By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As the days draw closer to the Winter Classic on Monday, it's easy for the Blues to divert their attention to that game.
But for the Blues (19-12-5), who have a big divisional game against the Nashville Predators today at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), the attention to detail and tunnel vision has been key. They had it in a 6-3 win on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers and they feel like it's not going to be a problem for tonight before the hoopla begins.
"Everyone's done a good job," Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "Obviously there's some stuff you've got to organize stuff the day before and stuff like that, but it's pretty easy to stay on. These are big points. Obviously tonight's a big one, a divisional game. The game's still not until Monday. We've got a few days to look forward to that after today."
But coach Ken Hitchcock said it would be foolish to think that the players haven't diverted some attention to Busch Stadium.
"I think we'd be naive to think that, there's a lot of stuff going on," Hitchcock said. "I liked our energy yesterday, I liked our energy today, I like the way we played in the last game, so things are trending in the right direction, but we've got a significant opponent. Yesterday's game in Nashville between the Preds and the Hawks, I'm not sure if it was the TV angle or what, but it was one of the fastest games I've seen all year and one of the best games I've seen all year. I think everybody that watched any of that game knows we've got a tough go tonight."
The Predators (0-2-1) their last three games, lost 3-2 to the Blackhawks on home ice and lost right wing James Neal in the second period to an upper-body injury.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette didn't have anything to report from the team hotel Friday morning (Nashville did not skate at Scottrade Center), nor did he have an update whether Pekka Rinne or Juuse Saros would play goal.
"It's always a tough game with St. Louis, just a heavy battle game," Laviolette said. "It's usually the team that can win the battles usually wins the game, more so than any other opponent that we have."
But the Blues have a chance to perhaps take advantage of a tired team tonight, or do they?
"I think it's overblown," Hitchcock said. "I think back-to-back is overblown. Three in four is not. I think the energy zap that you have to really look at is when you play the third game. That's been significant for us and a lot of other coaches, there's a huge drop off in that one.
"I think back-to-back is really over-rated. I think a lot of players would prefer playing back-to-back and then getting a couple days off. It's that third one you have to play you seem to start to feel it."
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Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, fresh off signing a two-year extension on Thursday, skated for what is believed to be the first time with teammates since sustaining a lower-body injury on Dec. 3 against Winnipeg.
Bortuzzo has missed the past 11 games.
"I think things are on schedule," Bortuzzo said. "We're not pushing things. We definitely don't want this to be a lingering thing. Going through the proper steps. I just want to be healthy and ready for the end of the season when the big push is on.
"It's definitely nothing I've had to deal with in my career, it's tough more mentally than anything, kind of assessing why. They both seem like anomalies or freak things if you want to call them. For them to be so close together, it's tough mentally to pinpoint or think what it could be. You put it behind you and know that you put the work in. It's nothing to do with training or work, it's sports. That's the way some of these things go. You're better off not even thinking about it. Put it behind you and move forward."
Bortuzzo has played just 11 games, but Hitchcock said he's been sorely missed.
"I think he's a glue guy and you can't have enough of those guys," Hitchcock said. "They're happy on either side of the fence, they're good team players, he fits well with whatever group is on the ice and when you have enough unselfish players who are willing to fit in anywhere and everywhere, it becomes really contagious and I think he's a contagious player in a good way. He brings out the best of us when he's playing.
"Army (Doug Armstrong's) right when he said the way he's playing before he got hurt, there's no way you can bring him out of the lineup. He was playing that well. He was really playing as well as any top four guy we had. Since he's gone out we've really missed him. He's not ready yet but today's a step and then we'll see in the next couple days if he's a full-time practice player or not."
When Bortuzzo does return, there will be some catching up to do.
"A little bit. We'll see," Hitchcock said. "This one wasn't as bad. He came back from the other injury up and running right away. We'll see. I think it's more in his head. Is he going to play careful or is he going to continue to play reckless because his game has a little bit of reckless in it that I think makes the other team nervous and helps us a lot. We'll see him once we get him into practice full time."
Bortuzzo, who was acquired in 2015 along with a seventh-round pick for fellow defenseman Ian Cole, is glad to know he's sticking around.
"Obviously the talks started when I was playing," Bortuzzo said. "It's definitely something I appreciate from them, knowing it's not too too serious. It's nice. It's definitely something I appreciated, that they were willing to keep the conversation going and ultimately getting it done.
"... When you have two sides that both want the same goal it's pretty easy. ... That's what I'm hoping, I can keep this going and when my family looks back, it will be as a Blue."
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The Blues will keep the line of Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera together tonight, but Steen will slide into the middle and Lehtera will move to left wing.
"Just looking at the next eight opponents, we're going to need more tempo in the middle of the ice," Hitchcock said. "We think 'Steener' can provide us with tempo. We played Lehtera on the wing in Nashville and when we looked back at the game tape to prepare for tonight, he played a heck of a game on the wing so we thought maybe this is the time to try it and take a look at it."
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Jake Allen will start in goal after Carter Hutton played against the Flyers. Allen is scheduled to start Monday against the Blackhawks too.
The Blues are 14-2-4 on home ice and have points in 16 of the past 17 at Scottrade Center (12-1-4) but the Blues are 4-5-1 the past 10 games overall after going 8-1-1 the previous 10.
Steen is one assist from 300 in his NHL career and one point from 500 in NHL career.
David Perron has a three-game goal-scoring streak.
Robby Fabbri is coming off his first NHL hat trick Wednesday and has five points (three goals, two assists) the past four games.
Joel Edmundson has five assists the past five games.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-David Perron
Jori Lehtera-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Patrik Berglund-Dmitrij Jaskin
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Nail Yakupov, Ty Rattie and Brad Hunt. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) is still on injured-reserve but skating.
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The Predators' projected lineup:
Filip Forsberg-Ryan Johansen-Viktor Arvidsson
Colin Wilson-Mike Fisher-Craig Smith
Kevin Fiala-Mike Ribeiro-James Neal
Reid Boucher-Calle Jarnkrok-Austin Watson
Roman Josi-Ryan Ellis
Mattias Ekholm-Matt Irwin
Yannick Weber-Petter Granberg
Juuse Saros is projected to start in goal; Pekka Rinne would be the backup.
Healthy scratches could include Adam Pardy and Colton Sissons. P.K. Subban (upper body), Anthony Bitetto (hand) and Miikka Salomaki (lower body) are out.