By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- David Backes walked into Scottrade Center for the first time Tuesday as a visiting player, but it wasn't hit first tango inside the visiting locker room.
"I think I spent one training camp, maybe a week in here," Backes said. "I never showered in that shower, I'm discovering new parts of this building I didn't know were here and I feel like I know a lot of this building."
"It was different coming through this tunnel and having the water bottles on this bench," Backes said. "I've thought about this game for a day and a half now amid some other times throughout the first part of the year. Make sure I don't change on the wrong bench of if I get called for a penalty, go to the right penalty box because I spent a lot of time in one and none in the other. All those things, if that happens, we'll laugh it off. I want to make sure I enjoy every second of this and it would certainly be an exclamation point getting two points out of here and making sure we take care of business, but at the same time, making sure I soak it all in."
Backes and his new team, the Boston Bruins (21-17-5), come to St. Louis to face the Blues (21-14-5) for the first time this season today (7 p.m.; NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM) and it will be Backes' first visit to St. Louis after leaving via free agency last summer (five-year, $30 million contract). This after spending the first 10 years of his NHL career wearing the Bluenote.
"I'm going to try to control myself and my emotions and live in the moment and enjoy the time," said Backes, who played in 727 regular season games with the Blues. "There are a few times in your career where you get special nights and tonight is going to be special, no question, coming back to a place where I spent 10 years, had a lot of special moments here, have my wife and daughter at the game, a lot of friends they'll be sitting with, and I just want to enjoy it and be in the moment and not look past it and not take anything for granted.
"At the end of the day I'm going to try to do everything I can to help my team come out of here with two points against a team that I know is very tough and has already beaten us once this year (4-2 in Boston on Nov. 22). In the midst of that, I know there's going to be some special moments throughout. I want to enjoy every second of it and it starts with the morning skate and being back in this building and this room and seeing some of the familiar faces that are around the rink as well."
The Blues maintain that this is business tonight. They've already gone through the gamut of facing Backes once this season, but it'll be a similar situation when Brian Elliott and Troy Brouwer (Calgary) and Steve Ott (Detroit) came back earlier this season for their first visits. Each came away with victories here.
"We have a pretty focused group in here right now because we want to start to build something here," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "We feel like this is a crucial point in the season for us, right at the midpoint to start making some ground and playing some consistent hockey and putting some wins together. That's one way that I think we look past playing against one of our old buddies."
Nevertheless, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock wouldn't mind if Backes, who scored in that first meeting against the Blues, was distracted tonight.
"I'd prefer that he had a skate problem and couldn't get it fixed," Hitchcock joked. "I don't want to wish an injury on a guy, but a skate problem would be OK and they can't find the blades, so he has to sit it out."
Backes replied, "Skates are good and there's plenty of extra steel to be swapped out in between shifts if there's a little sand on the bench or anything like that. We'll do whatever we can to be on the ice as much as possible tonight."
Backes will receive a video tribute at some point tonight, likely in the first period.
"Thirteen years since I was drafted in '03, 10 years in this building, getting dressed every day in the other room, teammates and friends and all those things you don't think about not taking with you when you do go to a new city and re-establishing yourself and making those connections all over again," Backes said. "That's been the biggest changeup. All the great people we met here didn't go with us to Boston and there's great people there and it takes time to reconnect and make those relationships over 10 years, it's not going to be instantaneous to get settled in. Been great in Boston, working every day to get comfortable.
Backes' closest friend, Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has housed Backes' wife Kelly and daughter Stella the past few days and will do so throughout the week, said he'd like to get at least a chirp in tonight. By doing so, Pietrangelo said he'd need the score to be, "10-0. We're all excited to see him. Everyone here's excited to see him play. He'll be the first to tell you he's moved on and he's got a new team to worry about. He's been here for a while. I'm sure they still love this city. He's going to go out there and play, he's got a new uniform, he's living and playing for that city. We're not too worried about it, and like I told these guys, if you give him time and space, he'll make you pay for it.
"Him and Kelly have done a lot for this city. It's not just the hockey side of things, it's the way they are as people and the impact they've had, not only on myself, but a lot of people in this community. We'll watch (the video tribute). It's obviously going to be extremely emotional for him and Kelly, but he's got to go out there and do his job and I'm sure we will."
Backes said of Pietrangelo's chirp claim: "He owes me one from the World Cup, if you want to look back at the tape. We've got such a great relationship and have since my time here. Good friend of mine, here in his wedding this (past) summer, over free agency, a guy that ... a little jack-jawing with your good friends on the ice and try to get that edge. There's certainly bragging rights I need to reclaim from them after they beat us in our building. It's time to repay the favor."
- - -
The Blues will play their 41st game tonight and hit the mid point to the season, and in doing so here at Scottrade Center, it'll be their 25th game on home ice, where the Blues have been terrific at 16-4-4. So over the final 41 games, the roles will be reversed, and the Blues will play 25 of the final 41 games on the road, where they're a paltry 5-10-1.
"Game (41) to me doesn't feel like the midpoint," Shattenkirk said. "I think for me, it feels like the all-star break. I think everyone kind of gets the chance to take off then and take a step back to see where the chips have kind of fallen and standings-wise, that's where you start to see maybe a little separation those next 10 games after the all-star break, they're so crucial. To me, that's what feels like the midpoint. Going to the all-star break, taking some time away from the rink and once you get back, that race to April 10th or whatever it is is on.
"This year's been a lot different than in years past. I think that this year as far as the Western Conference goes, there really hasn't been a team to me that's really stuck out like they're running away with things. Obviously some teams have some leeway in where they are in the standings, but we're still in the mix. That's one comforting feeling for us, but the other thing that we need to realize is we're playing pretty good hockey right now and we're just not doing it in a night to night basis. When we're playing a poor game, it's a drop. We're not going to have it every night, but when we can start to bridge that gap a little more and make it an 80 percent instead of a 100 percent game, that's when we'll start to see a few more wins coming our way in games that maybe we shouldn't have snuck out."
So who are these Blues and what is their identity? Nobody knows yet, but it's time to try and find out.
"Everybody uses that word. That's a pretty broad word to use in our league," Hitchcock said of using the word identity. "I'm not sure anybody knows what their identity is because it's hard to get to it with the proximity of games and injury level and injuries. What I do know is when we manage our game well we are really good. We've shown flashes of that recently. We've played some of our best hockey here at home lately. We just need to find more minutes in our game to play like that. We had a great first period and a great second half of the third period, that's 30 minutes of exactly how we need to play to win. That's what we need to get to, that's our game, that's our identity, how we manage the puck, put it in great spots, we're really strong positionally without it, that's our game. We're not a game based on physicality, we're a game based on positional play and smarts. And when we get away from it, we get involved in a game we're not going to win. That's that track meet. We don't perform well in the track meet because we're giving up more than we're getting. We know what it is we just have to have a real focus to get to it for more minutes. If you play the way we play for 40 minutes, you can win a lot of hockey games, we've shown the ability to do it, we just have to be more consistent."
And has Hitchcock seen that on a more consistent basis?
"I've seen the opposite," he said. "I've seen highs and lows that have been dramatic. I've seen some of the best we're going to see and seen some of the worst. I would say our highs and lows are more dramatic than they've ever been. After 41 games, you are what you are, think that's our challenge, how get that level of play, winning hockey, how do we get to that attitude where do things need to do to win every night. It's all about how we control the three line on ice. We do a good job of controlling three lines on ice, we do awfully good."
- - -
Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko was named to the All-Star Game, representing the Central Division, for the third straight season.
Tarasenko leads the Blues in goals (20), assists (23) and points (43) this season and is tied with Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in the league in points and is fifth in goals.
"Last year was points. This year he's earned it with his work," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko. "Boy, he's really been an effective player for us. A lot like Brett Hull, he's an underrated passer. His ability to move the puck and find open people has been ... for me, this has been his best all-around year. I think he's really maturing as a player. He's done a heck of a job obviously when the game's been on the line and he's done that all year for us, but more important, he's utilized other people on the ice, him and (Robby) Fabbri look like they've got great chemistry together. It's an exciting time for our younger players on our team. We've got six or seven younger players right now who are really emerging as key guys right now and are moving us in a different direction.
"... He played in a men's league for three years. Even though he was 17 years old, he played in a men's league. He played in the KHL. He learned from a lot of older guys. He played with (Ilya) Kovalchuk, he played in St. Petersburg, he was at the front of of the bus when he played for his home team and then he was in the back of the bus when he played at St. Petersburg. He learned accountability. I think the other thing is when those younger players play internationally, whether it's Olympics or World Championships or World Cups, they learn a lot from the veteran players. He's had some great mentors, not just family-wise, but play-wise. He's been around (Pavel) Datsyuk and those guys. They're great mentors and I think that's what's happening with these younger kids is that their mentorship, not only coaching-wise but playing-wise has really helped them."
The All-Star Game will be played on Jan. 29 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
- - -
Alexander Steen has a three-game point streak (one goal, four assists).
Tarasenko has four goals during a three-goal goal streak and 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) the past 14 games.
Paul Stastny has two goals and two assists the past two games.
Updates on defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Carl Gunnarsson: Hitchcock said that Bortuzzo is close to full health and will accompany the team on their upcoming west coast trip. Bortuzzo has been out with a lower-body injury since Dec. 3.
As for Gunnarsson, who has missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, skated Tuesday morning and is expected to be a full participant in practice Wednesday.
- - -
The Blues' projected lineup:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Nail Yakupov
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo
Brad Hunt-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
The healthy scratch will be Dmitrij Jaskin. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body), Carl Gunnarsson (lower body) are out.
- - -
The Bruins' projected lineup:
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak
Frank Vatrano-David Krejci-David Backes
Tim Schaller-Ryan Spooner-Riley Nash
Austin Czarnik-Dominic Moore-Anton Blidh
Zdeno Chara-Brandon Carlo
Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Kevan Miller-Colin Miller
Tuukka Rask will start in goal; Zane McIntyre will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include John-Michael Liles, Jimmy Hayes and Joe Morrow. Matt Beleskey (knee) is out.