy Kuemper would be the backup although Kuemper was on the ice with scratches Sunday morning; the Wild opted not to skate. Torchetti will address the media at 5 p.m.
Healthy scratches include Jarret Stoll, Justin Fontaine and Nate Prosser. The Wild report no injuries.