By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues, who host the Minnesota Wild to begin a five-game homestand today (7 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), are in a quagmire of Central Division teams where five teams are within seven points of each other.
The Blues (11-7-3), with 25 points through 21 games, lead the Wild (11-7-2) by a point; they trail first-place Chicago by five and six points, respectively. Nashville and Dallas trail by seven.
In recent past, the Central Division has been one where to stay in the hunt, teams need to accumulate points in mass quantities. But this season, it's been a race to see who can gain separation.
"You know what's really different is that we're all scrambling to get to our 'A' game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said, "and teams have made big changes, and it's this race to the 'A' game. That's what we're all doing. We've all changed out significant personnel through free agency or whatever, but we're all racing like crazy to get to the 'A' game. You think you've got it, and then you don't have it.
"To me, whoever's going to get those (top) three spots is teams that get to that 'A' game quicker and stay there. We were really approaching that, really coming on there and hopefully we keep it up because we've improved so much since the Columbus game, we want to keep it going. But it is a race to the 'A' game. I read all the quotes by the coaches in the divisions and we're all promoting the same stuff and we're all trying to find ways that we can get there. This seems to be a much bigger challenge because I think most teams have changed out about a third of their teams. That's going to be the battle."
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said he's more focused on his Wild group.
"He's way too deep a thinker for me," Boudreau said of Hitchcock. "I just go with what our team does day-to-day. Our team has not changed from too much unless they've gotten better because November, the players are better in November than they were in October. In October, all these younger guys that were coming in don't really know what the league is all about, so the longer it goes, the better the league gets. That's why the Central Division is starting to rear its head and the teams are playing really good in it."
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Blues forward Alexander Steen will miss a fifth straight game with an upper-body injury sustained Oct. 15 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Steen, who was checked by the Sabres' Josh Gorges in the offensive zone corner boards, took part in a second straight skate Saturday morning after a full practice on Friday.
"I don't know where Steen's at," Hitchcock said. "I can't tell you there. He's obviously a practice player until he's fit enough to play."
Defenseman Joel Edmundson, who's missed eight games with an upper-body injury sustained Nov. 6 against Colorado, will not play tonight but is closer.
"Edmundson had a good day today," Hitchcock said. "This is the day we were looking for with 'Eddy' and hopefully he'll be able to take that final step and get ready to play next week."
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The Blues will swap their second- and third-line d-pairs for tonights game, moving Robert Bortuzzo to play with Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson to play with Colton Parayko.
"More balance in the three pairs," Hitchcock said. "We think that with all the good teams coming in and all the teams with a lot of depth, we're going to need a lot of balance."
Bortuzzo and Parayko have been really playing well together, perhaps even better than the Gunnarsson-Shattenkirk pairing. But Parayko and Gunnarsson both said they don't mind since they got plenty of playing time together last season.
"I think we played, I'll bet you three-quarters and all the playoffs together (last season)," Parayko said. "We're familiar with each other and he plays a style that's easy to work with and I'm fortunate.
"It's the small things that you don't really notice in every day games until you get on the wrong wide if you play as lefty as a righty or a righty as a lefty. We both get the opportunity to play on the side you always play on definitely helps."
Gunnarsson added: "I think we had, I don't know ow many games last year, but most part of last year. Shouldn't be any problem.
"(Parayko) is a bulldozer. ... He can handle things so well. If he's in trouble, he can skate out of there. He's got good vision, a big body with that kind of skill. It's nice to have that next to you."
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The Blues are 8-1-2 on home ice and have points in eight straight (6-0-2).
"All the little things of playing at home help," Parayko said. "Sleep in your bed, get the crowd behind you. It's where you play half your games and you want to make a mark."
"We played very well (in a three-game homestand) before we went on the road," Hitchcock said. "We've got to continue to play really well. We really checked well, we managed the puck, we got stronger as the games went on and played some really good teams. San Jose was on top of their game, so was Nashville. We played very well. Continuing that program, we've got a big test here tonight and then a bigger test even on Monday (against Dallas) also with all these division games. They're going to be difficult challenges."
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It will likely be a battle of hot goalies.
The Blues are likely to see goalie Devan Dubnyk, who made 34 saves in a 6-2 win against Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon, tonight. Dubnyk, who leads the NHL with four shutouts, is tied for second in goals-against average at 1.58 and is second in save percentage at .948, has allowed 15 goals his past 12 starts with a 7-5-0 record.
Jake Allen is 4-0-0 with a 1.50 GAA and .953 save percentage the past four starts; he will start tonight. Allen is 6-0-2 with a 1.24 GAA and .953 save percentage at home this season.
"He's just a good goalie," Hitchcock said of Allen. "Been the story. The three home wins, he was great, great when it was on the line. He's kind of the guy we expected to be there.
"Looks like in this division and certainly in this conference, you're going to need your goalie to be your best player if you expect to win games on a consistent basis."
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Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko has 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in nine of his past 10 games.
Right wing David Perron can tie a personal best with a point tonight; he has a six-game point streak with two goals, six assists.
Left wing Jaden Schwartz has nine points (five goals, four assists) in eight of the past nine games, including a five-game point streak.
Right wing Nail Yakupov will be a healthy scratch for the sixth time in the past 11 games, replaced tonight by Ty Rattie in the lineup.
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The Blues projected lineup
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-David Perron
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Dmitrij Jaskin-Patrik Berglund-Ty Rattie
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Robert Bortuzzo-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
The healthy scratch will be Nail Yakupov. Alexander Steen (upper body) and Joel Edmundson (upper body) are day-to-day.
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The Wild's projected lineup
Zach Parise-Eric Staal-Charlie Coyle
Mikael Granlund-Mikko Koivu-Jason Zucker
Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Jason Pominville
Tyler Graovac-Zack Mitchell-Chris Stewart
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Matt Dumba
Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser
Devan Dubnyk is projected to start; Darcy Kuemper would be the backup.
The Wild have no healthy scratches. Zac Dalpe (knee) and Christian Folin (MCL sprain) are out.