By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Another day, another game, another chance to enhance controlling your own destiny when it comes to the Blues.
The Blues (43-30-6), who trail the Colorado Avalanche by one point for the second wild-card in the Western Conference, can move back into a playoff position with at the very minimum, a point tonight, but a win would be essentially greater when they host the rival Chicago Blackhawks (32-27-10), who are out of playoff contention for the first time in 10 seasons, at 7 p.m. (NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM).
The Blues have one game in hand on the Avalanche, who play Thursday at San Jose before hosting the Blues on Saturday to end the regular season. The Blues and Blackhawks play the second of their home-and-home set on Friday in Chicago.
"We've got to find points," said goalie Jake Allen, who will be making his 14th straight start. "Overtime point. Obviously a win is the goal, but points right now. It doesn't matter how, we just have to find a way to make some positive ground here.
"We've just got to be a little more opportunistic now. Every shift counts, every shot counts, every save counts. It's do or die really. We've still got a really good opportunity in front of us, to be honest. If you presented this chance for us over a month ago, we would have taken it, no question. So I think we're in a good spot. We've gotten ourselves in a chance to be a playoff team. It's going to be a tough three games, especially three in four, but we just have to go one step at a time and see where it goes."
And that's where the Blues have to take advantage of the opportunity presented. A win tonight, a Colorado loss Thursday in regulation and a victory Friday in Chicago -- best-case scenario -- and the Blues could clinch their seventh straight postseason berth.
But a lot has to go right for them between now and then. Winning hockey games solves a lot of those challenges.
"I hope you have some nerves. There's a lot at stake and when you want something that bad, I think we're all human, you can weigh the risks of what can and can't be here," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "But that's why you play the game, that's what's exciting about it, when you meet a challenge head on and you find a way to overcome that. Like I said yesterday, it's big-boy hockey right now. You've got to find a way to get geared up, to find a way to get prepared, to make sure when you're on the ice you want the puck in your hands, when you're on the ice you want to be the guy that makes the difference, whether it's defensively, offensively, whatever the case is. You have to face those challenges and you have to get excited about it and then you have to overcome them."
- - -
The Blues have two rookies in the lineup [Vince Dunn and Tage Thompson] that are gaining immeasurable experience playing in these pressure-packed type of games that could go a long way to determining how their respective futures in the NHL go.
Add in Oskar Sundqvist (68 NHL games) and Ivan Barbashev (80 NHL games) and the Blues are integrating a quartet of players into their lineup with the hopes of pushing them across the finish line in games that matter the most.
"It's awesome," Thompson said. "I don't feel that nervous, to be honest, but it's very exciting to be a part of it. I think everyone obviously dreams of winning the Stanley Cup and that playoff-style of hockey. That's the most fun. I've never played it before. This is the closest I've ever been to [NHL] playoff hockey. This is the NHL and it's a whole new level. The games are getting way more intense, crowds are getting loud and it's exciting to be a part of.
"I got more games this year (39 thus far) than I expected. I think that's a good thing. Obviously they have a lot of trust and faith in me. It's a good building block, it's a good first year for me just to learn and try to soak everything in and try to round out my game, especially heading down the playoff push. It's going to give me a leg up for next year coming in with a lot of confidence and just being a little more comfortable."
Dunn, who's played 72 games in his NHL career, is in the same boat.
"I think we all are (embracing the challenge) as a team," Dunn said. "We all know we had a tough stretch there where we weren't getting wins and we put ourselves in this position. There's no dreading on the past now. It's about looking for that next game, that next shift and that next period and making sure we can control what we can. The rest will take care of itself.
"We're worrying about our team right now, not what's happening to other teams. It's about us and looking after each other."
Sounds like a couple guys who are embracing the challenge, right coach?
"They do. I think they're real excited about this opportunity and I think they're going to give us a really good effort tonight," Yeo said. "No question, we're asking a lot of some of these young guys, but this is what you want. As an organization, to have young players like this, I really do believe we're speeding up their development by putting them in these pressure-packed games. You put them on the ice and every shift they know they can be the difference in not just your game but your season. That's a lot of pressure for young guys to handle, but under that pressure when they go out and learn how to deal with it and develop the mental toughness to go out and perform under those circumstances, then they grow a lot and that's what we're looking to do. We're looking to grow winners here and they have a chance to go out there and perform when the stakes are real high. That's a great things."
And as far as that long-term benefit?
"First off, these are guys that are one day going to take over the culture, they're going to take over the team, they're going to end up being the core down the road," Yeo said. "Obviously they're not there yet. You look at this young group of players, we have a culture here and a history. You look back at what we've been doing for several years as far as making the playoffs, being a competitive team, that's something that they're going to want to continue on. You look at the way our veteran players have played, our leaders have played the last several weeks here, it shows you how much it means to them, how bad they want it. For the young kids to see that, to see what they're putting into it, that's a good lesson for them and something they'll pass on one day as well."
- - -
Forward Nikita Soshnikov has been cleared to play but will not dress tonight; he's missed the past five games with an upper-body injury.
Defenseman Jordan Schmaltz, who was hopeful of facing younger brother Nick Schmaltz in a regular-season NHL game tonight for the first time, is not quite ready to return; he has an upper-body injury as well.
- - -
Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko has 21 points (13 goals, eight assists) in 21 games against the Blackhawks.
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) the past 12 games.
- - -
The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko
Patrik Berglund-Kyle Brodziak-Alexander Steen
Dmitrij Jaskin-Vladimir Sobotka-Tage Thompson
Ivan Barbashev-Oskar Sundqvist-Chris Thorburn
Joel Edmundson-Alex Pietrangelo
Vince Dunn-Colton Parayko
Chris Butler-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Nikita Soshnikov, Nolan Stevens and Mitch Reinke. Jordan Schmaltz (upper body) is not quite ready to play and is hopeful to be ready Friday. Scottie Upshall (lacerated kidney) is out indefinitely. Jay Bouwmeester (hip), Robby Fabbri (knee) and Carl Gunnarsson (knee) are out for the season.
- - -
The Blackhawks' projected lineup:
Brandon Saad-Nick Schmaltz-Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp-David Kampf-Vinnie Hinostroza
Tomas Jurco-Artem Anisimov-Andreas Martinsen
Dylan Sikura-Victor Ejdsell-Alex DeBrincat
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Erik Gustafsson-Connor Murphy
Blake Hillman-Jan Rutta
J-F Berube will start in goal; Jeff Glass will be the backup.
The healthy scratch is Jordan Oesterle. Jonathan Toews (upper body), Corey Crawford (upper body), Anthony Duclair (lower body), Anton Forsberg (lower body) and John Hayden (upper body) are all out.