By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It's been the anticipated matchup since the Blues traded Brian Elliott to the Calgary Flames at the NHL Draft last summer.
Neither Jake Allen or Elliott were in goal together on the same night when the Blues (40-28-5) and Flames (41-29-4) played in a home-and-home set way back in October, but they will finally class today when the two Western Conference playoff hopefuls meet at Scottrade Center at 6 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).
Allen was in goal for the Blues' 6-4 win at Calgary on Oct. 22 and faced the Flames' Chad Johnson, and when the Flames won 4-1 on Oct. 25, Elliott went against the Blues' Carter Hutton.
"It will be fun to play 'Ells,'" Allen said of his close friend. "He's a great goalie, but points are crucial for both teams right now. Hopefully it'll be a good game."
Allen and Elliott teamed up to lead the Blues to the Western Conference Final last season, but with both wanting the cage more often instead of the traditional split of the past two seasons, the Blues traded Elliott for a pair of draft picks, a second-round pick in 2016 one being a conditional third-round pick in 2018 if the Flames resign Elliott to an extension.
"It's pretty cool to be able to play against your friends, but this time of year, it's not so friendly anymore," Elliott said Friday.
Both goalies are on a tear.
Allen is 7-1-0 his past eight starts with two shutouts and allowing only 10 goals. Elliott is 12-1-1 with to shutouts and has allowed only 25 goals in that stretch.
It's no surprise to the Blues, who have seen this before.
"Not at all," left wing Jaden Schwartz said. "They're both great goalies and they've proven that for a long time. They work extremely hard. We're happy for 'Ells' in here. He's a battler. Obviously (tonight), we'll try to turn the table on him a little bit, but definitely happy for him and how well he's doing. He's a big reason why that team's sitting in a playoff spot right now. Jake just does his thing.
"There's been some storylines. I think they won 10 in a row or something like that. That's something that you notice. Obviously he's a big part of that."
"They're both competitors," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "They've always been like that. I'm sure they're going to have a little friendly head-to-head there and it's exciting. You've got (Troy) Brouwer there, too, who's certainly going to make life miserable for me, too. It' always fun playing against guys you have a relationship with. It kind of brings out the best in you a lot of time and those guys will be ready to go tomorrow.
"Look at what they did last year. They both played outstanding. None of us are surprised. It's good to see them both have success. I know we're playing against him (tonight), but when you know you have a friend on the other side, you want to see him play well as well. It's a good thing that both of them are doing what they're doing."
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The Blues, who are in third place in the Central Division by virtue of being even in points with Nashville (85-85) but hold the tie-breaker based on more regulation/overtime wins (39-35), also trail the Flames by one point for the first wild card in the Western Conference, so lots ride on tonight's game.
The Blues, who have won four in a row and nine of 10, have been as stingy as anyone in the league. They have allowed 14 total goals, or 1.4 per game the past 10 games.
"I would say goaltending is obviously first and foremost," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "It gives you confidence to find your game. For me, it's the group of defensemen, but our forwards are playing a game that helps the group as well. If we're playing well defensively, I think that we're going to look tight in our structure and be sort of an in-your-face, pressure team, but we're going to have layers to our defense. Any team that's out there and is is as good defensively as you can be, eventually if you keep defending, then you're going to give up something. I think we've been doing a good job getting on the attacks and more time in the offensive zone and possessing the puck and that's helped our defensive game as well."
"Our goaltending's been great," Schwartz said. "'Hutts' and Jake have been making big saves, whether it's timely saves early in the game to keep us in it or when we've got a lead, they're doing their job, so they're really kicking. That allows our PK to be good and I think most games we're eliminating odd-man rushes against. There's always the odd one, but I think we've done a good job of eliminating those as much as we can."
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was surprised as anyone to hear the numbers.
"I didn't even know that was kind of the number, but that's pretty good," Bouwmeester said. "Obviously goaltending's No. 1. They've been playing great. Even (Thursday) night at the start of the game, (Allen) kind of made some big saves and kept us in it for a little bit. We were a little slow-starting, but I think there's been a focus for the past 20-25 games just to tighten that part up. Early in the year, we were just giving up so much. People were blaming the goalies or whatever, but we were giving up a lot of pretty quality chances. It makes their life pretty difficult. For whatever reason, we've just had more of a focus and we've been able to just do a better job. Penalty kill's been pretty good the last 10 games or so. That obviously helps, too."
Yeo said the Blues have made small, subtle detail changes with the forwards to make them more mindful defensively since he took over but nothing major.
"I would just say that there's points of emphasis, things that have been in our game that we just kind of wanted to reestablish and wanted to make sure that we got back on top of," Yeo said. "There's been some real focal points that we're trying to concentrate on to make sure that certain elements of our game just as far as how quickly we counter from offense to defense in terms of how we track and how we reload and how we work to get on top of the puck and I think that allows our defense to have a little better gap in the neutral zone and make it a little bit more difficult for them to get through with some clean speed."
Since Yeo took over Feb. 1, the Blues have allowed an average of 38 goals in 23 games, or 1.65 goals per game.
"Not really tactical, I just think we're executing better," Schwartz said. "Maybe a couple things positionally but I just think we're executing better as a team and realizing the situaton of the season."
"Some little things, but everyone pretty much plays the same now," Bouwmeester said of any changes. "If anything, I think it's just be more patient down there, realize where the real dangerous areas are. If you can give up shots from the outside, that's the thing. Our goalies can handle that. It's just more being stronger around our net."
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Schwartz's first non-empty net goal in 26 games on Tuesday against Colorado helped him breathe a sign of relief.
After he scored, Schwartz more or less looked up to the heavens and exhale.
"It felt good," Schwartz said. "It was definitely nice to see it go in rather than hitting a post or hitting shoulders, hitting something.
"I was just upset it took so long. Of all the chances, you get one like that go in, so it's kind of weird how that works out sometimes. Just good to see it go in."
Schwartz has 15 goals and 31 assists in 69 games this season, but his all-around game hasn't been affected by the goal-scoring drought.
"It's just part of the business," he said. "Sometimes in sports, you have ups and downs, sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're cold. You've just got to stick with it and learn from it. I'm still playing well, getting a lot of chances, creating for others. I don't really think about that to be honest. I'm worrying about how I'm playing, how the team's playing. When us individuals are doing our jobs, better chance you're going to win games, so that's all I'm focused on."
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The Flames, who have lost two in a row for the first time since Jan. 23-24, will get hometown boy Matthew Tkachuk back in the lineup tonight.
Tkachuk, son of former Blue Keith Tkachuk, was suspended the past two games for elbowing Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty last Sunday.
"It's a fine line," Tkachuk said. "It's tough when you're just watching your team, especially when we didn't get the outcome we wanted the past two games. I'm moving forward, I'm back in now and I'm just going to try and make a difference."
Tkachuk, who has 13 goals and 33 assists in 68 games, will rejoin linemates Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik.
"It's a good addition for us," Flames coach Glen Gulutzan said. "To get those guys back, they play so well together. They have great chemistry. They play against the top lines nightly. It's good to have them back. I think everyone's happy that they're back together."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko
Magnus Paajarvi-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Zach Sanford-Ivan Barbashev-Nail Yakupov
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
The healthy scratch is Jordan Schmaltz. Paul Stastny (lower body), Robby Fabbri (knee), Jori Lehtera (upper body) and Dmitrij Jaskin (upper body) are out.
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The Flames' projected lineup:
Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan-Micheal Ferland
Matthew Tkachuk-Mikael Backlund-Michael Frolik
Lance Bouma-Sam Bennett-Alex Chiasson
Kris Versteeg-Matt Stajan-Troy Brouwer
Mark Giordano-Dougie Hamilton
TJ Brodie-Michael Stone
Matt Bartkowski-Deryk Engelland
Brian Elliott will start in goal; Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Freddie Hamilton, Rasmus Andersson, Curtis Lazar and Dennis Wideman. Ladislav Smid (neck) is out for the season.