By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues will welcome Jori Lehtera back to the lineup today when they play host to the Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. (FS-MW plus, KYKY 98.1-FM).
Lehtera, who will start on left wing playing on a line with Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford, has missed the past 12 games with concussion-like symptoms stemming from a collision March 10 against the Anaheim Ducks.
Lehtera collided with defenseman Kevin Bieksa and continued playing, then took a puck to the side of the face off a clearing attempt from teammate Joel Edmundson.
But after a handful of skating on his own, a multitude of bike riding, an optional skate on Monday and a morning skate on Tuesday, Lehtera deemed himself fit to play.
"Every time when you're not playing, it feels way longer than it is," Lehtera said. "Even though I haven't had a single full practice with the team, I think I'm ready. A couple short shifts at the start. It's a challenge for me after a long break. Just feel good about myself. That's my first goal today and we'll see those things after.
"At the start, a couple short shifts and play simple and get the game going after."
Blues coach Mike Yeo said it's important for Lehtera, who has six goals and 13 assists in 61 games, to get some action in before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin.
"Absolutely. This is a team that went to the Western Conference Final last year and he was a big part of that," Yeo said. "He's got the experience of playing in the playoffs, he's got a big body that can hang onto the puck, can make plays, can play on special teams. Certainly excited to get him in and see how quickly we can get him up to speed here.
"A veteran presence, puck strength and ability to make plays. The time since I've taken over, obviously he got shuffled down the lineup a little bit, the role changed a little bit, but I feel like he stepped his game up, too, at that time. Whether it was different matchups, whether it was different pressures, not being on a line with Vladi for long periods of time. He was playing good hockey for us before he got hurt. Anxious to see if he can come in and regain that."
Including tonight, the Blues (43-28-7) have four games remaining.
"That was my goal, that I would get a couple games before (the playoffs), so it's not too fast a game," Lehtera said. "I'm happy. Four games should be enough."
And it's up to Barbashev and Sanford to get the veteran acclimated at the outset.
"We're really excited that he's playing with us tonight," Barbashev said. "He's a helluva player and especially for the amount of games that he's been out for a couple weeks, we're going to try and help bring some energy or make some big hits, make some plays to get the boys going. I'm really exciting to have him here."
Despite the disappointing season numbers-wise, Lehtera's teammates feel he can be a vital addition come playoff time.
"Regardless of the numbers, there's so many other little things throughout a game that he does that maybe the normal observer doesn't see along with a lot of guys in this room," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "That's why he's appreciated by his peers so much. We're going to need him in all aspects of the game.
"It's good before the playoffs. It's an important time of the year. You want to make sure he's up to speed. You want to make sure everybody's up to speed because this is the time of year where you're going to need your depth. It's good to see him back."
With Lehtera back, Dmitrij Jaskin becomes a healthy scratch.
Lehtera was working with the top power play unit, moving Patrik Berglund back to the second group.
The Blues' power play hasn't been good lately, going 1-for-19 the past seven games, and that lone goal came on an empty-netter by David Perron on March 29 in Arizona.
"That unit, we've struggled," Yeo said. "We've struggled here lately and in part of our struggles, we've tried having 'Schwartzy' and different guys taking faceoffs so we haven't started with the puck a whole lot. Hopefully he can help us with the faceoffs and what it also does it gives us a chance to strengthen our second unit as well. I liked the way that second unit has look when 'Bergy's been working off the half wall there. I'm hoping that a change there will strengthen both units but just give us a bit of a different focus going into the game tonight."
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The Blues have a chance to clinch third place in the Central Division and a matchup against the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the playoffs.
With a win in any fashion tonight and a Nashville Predators regulation loss to the New York Islanders, the Blues will clinch.
The best Nashville can do in this scenario is tie the Blues in points with only two games remaining, but the Blues hold the tiebreaker edge based on 42 regulation/overtime wins (ROW's) to the Predators' 38.
So the question of rest comes into play here.
Do the Blues rest players playing key minutes before the grind of the playoffs, especially someome like Pietrangelo?
"We're taking the days in between games here to really take a break and kind of recharge the batteries," Pietrangelo said. "I think you can talk to most guys out there, we want to be playing the way we normally play. We're more worried about making sure we play the best we can here and part of that is everybody playing the way they would normally play in a game. It's on us to manage our energy away from the rink."
Yeo said it's something they have to consider.
"I think that we've stayed on top of it," Yeo said. "I would say watching the Colorado game, I was concerned that maybe the month had caught up to us. We've hardly had any practice time. We've really been focusing on the games and we've tried staying ahead of making sure that we don't empty the tank so to speak. I think we've done a nice job of that where I don't think we're at that point right now. I think that we can continue to focus on playing guys and continue to sharpen our game. Nothing's guaranteed right now. We want to try and finish as high as we can; that's our goal, so we'll keep playing."
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The Blues are 0-3-1 against the Jets (37-35-7) this season and want to avoid going winless against a hot team.
The Jets have won four in a row and seven of the past nine, and for a team that will miss the playoffs for a second straight season, it certainly isn't going out quietly.
"I look at them as a really good team," Yeo said of the Jets. "It's not too hard to figure out, whether it's on the back end with 'Big Buff' (Dustin Byfuglien) and (Jacob) Trouba and obviously up front for me, that's the biggest thing that you look at the skill that they have up there. There's not too many players that you look at on their team that you wouldn't like to have on your team. That's a compliment to them and what they got going on and they're playing really good hockey right now. Obviously I would say they're a little bit loose and they're playing obviously with nothing to lose and because of that, they're a real dangerous team."
The Jets won 3-2 in overtime here on Dec. 3 and 5-3 on Jan. 31, Ken Hitchcock's last game behind the bench before he was fired the next day.
"This team's brought out the best of us in the last number of years," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said of the Blues. "We haven't had the opportunity to close out some of those games against these guys, but every time we come to this building or they come to our building, we know what to expect; I think they know what to expect out of us. We have a great amount of respect for the players on their team and what they bring to the table. I think we always get out best effort and best game when we play these guys."
The Jets have won all four matchups this season with the St. Louis Blues, outscoring them 16-8.
"We want to win these last three games that we have," Jets rookie right wing Patrik Laine said. "We want to improve our game to every game and hopefully I can help my team with my specialties. I just want to win."
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Blues prospect Jordan Kyrou, a 2016 second-round draft pick, has been assigned to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
The 18-year-old Kyrou, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Blues last summer, played for the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League this season and had 30 goals and 94 points in 66 regular-season games and included a 30-game point streak.
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A report out of Russia has Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka and his Kontinental Hockey League team, Avangard Omsk, agreeing to mutually terminate the remainder of his contract, which was set to expire on April 30.
It was a three-year deal that reportedly paid up to $4 million, but in order for Sobotka to terminate his contract a month early, could mean some sort of return to the NHL and the Blues.
The last time general manager Doug Armstrong addressed the situation, he didn't have much to say on the matter other than he'd cross that bridge if Sobotka was in the continent, but until then, there was nothing to say on the matter.
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* Jake Allen, 9-1-2 his past 12 starts, has allowed 16 goals in those games; he will be opposed by the Jets' Michael Hutchinson.
* The Blues have points in nine straight (7-0-2) and 14 of the past 15 (12-1-2), outscoring the opposition 46-21.
* Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson is still not ready to return and will miss a third fourth straight game after skating again on Tuesday. Gunnarsson is dealing with a lower-body injury.
* Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo (upper body) did not skate Tuesday morning and will miss a second straight game.
* Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko has 14 points (nine goals, five assists) the past 14 games.
* Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz has eight points (four goals, four assists) the past seven games.
* Forward Nail Yakupov did not participate in the morning skate. Yeo said he was a little dinged up and kept him off the ice.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Alexander Steen-Vladimir Tarasenko
Magnus Paajarvi-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Jori Lehtera-Ivan Barbashev-Zach Sanford
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Petteri Lindbohm-Jordan Schmaltz
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Nail Yakupov and Dmitrij Jaskin. Paul Stastny (foot), Robby Fabbri (knee), Carl Gunnarsson (lower body), Robert Bortuzzo (upper body) are all out.
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The Jets' projected lineup:
Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Mathieu Perreault-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp-Adam Lowry-Joel Armia
Brandon Tanev-Nic Petan-Chris Thorburn
Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba
Julian Melchiori-Dustin Byfuglien
Mark Stuart-Nelson Nogier
Michael Hutchinson will start in goal; Connor Hellebuyck will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Marko Dano, Brian Strait and Jack Roslovic. Toby Enstrom (concussion), Tyler Myers (lower body), Ondrej Pavelec (lower body), Shawn Matthias (upper body), Paul Postma (lower body), Ben Chiarot (upper body) are all out.