By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Second-year defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson continue to learn on the fly.
But now with the Blues' defensive unit more solidified with the trade of Kevin Shattenkirk to the Washington Capitals, Parayko and Edmundson, who both have become accustomed to one another as consistent partners together, are growing as a top-unit defensive pair.
Playing in a top-four, both Parayko and Edmundson, one more of a well-rounded offensive defenseman with quality shutdown ability, and another known as a physical d-man in his zone with a penchant of pitching in some offense, are relishing in the fact the Blues, who close a three-game homestand tonight against the Arizona Coyotes, are giving them more responsibilities.
"It's been a lot of fun just in a sense that we're getting a lot of trust from the coaching staff and the players and when you get that, you start to build a little bit of confidence," Parayko, who has four goals and 29 assists in 73 games this season. "It's a learning curve. Every game, we're making mistakes. It's the nature of the game. Everyone makes mistakes, but that's the beauty. We're kind of doing it together and it's a lot of fun, too, to have Joel on my side to learn together because I think if we can continue to play together for a few years, we can really become a dominant pair.
"We're playing against some of the top teams' lines, and that's good. That's what kind of makes you go out and need to perform at your highest levels. These are the best players in the world. When you get that opportunity, it only makes you have confidence as the game goes on. You'll continue to learn and improve from it."
Blues coach Mike Yeo is playing Parayko an average of 21 minutes, 4 seconds per game, and is at 17:25 on the season, but Edmundson has played 18-plus minutes in 14 of 24 games since Yeo's arrival, and Parayko is over 20 minutes a night in 14 of 24 games.
"Those guys have deserved it," Yeo said. "No different than our forward position, if the job wasn't getting done, then you switch it out, but those guys have been doing a nice job.
"They're big bodies, they're physical. They both can skate, they both can execute and they both have a defensive mindset to their game. When you're looking at guys that are going to play in your top four, it's pretty hard to be one-dimensional. You need guys now that are solid defenders and guys that can execute and move the puck. Typically those guys are on the ice a lot of time with your best players or guys that are higher up in the lineup. In order for those guys to be able to get to their game, then they need defensemen that can get them the puck and both guys can do that.
"Colton, there's just so much pure raw talent there. He's still a young guy who's developing his game. His defensive game is just rock solid and we're seeing more and more confidence in his offensive game, and that'll continue to grow. That'll take several years for him to really get on top of that, but he's already a great player there, but I just think the sky's the limit. Eddy's almost a raw, just physical, just a real solid defending type of player. There's some detail in his game that we're working on and some things that he'll learn, and a lot of that will come with experience, but overall, he's a real competitor."
They're young players, and mistakes will be made, but he more experience they gain, the more they seem to thrive, and that minimizes the errors.
"We always come to the rink and expect to learn something," Edmundson said. "You just have to keep an open mind. We try to learn from your like 'Bouw' and 'Petro.' Last year, we both played with veteran defensemen. We learned a lot and now we're just trying to use that to our experience.
"We realize if we don't have the puck and it's in our forwards' hands, we're doing our jobs. We're just trying to get it away from us as soon as we can and protect our own zone. 'Wils' (assistant coach Rick Wilson) is comfortable throwing all six of us out there. It doesn't matter what point of the game it is. If you're playing your game that night, he'll throw you out there. It's going to help us in the playoffs for sure."
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The Blues (40-28-6), who host the Coyotes (27-39-9) at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) in a home-and-home set, begin a week of three games against the bottom two teams in the Western Conference, including road games at Arizona Wednesday and Colorado on Friday.
The Blues trail the Nashville Predators by one point for third place in the Central Division but lead the Los Angeles Kings by nine for the second wild card in the Western Conference. They also trail Calgary by two points with one game in hand for the first wild card.
"It doesn't seem like a lot of games, but there's still 16 points even though we're nine in front," Parayko said. "People say we have a favorable schedule and things like that, but teams are very good hockey clubs. Even though they don't have the records to show it, they still have lots of players that can put the puck in the net and lots of players that are dangerous. We definitely can't see it as a finish line yet. We've just got to do what we can control."
The Blues are 9-1-1 the past 11 games and have allowed 17 goals in that span.
"I think we've been playing great over the last month I would say," Parayko said. "These points are big. It's tough to get points this time of the year based on the fact that the standings are always tight, everyone's fighting for that home ice advantage, everyone's fighting for that extra playoff spot."
The Blues are coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to the Flames.
"Through 60 minutes, I thought we had the better of the chances as far as numbers and quality," Yeo said. "Certainly (Calgary is) a skilled team, but I thought that we did a lot of really good things. At the end of the night, we still lost the game and we've got to find a way to bounce back today."
The Blues defeated the Coyotes 3-0 on March 18, their ninth straight win against Arizona and the 13th straight game earning a point against the Coyotes (12-0-1), but Yeo wants to see a bit more.
"We have to play for 60 minutes," Yeo said. "I thought we had a real good start in that game (1-0 lead after one period, 16-3 shot edge). I think it was a combination that they weren't on top of their game and we were really good to start. ... We got the lead, and then early in the second period, we scored and from that point on, we changed our game and from that point on, I thought they had the better of the chances. We opened up the game and ironically we didn't score any more goals (on goalie Mike Smith) from that point and we gave them way too much. We have to control the game a little bit better tonight."
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Matthew Tkachuk already returned to his hometown to play, and now it's Clayton Keller's turn.
The Coyotes' 2016 first-round pick (No. 7 overall, two spots behind Tkachuk), who signed an entry-level contract on Sunday, will make his NHL debut tonight in a barn he grew up idolizing Blues players.
Keller, 18, a Swansea, Ill. native who just completed his freshman season at Boston University on Saturday, got into Boston at 4 a.m. Sunday, flew out at 6 a.m. and arrived in St. Louis for practice Sunday.
"It's really cool, the place I grew up watching games," said Keller, who called Keith Tkachuk, one of his AAA Blues coaches, as his favorite player growing up. "My dad, grandpa taking me to games when I was really young. It's really special to have the first one here. I'm looking forward to it."
Keller, who said he'll have family and close friends in attendance tonight, is the first cousin of Blues assistant equipment manager Chad O'Neil.
"He's been great," Keller said. "I can remember when I was real young and skating out there with him, things like that, and always fixing my equipment, always being there for me and my family, sharpening my brother's skates and mine. I can't thank him enough, so it's special to have him around."
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Goalie Jake Allen, who is 7-1-1 and allowed 12 goals in that stretch, will start in goal; he is 6-0-0 with 1.00 goals-against average and .962 save percentage with two shutouts in his career against the Coyotes.
Yeo said forward Dmitrij Jaskin (upper-body injury) is close to returning to active duty but will miss a seventh consecutive game.
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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 with injuries.
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The Coyotes' projected lineup:
Max Domi-Christian Dvorak-Radim Vrbata
Clayton Keller-Alexander Burmistrov-Christian Fischer
Brendan Perlini-Jordan Martinook-Tobias Rieder
Lawson Crouse-Josh Jooris-Jamie McGinn
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Connor Murphy
Alex Goligoski-Anthony DeAngelo
Jakob Chychrun-Luke Schenn
Mike Smith will start in goal; Louis Domingue will be the backup.
Zbynek Michalek, Teemu Pulkkinen, Peter Holland and Anthony Duclair are healthy scratches. Brad Richardson (broken leg), Kevin Connauton (upper body) and Shane Doan (lower body) are out with injuries.