Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blues to enter gauntlet of tough games

Six opponents, seven games with records of
182-100-45 face team leading into Olympic break

ST. LOUIS -- Much has been made about the Blues' upcoming games leading into the Winter Olympic Games. They've been touted as make-or-break games as far as the postseason is concerned.

But after coming off a demanding schedule where games were compressed into a small window if time but saw beatable opponents, the Blues are about to enter into the meat grinder. Finding their way through it will hold a myriad of challenges.

Seven games stand between the Blues (24-22-9) and Valentine's Day, the day the National Hockey League takes a two-week hiatus for the Olympics. There will be six opponents in that time frame (Chicago twice, San Jose, Colorado, Detroit, Toronto and Washington) that hold a combined 182-100-45. Take the Maple Leafs out of the equation and that record balloons to 165-72-34.

In San Jose and Washington, that's the top two teams in each conference along with the Blackhawks, who are second in the west.

So you think the Blues, with 57 points on the season and 13th in the Western Conference -- five points out of eighth place -- are about to run into adversity? They certainly won't shy away from the gauntlet presented before them.

"We got some of the best teams in the league coming in here, but we want to be one of the best teams in the league so we're going to have to play those guys and show that we can beat them on a regular basis," Blues forward David Backes said after Saturday's 3-2 overtime loss to Columbus, a team below the Blues in the West. "That's what we're going to have to do these last few games (before the Winter Olympics).

"... It's going to be a good test, seven or so games before the Olympic break. We'll see if it's make-or-break or if we're in the playoff hunt or if we're going to slide away. It's a test for the guys. We're going to take it head on and show what we've got here."

The Blues' last two games doesn't offer much hope against the formidable foes about to stand in their way. They faced the bottom two teams in the conference and came away with three of four points.

That may not sound all too bad, but considering they escaped with a win at lowly Edmonton and lost in overtime Saturday to the Blue Jackets, even allowing one point at this time of the season is tough to cough up.

"That's not giving the other teams enough credit," Blues goalie Chris Mason said, referring to the loss against Columbus. "We're below a lot of teams and we expect to beat teams ahead of us. We always play tough against Columbus and they play us hard. They've got a lot of talent over there. They're underachieving, but obviously it's a game you want to have like any other game."

The Blues were off on Sunday, and that may have been the best recipe in recent weeks this team has been given. After playing 11 games in 18 days, which included stops in western Canada and Ontario, the Blues used Sunday and will use the next two days before playing again to allow the body to replenish for the upcoming stretch, which will include seven games in 13 days that features three sets of back-to-back games.

"We've got a couple days here to kind of get away from everything," defenseman Mike Weaver said. "We've had a long couple weeks here. ... It's easy to want it (but) tough to earn it.

"The last couple weeks, we were home a combined three days. We were in Canada the rest of the time. Obviously, it's good to kind of step away from everything."

Chicago will be next on the ledger Wednesday in the Windy City. San Jose will follow here Thursday before the Blackhawks return Saturday to Scottrade Center.

Of the next six opponents, the Blues' record is 4-4-2. They have not faced the Leafs or Capitals. They're 0-2 against the Hawks, 1-1-1 against San Jose, 0-1 against the Avs and 3-0-1 against the Red Wings.

"You look at our record against a team like San Jose, who's lost 10 or 12 games this year, they're obviously tight games ... 1-1 or 2-2 (or) overtime like the last one," Backes said. "We seem to rise to their level, play them tight, play them hard and physical. Those are games we have to get two points out of and show that we can play with the best teams in the league, teams that are up for the Presidents' Trophy every year. We've got to make sure the Blues are back there ... they've had a good tradition of making the playoffs 25 years in a row. We need to get back to that and put a few more banners back in the stands here."

First thing's first: just work back into the postseason. A solid stretch of games here that garner two points consistently will go a long way in determining of the Blues will be there at the end this year.

"It'll be a big challenge for us, especially starting next week with the three teams we face in Chicago, San Jose and Chicago again," Mason said. "We've just got to be ready, be a little more disciplined and get our rest here the next few days. It's going to be tough."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blues gain point, fall in overtime to Blue Jackets

Russell nets game-winner after McDonald denied at other end

ST. LOUIS -- How often does it happen: a key save at one end of the ice in overtime turning into a game-winner at the other end?

That was the case against the Blues Saturday night in their encounter with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team they have owned here at Scottrade Center -- one they haven't lost to here since 2007.

But for the Blues, it was the wrong goalie making the save.

Mathieu Garon, who had thwarted the Blues for most of 60 minutes before Andy McDonald penetrated the Jackets goalie's barrier late, deflected the Blues away one more time. It led to an odd-man rush and resulted in the game-winner for his squad.

Kris Russell snapped a shot from the left circle 1:32 into overtime -- 13 seconds after Garon kicked out his left pad to rob McDonald -- to give the Blue Jackets a 3-2 win over the Blues Saturday night, a tough blow for a team looking to gain points against teams below them in the standings.

One point is nice, but the Blues (24-22-9) need two points, and with three games against Chicago (twice) and San Jose -- the Western Conference's best -- the Blues were certainly looking for more than four points against the West's worst (Edmonton and Columbus).

Russell and teammate Derick Brassard skated into the Blues zone 2-on-3, but somehow, Russell was able to weave untouched across the ice and fire a shot that Chris Mason got a piece of but found its way into the net.

Just seconds earlier, McDonald was looking to send the 19,150 -- or 20th sellout of the season -- home happy campers.

"It seems to be the way those overtimes end, a chance for one team that's not capitalized on and the other team ends up with an odd-man rush and a play down at the other end and they score," said forward David Backes, who got the Blues on the board with 1.9 seconds left in the first to tie the game 1-1. "It wasn't for a lack of effort. (McDonald's) made plays for us all year, scored the tying goal. It obviously shows the character to score with a couple minutes left and then have the few chances in overtime."

The Blues deserved a better fate in the first but came out of it tied 1-1, after Backes deflected T.J. Oshie's point shot through his legs and through Garon's five-hole.

But in the second period, the team that has played 11 games in 18 days didn't get the necessary push to overtime a team that had lost six of its previous nine games.

The Blues reverted back to some old habits of not forechecking and misreading a lot of plays. They were outshot 9-3 in the period and gave up the go-ahead goal on Fedor Tyutin's power play goal with 1:35 remaining and the Blues two men down.

"I liked our first period. I didn't think we created enough momentum in the second period," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "... (We had) some misreads on our forecheck. You've got to establish about 125 feet of ice to start your forecheck. Some of our routes allowed them out of the zone early. Some of them were decent plays by them, but I thought we could have sustained a little better offensive zone time with some better reads where the puck was going. We kind of pushed past some situations and some easy outs occurred.

"We ended up with the too many men on the ice penalty and the 5-on-3 goal, and all of the sudden, we're forced to backcheck the game a little bit. It took a little bit of time to kind of get our feet moving again after that goal."

The Blues thought they may have been victimized by another questionable call, this time by referee Dan O'Rourke, who whistled defenseman Roman Polak for a roughing penalty with the Blues already a man down and a scrum ensuing in front of Mason. The team wasn't going to fault the loss on the situation.

It appeared that Columbus' Raffi Torres got involved in front of the Blues' net with Oshie but went unpunished for his actions, and Polak was the lone player called out of the entire fray.

"We put ourselves in that one man down by taking the two-many-men," Mason said. "... It's kind of questionable when you know there's a big scrum like that and they take one guy."

Payne said, "I've thoughts on it, but we've got to make sure that we understand that these things ... eventually you feel one go your way. Again, it's not something we're going to hang an outcome on."

The third period saw the Blues revert to the things that were good for them throughout much of the first period, and it was a late penalty kill that really got the ball rolling for McDonald to eventually get the equalizer.

With Rick Nash off for interference -- for firing a stray glove at the Blues' Keith Tkachuk, who had possession of the puck -- McDonald took Erik Johnson's feed and fired a shot from the right circle off Garon's glove for his team-leading 17th goal of the season.

The Blues nearly won it in the waning seconds of regulation with a couple chances after winning a faceoff in the Columbus zone.

"We had quite a few chances," Payne said. "We had to grind out way in the third to get one to go and also had one there in the last few seconds (of regulation) after we won the faceoff. We had a chance right on the doorstep there."

And then came the most glorious chance of all, when Paul Kariya sent McDonald streaking in along the left side. McDonald cut in the front of the net and slid a backhand that Garon kept out of the goal. Seconds later, the Blues were walking off with a loss.

"Andy had a great opportunity going in," Payne said. "A save at one end and unfortunately, the one goes in (for Columbus). But we had a pretty good push in the third period. This team has played a lot of hockey.

"Even with some of the possessions we had in the third period took some time to get to the offensive zone, but we stuck with it. We got the power play and were able to connect on that one. We're certainly happy to get the push at the back end of a busy week, but we got the one and needed the two."

Mason said the shot handcuffed him a bit.

"He cut across and was trying to go back over my shoulder and he just went off the heel of my stick and kind of handcuffed me a little bit," Mason said. "It hit the bottom of my arm and went in."
"It was kind of weird. We had a good chance down there and they came back down to our end. He cut across and got a shot there."

The Blues felt like the play never should have developed in the first place.

"We've just got to have that, we've got to play that better. It's unfortunate," said defenseman Mike Weaver, who along with partner Darryl Sydor were on the ice. "I saw the guy come down the wing, he passed it off, he drove by Sydor. Obviously, he was going to the net, so I kind of backed off. The guy kind of came across there. I don't know if Paul had a chance to get the puck or not. After that, everybody was kind of scrambling.

"We can't give up those opportunities. We've got to be better next time. We've got a couple days to kind of get away from everything. We've had a long couple weeks here. We've got to think about it for an hour and forget about it. It's easy to want it, tough to earn it."

* NOTES -- Left winger Alex Steen (lower-body) did not play the third period. Payne said he will be evaluated today. ... Center Keith Tkachuk became the fourth player in league history to record 2,200 penalty minutes and 1,000 points when he was whistled for high-sticking in the second period. ... Defenseman Erik Johnson (upper-body) returned to the lineup after missing one game. Johnson jammed his thumb during a fight with Vancouver's Rick Rypien Wednesday and did not play Thursday in Edmonton after taking the pre-game warm-up. ... Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who has not played since a lower-body injury Jan. 21 at Ottawa, skated Saturday morning and deemed himself ready to play but was not in the lineup. ... The Blues recalled forward D.J. King (broken hand) from a conditioning stint in Peoria but he and fellow enforcer Cam Janssen were healthy scratches.

(1-30-10) Blue Jackets-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- As much as the Blues have altered their forward pairings for much of this season, there have also been some juggling with the defensive pairings as well.

But one constant has been the pairing of Barret Jackman and Roman Polak.

Both have been mainstays and a steadying force on the Blues' blue line for much of the past two seasons -- aside from injury.

Jackman leads the team in ice time per game at 22:55, while Polak is fourth at 20:07.

"It keeps you sharp," Jackman said. "Every game when you're playing against some of the best players on the other team, it really makes you play your best. If you're not on top of your game, you're going to cost your team. We definitely enjoy that caliber of hockey.

"Whenever you're called upon, you go out there and try and do your job. The more you play, the less you think and allow your hockey instincts to kick in."

The duo's hockey instincts have had to kick in a lot, as they go up against the game's best each and every game, including tonight when the Blues (24-22-8) entertain the Columbus Blue Jackets (21-26-9).

And when the two teams hit the ice, you can bet Jackman and Polak will see a lot of Rick Nash and the Jackets' top line for much of the game.

"They relish that role," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "It's two guys that work off each other extremely well. They're big, strong guys that aren't going to play a heavy hand in our transition game but certainly make some corner work and make some defensive zone situations difficult for our opponent. You have to have those guys. They log a ton of minutes against key people and we value that job very highly in our room."

Playing together has really allowed this twosome to shine and elevate their respective games. Both allow one another to play off their strengths.

"You get to know the tendencies of guys in different situations and what plays your partner is going to make," Jackman said. "It definitely makes it nice to be able to play consistently with him."

* * *

The Blues are coming off a 2-1 western Canada swing after Thursday's 2-1 win at Edmonton, giving the team an astounding 5-1 road mark against Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton on the road. Those venues have been very difficult for the Blues in seasons past.

"We've got to get right back on track," said Payne, whose team is 7-3-1 in their last 11 games. "I didn't feel we had a great deal of energy in Edmonton, but we got the job done."

There is only one lineup change as far as tonight's game is concerned. Defenseman Erik Johnson will be back in the lineup after sitting out the Edmonton game with a bit of a jammed thumb following Wednesday's scrum in which Johnson got mixed up with the Canucks' Rick Rypien.

The forward lines at today's morning skate featured the following pairings:

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Andy McDonald-Keith Tkachuk-Brad Boyes

Alex Steen-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Brad Winchester-Jay McClement-B.J. Crombeen

D.J. King (broken hand), who was called up from Peoria this morning following a two-week conditioning stint, was also on the ice but will not play. Cam Janssen is a healthy scratch.

The defensive pairings will also remain the same as Thursday:

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Darryl Sydor-Mike Weaver

Carlo Colaiacovo (upper-body), who has not played since injuring himself Jan. 21 at Ottawa, was on the ice this morning and deemed himself ready to go, but Payne is sticking with what he feels like has been a steady unit that got the team four of six points in Canada. Payne said Colaiacovo is available, and the Blues' defenseman displayed the body language of a frustrated player who feels like he is ready to get back in following today's skate.

"We anticipate that he's available," Payne said. "It's just a situation where we like what we have coming out of this road trip. And EJ going back in kind of changes the dynamic of the group back there as far as power play situations go. Carlo is going to get plenty of opportunity to get back in there."

Chris Mason makes the start in goal.

Mason, who is 16-15-7 on the season with a solid 2.50 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage on the season, said this morning that there's no secret to he and backup Ty Conklin (8-7-1, 2.61 GAA, .921 save percentage) staying sharp and keeping each other focused.

"We're both older, so we know the routine, but the healthy competition in practice is what helps prepare us very well," Mason said. "There's no secret formula. When you feel good, you just want to play and play well.

"I think we're both feeling good in there and both playing well. Especially this time of year when we need the wins, I think that's definitely an important part of getting points."

- - -

The Blue Jackets, who are 2-1 against the Blues this season -- each team has won at home -- come in with only three wins on their last nine games. They have also been hit with the flu bug as well, as forward Kristian Huselius and defenseman Anton Stralman will not play tonight because of flu ailments.

This will mark the third meeting between the two teams in the last 19 days, with Columbus winning 4-2 on Jan. 18.

"With Columbus, there's some unique skill on that front line with Nash and Huselius and (R.J.) Umberger," Payne said. "The (Raffi) Torres group burnt us the last time we were in their building, so a lot of vertical speed we've got to deal with and we've got to make sure we handle our game from inside our own zone first and make sure we apply some good pressure in their end."

So with Huselius out, Umberger will move up to the top line as the Jackets will go with the following lineup:

R.J. Umberger-Antoine Vermette-Rick Nash

Raffi Torres-Derick Brassard-Jakub Voracek

Fredrik Modin-Samuel Pahlsson-Chris Clark

Derek Dorsett-Andrew Murray-Jared Boll

The defensive pairings will feature:

Jan Hejda-Mike Commodore

Kris Russell-Marc Methot

Fedor Tyutin-Mathieu Roy

Mathieu Garon gets the nod in goal for the Jackets. It will be Garon's first action in five games, as Steve Mason started the last four games.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Giving up third period leads a trend that's haunting Blues

Team looking for repeat performance through Western Canada

For a team that is desperately searching for each and every possible point it can get, it would be well-advised for the Blues not to look back.

Why? Because there are too many what-ifs they can dwell on, and in such instances, it's better that the Blues forget what they failed to acquire.

Saturday's 4-3 shootout loss at home to Anaheim was disheartening enough for the Blues, who begin a three-game Western Canadian swing when they face Calgary today at 8:30 p.m., but a disturbing sequence that has occurred all-too-often this season came to light once again.

After relinquishing a lead once again in the final minute of a game when Bobby Ryan capped a three-goal comeback on a goal with 30 seconds left, it marked the fifth time this season the Blues have surrendered a game-tying goal in the final minute. Fortunately, they are 3-0-2 in those games.

But counting four other games in which the Blues have either allowed the game-tying or go-ahead goal in the game's final four minutes, that gives them a mark of 3-4-2 in those games.

Nine of their 51 games played, points were there to be had which translates to 18 in total.

The Blues (22-21-8, 52 points), who are chasing eighth-place Calgary (26-19-6, 58 points) tonight, would love have of those 18 points. It would put them in a tie for sixth place in the Western Conference.

But they are playing catch-up once again, and third-period deficiencies throughout the season have been a big reason why. The Blues have eight losses this season when leading after two periods (15-2-6), which is the worst in the NHL.

"It's just mistakes. It's the distinctive composure that's not there at times in the third and I think it's kind of that here-we-go-again mentality sometimes," goalie Chris Mason said. "You can't have that and win. Teams are too good."

The loss Saturday marked the third time this season the Blues led a game 3-0 and lost. Twice, those games were 3-1 leads after two periods. Saturday, it was 2-0 going into the third, but the Blues got it to 3-0, and the wheels for whatever reason came spinning off.

"It's more mental for us right now," veteran Keith Tkachuk said. "There's no excuses. (Blues coach) Davis (Payne) has a good system here ... pressure hockey. But I could tell in the third (Saturday) we were just sitting back way too much.

"We're giving a lot of late goals lately. It's happened to us quite a few times this year. It can't happen. With the type of people we have on the ice, you've got to get the job done. We really blew that one tonight."

Let's look at the season's culprits, the ones that almost got away and the ones that did:

* Saturday: led 3-0 against Anaheim, allowed tying goal with 30 seconds remaining, lost 4-3 in a shootout

* Wednesday: led at Montreal 3-1 going into third period, allowed tying goal with 33 seconds remaining, won 4-3 in overtime

* Jan. 7: led at Anaheim 2-1 in third period, allowed go-ahead goal with 2:40 to play, lost 4-2

* Dec. 31: led Vancouver 3-0 in second period, 3-1 after two, allowed tying goal with 1:56 remaining, lost 4-3 in overtime

* Dec. 5: led at Los Angeles in third, allowed tying goal with 34 seconds remaining, won 5-4 in a shootout

* Nov. 28: led Detroit 2-0 in second, was leading 3-2 then allowed tying goal with 57 seconds remaining, lost 4-3 in a shootout

* Nov. 25: led at Dallas 3-2 late before allowing tying goal with 26 seconds remaining, won 4-3 in a shootout

* Nov. 12: was tied with Nashville 1-1, allowed go-ahead goal with 3:43 remaining, lost 3-1

* Nov. 8: led at Atlanta 2-0 in third, allowed tying goal with 3:31 remaining, lost 3-2 in a shootout.

As hard as it is, and as much as they'd like to put these demons behind them, the Blues must be asking themselves, "Why does this happen?"

Easy, according to young forward T.J. Oshie.

"Sometimes, we get a little too comfortable with our leads," he said. "We just need to keep going at teams. If we get one, we want two. If we get three, we want five. It's got to be our mentality."

"I don't know how many games we've given away leads in the third period," forward Andy McDonald said. "It's scary how many points we've given up. We'd certainly be in a different position here and probably a lot closer to a playoff spot if we could close out third periods, play strong and play like we've been in that position before."

Much of the early results were under then-coach Andy Murray, but Saturday's demoralizing loss was a reminder that this is a slow process, and one Payne must rectify in a short period of time.

"It's not a 10-step process, it's not a 12-step process," Payne said. "This is a daily thing that's got to get ingrained in these guys. ... These are things that obviously you don't want to have to go through, but we're here. We're in the present and we've got to make sure this is fixed by the time we get to Calgary."

The Blues are 5-4-2 since Payne took over on Jan. 2, and they are only six points in back of a playoff spot, but there are only 31 games remaining on the schedule and teams in the west will be playing each other, so a repeat performance through Western Canada would be wise for them. The Blues were 3-0-0 the last time they made the swing.

"We've taken some steps the last half dozen games," McDonald said. "I think there's been some positive steps in the positive direction, but for whatever reason we seem to revert back to falling apart in the third period.

"It's tough to handle. Guys are beating themselves up a lot. Hopefully, we can get past it. We had a good road trip out west and hopefully we can do that again."

* NOTES -- The Blues recalled defenseman Tyson Strachan from it's AHL affiliate in Peoria because defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (lower-body) was placed in injured reserve. Colaiacovo was injured during Thursday's 3-2 loss in Ottawa. ... Forward David Backes (upper-body) skated on his own Sunday but did not practice. Both he and Colaiacovo made the trip with the team, and Backes could be back in the lineup tonight.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Not again! Blues blow another big lead at home

Third time this season at Scottrade team blows
3-0 lead, fall to Ducks 4-3 in shootout

ST. LOUIS -- Where have the Blues and their fans seen this before: a three-goal lead at home seems to be an automatic win, right?

Unfortunately, this is the Blues, where no leads -- three goals or not -- are not automatic.

And in the end, instead of celebrating a solid win and earning two points in the standings, the Blues are scratching their heads wondering what just transpired.

For the third time on home ice, the Blues blew a 3-0 lead -- twice in the third period.

Bobby Ryan capped off a remarkable comeback for the Anaheim Ducks with his second goal of the game with 30 seconds remaining to tie it, and James Wisniewski, who had never attempted a shootout in his career, ended it with a shootout goal in the seventh round as the Ducks earned an improbable 4-3 win over the stunned Blues and their 19,150 fans Saturday at Scottrade Center.

The Blues also lost home games on Dec. 12 against Edmonton (5-3) and on Dec. 31 against Vancouver (4-3 in overtime) in which they blew 3-0 leads.

The Blues (22-21-8), who forged ahead with two second-period goals by Andy McDonald and B.J. Crombeen, thought they had put the Ducks (24-21-7) away when T.J. Oshie scored 3 minutes, 35 seconds into the final period.

But the hard-charging Ducks took it to the Blues as if they were dealing with a wounded unit out there. They pounced and pounced and pounced. And the Blues continued to regress in their own end as if they were hiding in a bunker.

Scott Niedermayer began the comeback, and Ryan completed it with a rebound goal of a Ryan Getzlaf bomb just outside the left circle that nearly split goalie Chris Mason's helmet in half.

It was another contest in which the Blues frittered away precious points in the standings, and instead of being tied with the Ducks in points, the Blues now trail Anaheim by three points and a host of other teams by more.

"When you don't play your game, you can't expect results," said Blues coach Davis Payne, who witnessed his first 3-0 lead gone bad as the other two were under Andy Murray. "We didn't play our game in the third period.

"It's up to that group of five going over the boards to make sure we're playing our game, shift after shift. We didn't have enough of that consistently from the time we had the 3-0 lead on. It started to kind of creep in there in the second period as well. ... We can't sit here and talk about lessons. We've got to play our game in the third periods. It's a 3-0 lead with 15 minutes to go. That's 15 minutes of work."

Mason, who was bombarded with shot after shot in the third as Anaheim blitzed the Blues 17-3 in the shot department, was a helpless bystander as his teammates failed to lend the proper support in front of him.

"It's a terrible third period," Mason said. "We score that goal and we're up 3-0. I don't know if we think the game's over, but we got caught there without the third guy against the Getzlaf-(Corey) Perry unit and they scored a goal and got back in the game and had momentum the rest of the game on."

Oshie, who scored on a picture-perfect backhand that gave the Blues a three-goal lead, thought he had given the Blues a three-goal lead again with 11:05 remaining, but his shot from close-in range was blocked by defenseman Steve Eminger. The Ducks stayed within two goals, continued to peck away and eventually evened things before getting the shootout winner.

"Whoever blocked it, it was a great save," Oshie said. "I replayed that one about five times in my head since the game ended. Maybe I wanted to hold onto it and just put it upstairs and I could see (Alex Steen) on my backside, maybe throw it to him for an empty net. Things go through your head like that after a loss over and over again. If I could have it back, obviously I'd change it. At that moment, I was just trying to get it in."

Niedermayer scored off a 3-on-1 rush after Barret Jackman fell down in the neutral zone 5:13 into the period, then after a McDonald turnover, Ryan snapped a one-timer in with eight minutes to play and suddenly, things became quite uneasy in the building.

"We were flat. It seemed like we weren't attacking," McDonald said. "They just took it to us. It seemed like we were reacting to what they were doing instead of initiating. You can't do that. You've got to keep your foot on the gas and keep playing like we did in the first two periods.

"Our thirds ... it's just the same story. We've had it how many times this year. We've gone into a third period with the lead and we can't find a way to keep it going. ... It just seems like we're waiting for them to score, to take it to us instead of initiating."

Breakdowns tend to wind up in the Blues' net, and again, they did Saturday.

"We made a positional mistake on their first goal," Payne said. "We either got caught out there too long or in too deep. Niedermayer beats us up the ice and Jax got caught in a moment of indecision there on the puck and the next thing you know, you've got a 3-on-1 coming at you.

"From that (first goal) there, we didn't skate, we didn't play our game. Not just talking about getting into the offensive zone, it was about applying pressure and getting good, consistent returns and sticks in areas that doesn't allow them to come through the neutral zone clean. We didn't finish some of our jobs in the defensive zone. Consequently, they get extra time, they get extra possession, they get extra pressure.

"We have a breakdown on their second goal. Bobby Ryan's a guy we should be aware of standing between our circles. He finishes that one. And just some pressure back to your net in the defensive zone on the tying goal."

The Blues seemed to be getting their game together under Payne. They even went through a stretch of home games last week in which they outscored opponents 5-0 in third periods that resulted in a season-high four-game winning streak.

"I think we're so successful tonight in the first 40 minutes because we're always in their face, we always got the puck deep, we forechecked, we were moving our feet," forward Keith Tkachuk said. "For whatever reason after you get up 3-0, you know they're going to come hard. It's natural for a team when they're down and they're getting grief from their coach.

"For whatever reason, we're back on our heels and that can't happen. It's just unfortunate because we kissed that game goodbye. You've got to keep going after them and we didn't do that."

The game was tied 2-2 after the best-of-3 shootout, with Oshie and Brad Boyes getting goals for the Blues, while the Ducks countered with Perry and Getzlaf.

Both teams went scoreless the next three rounds before Jonas Hiller made a save in the seventh round on Paul Kariya, who came in 12-for-25 in his career in shootouts. That's when Wisniewski, a defenseman, stepped to the dish and he made good on his first career attempt.

"My gloves get real sticky when they start getting wet so they don’t slide on my stick," said Wisniewski, a former Chicago Blackhawk. "Right before the shootout, I told Sluggo (Ducks equipment manager Doug Shearer) baby powder because baby powder makes the gloves slide. He looked at me like 'C'mon. Let's get real here.' So like the fifth or sixth round comes and I'm like, 'Give me the baby powder. You never know.' He gave me the baby powder. I put it on. (Ducks coach) Randy (Carlyle's) like, 'Wiz, you're up.' I went in there and pulled one out of my treasure chest and it went in."

It went in and out went the air from the building's seams.

"I'd obviously like to stop the last one there, all of them for that matter," Mason said. "It should have never got to that point. It's too bad. I thought we gave away two points to Anaheim tonight."

* NOTES -- The Blues played without forward David Backes (upper-body) and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (lower-body). Payne said both were day-to-day.

Defenseman Darryl Sydor played in his third straight game after being a healthy scratch in six straight and 11 of 13 games.

"It's not the first time I've had to do this, so mentally I'm there," Sydor said. "I understand what kind of work you have to do off the ice, how you have to take care of yourself. I find that you get in better shape when you don't play. You're doing the extra skates and you come into the game and it doesn’t feel too bad. Obviously there are some nerves, you want to do well. It takes a few shifts, but you keep them short and you move forward."

(1-23-10) Ducks-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues drafted Timothy Oshie Jr. in the first round of the 2005 entry draft, the University of North Dakota product came out with all the credentials as a center iceman.

But if you only count a handful of games since turning professional, T.J. Oshie has spent most of his pro hockey career flanked on right wing.

But because of an injury to David Backes, Oshie will take a turn at his natural position when the Blues (22-21-7) entertain the Anaheim Ducks (23-21-7) today at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

Oshie will center the Blues' top unit tonight, flanked by Paul Kariya and Brad Boyes on the wings and is obviously looking forward to it.

"It's been a while," Oshie said. "I haven't played there on a regular basis since the first couple games of my rookie season and obviously in college. But I played all the way up, so I'm comfortable with it."

Oshie was the center with the Fighting Sioux for most of his college career, aside from the season he played right wing on Jonathan Toews' line, and his freshman season when he was on right wing of Travis Zajac's line.

But having Oshie's versatility makes it easy for Blues coach Davis Payne to insert him there.

"Osh's ability to play all three forward positions is certainly something we want to take advantage of," Payne said. "We hope that the spark and the jump that they showed in the third period (Thursday) starts back here tonight."

The trio played together four shifts in Thursday's 3-2 loss to Ottawa and played well together. So they will get the opportunity again.

"Obviously a lot of offense from what they've done in the past," Oshie said when asked about his linemates. "I'm looking forward to being more of the grinder on that line ... and create turnovers."

Oshie said it will be an adjustment, since the responsibilities as a center are different than a winger.

"I'm on the puck a lot more in the defensive zone," Oshie said. "I definitely like that. I like my responsibilities, so just go with it.

"There is a lot more responsibility in the defensive zone. You get a lot more tired in that area when you're battling at both ends of the rink instead of for the most part just in the offensive zone. Watching my shift length obviously is very important, especially early."

The forward lines at the today's morning skate featured:

Paul Kariya-T.J. Oshie-Brad Boyes

Andy McDonald-Keith Tkachuk-David Perron

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-B.J. Crombeen

Brad Winchester-Patrik Berglund-Cam Janssen

Payne said Backes (upper-body) and defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo (lower-body) are listed as day-to-day and will be unavailable tonight.

Backes was injured in Monday's loss at Columbus but there is some wear and tear there as well. Colaiacovo injured himself Thursday at Ottawa.

The defensive pairings will pit together:

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Darryl Sydor-Mike Weaver

Sydor, who will make his third straight appearance after sitting out 11 of the previous 13 games, has been a makeshift assistant coach both on the ice and in the press box when not playing. It's something Payne has certainly appreciated.

"I think you look at his approach to everything he does day-to-day is truly professional," Payne said. "He understands where he is and what he brings to this hockey team. If it's in the lineup, he's ready. If it's not, he's ready too and ready to offer support, ready to offer words to the guys that are playing and certainly to us (coaches) if he's seeing anything from a preparation standpoint."

Chris Mason, who has dropped his last two starts after a stretch where he went 4-1-1, will be in goal once again.

- - -

The Ducks, who come in two points ahead of the Blues in the Western Conference race, have really shot up the standings despite a recent rash of injuries to veteran players.

"Both teams are fighting to get back into that conference spot as far as the top eight," Payne said. "It's a very important hockey game."

Since they were a season-worst four games under .500 at 7-11-3, Anaheim has since gone 16-10-4 in their last 30 games, including 7-2-0 in their last nine despite missing Teemu Selanne (broken jaw) and Saku Koivu (sprained knee).

Dan Wood, radio color commentator for the Ducks, told me this morning the team has played with a physical edge in recent weeks and that they've been getting solid production from some younger players that may have caught them by surprise.

Among them, Wood mentioned the play of winger Dan Sexton, who has eight goals and eight assists in 24 games after spending last season at Bowling Green University and only playing in a handful of games in the minors.

With Selanne and Koivu both out tonight, the forward lines should shake out like this:

Matt Beleskey-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry

Bobby Ryan-Petteri Nokelainen-Dan Sexton

Todd Marchant-Kyle Chipchura-Troy Bodie

Evgeny Artyukhin-Ryan Carter-Mike Brown/George Parros

The defensive pairings should feature:

Scott Niedermayer-James Wisniewski

Ryan Whitney-Steve Eminger

Sheldon Brookbank-Nick Boynton/Brett Festerling

Jonas Hiller will start in goal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Blues getting the job done in third period

Outscoring opponents 5-0 in previous three final periods,
Blues ride season-best winning streak into Columbus

ST. LOUIS -- Before the Blues came home for a three-game homestand this past week, they had been somewhat of a third period enigma.

Despite holding into a lead prior to coming home in Los Angeles on Jan. 9th against the Kings, the Blues nearly squandered a three-goal lead before holding on for a 4-3 win. Two days earlier, they were tied 1-1 heading into the third at Anaheim but lost 4-2. They lost a 1-0 lead at San Jose on Jan. 6 before falling 2-1 in overtime, and on New Year's Eve, it was a 3-0 game -- 301 after two periods -- that saw the Blues fall 4-3 in overtime at home against Vancouver. It turned out to be the final game of Andy Murray's coaching reign with the Blues.

The Blues had given up 51 goals in third periods this season going into their game Tuesday against Columbus, who the Blues play tonight at Nationwide Arena. Eleven games that were tied or the Blues had leads, they had lost through 44 games.

But in the last three for St. Louis (21-19-7), they won them all and outscored their opponents 5-0 in those games, including 3-0 Saturday in a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers. They were scoreless in the game Thursday against Minnesota and won 1-0 on a T.J. Oshie goal.

So what has been the difference?

Obviously, the defensive structure has been polished up, and Chris Mason (4-1-1 with a 1.37 goals-against average) is making stops.

"I think we've just been sticking with the game that we start with," said left winger Alex Steen, who has eight goals in the last nine home games and 10 points in the last 10 games overall (seven goals). "We come out flying, we've got good energy, we're physical. The puck retrievals have gotten a lot better. We're getting in, we're getting support and really keeping them and grinding them down low.

"Towards the end of the game, their six defensemen are tired of us just keeping with it and doing it all night. As of late, I thought we've come out with a lot more energy in the third period than we did in the past. Obviously, a big part of that is Mase in the net has been great for us making the saves when we need him to."

The Blues are riding a season-best four-game winning streak as they open a three-game trip against the Blue Jackets today (6 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM) and have outscored their opponents 7-2 in those four third periods.

"It's just a constant reminder about what it is we're trying to well," coach Davis Payne said when asked if there is anything different the team is now doing. "It's just reemphasizing when we're coming out of the locker room about how we need to be playing. ... It's just reemphasizing we've got to get our game back directed, we've got to get back being predictable to ourselves and trust that. That's going to get us the opportunity to create a lead and then finish it off."

In the last two games, the Blues were tied 0-0 against Minnesota and 1-1 against the Rangers. In both games, they've gotten a goal in the first minute of the third period.

Oshie scored 26 seconds into Thursday's win, and Roman Polak netted the game-winner 45 seconds into the third period Saturday night.

"We'll take those every time we come out tied into a period," Payne said.

And now when the Blues are getting the lead, they do all things necessary to protect those leads, not squander them.

Mason is a big reason, as he has stopped all 30 shots in the previous three third periods after allowing 10 of 15 goals in third periods of the Blues recent seven-game losing stretch.

"Even when we've gotten into trouble, we limit it by good positioning and we cover for each other," said Mason, whose given up 10 goals in the last six games. "I think before, when we'd give up goals in the third period or lose in the third, we get running around and it would be chaos, but now we're controlling that."

They're also controlling their wins and losses and adding up the points.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Polak, Steen fuel Blues' fourth straight win

Each net goal, assist to help St. Louis down struggling
Rangers 4-1; Mason collects 100th career win

ST. LOUIS -- Scottrade Center used to be a House of Horrors for the Blues this season. It didn't take long for it to turn into the House of Payne.

For the third time in as many games at Scottrade Center, the Blues' play in the final 20 minutes was the difference, as they outscored the struggling New York Rangers by three and breaking a tie in a 4-1 win over the Blueshirts before 19,150, the 19th sellout of the season.

Roman Polak and Alex Steen each scored a goal and added an assist, Keith Tkachuk added a pair of assists and Chris Mason earned his 100th career victory with 21 saves.

The win for the Blues (21-19-7) was their season-best fourth in a row, as they've outscored the opposition 5-0 in blanking their opponents in the third period for the third time in a row.

"We got back to St. Louis Blues hockey in the third," said Blues coach Davis Payne, who is 4-2-1. "... We're just sticking with the plan. We're not there to change our game in the third period. There would be some times when you have to if you're chasing the lead, but when you've got one, it's about keeping your feet moving, it's about moving in sync."

David Perron scored a power play goal and David Backes added am empty-netter as the Blues sent the reeling Rangers (22-19-7) to their fourth loss in five games (1-2-2) despite New York snapping a goal-less drought at 172 minutes.

"I certainly liked the result," Payne said. "We played a pretty solid first period, came off the gas a little bit in the second ... came out with a big win."

With a tie game in the third, the Blues got a goal to break a tie within the first minute of play, as Polak's shot from the right point deflected off Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and past rookie Chad Johnson 45 seconds in to give the Blues a 2-1 lead. T.J. Oshie scored 26 seconds into the third period in Thursday's 1-0 win over Minnesota.

"I wasn't too happy about the shot, but somebody deflected it," Polak said. "I think it was their defenseman, but that is why I was mad because I thought I missed the shot and it was in the net."
Steen, who scored his eighth goal in the last nine home games and his seventh in 10 games overall, scored the goal of the night as he raced around the right edge, beating defenseman Michael Del Zotto around the goal and backhanding a shot off the back of a surprised Johnson 8 minutes, 31 seconds in to give the Blues a 3-1 lead.

"To be honest, I was going a little higher than what happened," Steen said of the shot. "I got kind of lucky, but it bounced off (Johnson's) back and went in. As I came around, I knew he was late coming over."

Perron gave the Blues a 1-0 lead, one-timing a shot home off a feed from Tkachuk, who won the faceoff in the Rangers zone that kept the puck in play.

The Rangers could only get one puck past Mason, a backhand from Brian Boyle after a turnover by Eric Brewer behind the Blues' goal 7:37 into the second period, but the Blues' netminder was able to make a key save on Marian Gaborik with 16:16 to play.

"The last month, we talked about getting extra saves," said Mason, who is 4-1-1 in his last six starts and lowered his goals-against average to 1.65. "I wasn't doing it the last month. Games are so close, and every game we seem to play is a tight game. Those saves make a difference and it was nice to be able to make them and keep the guys in."

Mason was modest about career win No. 100.

"I don't really take in personal milestones," Mason said, "especially when you're playing a team sport and we're in the position we're in right now. Maybe I'll look back and it'll be a little more special, but just winning games as a team is the biggest thing for me."

* NOTES -- The Rangers are one of two franchises the Blues have never shut out in their history, now spanning 127 games. Ottawa is the other. ... New York's last regulation loss on the road came on Nov. 28 when it lost to Pittsburgh 8-3. ... Blues RW T.J. Oshie skated in his 100th game. ... Steen has 10 points in 10 games. ... Cardinals ace pitcher Chris Carpenter was in attendance.

(1-16-10) Rangers-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- Not only is there a sense of deja vu for the Blues, who went on a tear last season to make the postseason and appear to be geared for another run this year, but leading the way is a hot goaltender.

Chris Mason, who will make his sixth consecutive start tonight when the Blues host the New York Rangers in the finale of a three-game homestand.

Mason, who is 14-13-6 overall with a 2.52 goals-against average on the season with a .911 save percentage, is red-hot in his last five starts, going 3-1-1 with a 1.81 GAA and .937 save percentage.

He's coming off a 1-0 shutout of the Minnesota Wild Thursday, his first shutout of the season and 19th of his career.

Mason said this morning that there was a stretch there that he wasn't feeling well both physically and mentally. There was no rhyme nor reason to it. But he's found a groove and it's revived him in both areas, just in time as well.

"I just feel better. I have a lot more energy," Mason said. "I didn't have a lot of energy, I wasn't sleeping well, I wasn't playing up to the way you feel you're capable of playing. I just feel better and the guys are playing better too. That helps."

I asked Mason if there is something he needed to touch up on as far as his physical game is concerned.

"For us, it's just being sharp and seeing the puck," Mason said. "Sometimes when you're not playing as good, you struggle to find it and you're a split second behind. Your and your anticipation isn't quite as good. The guys with the structure they're playing, it makes it a lot easier. We're playing more predictable, so it's more predictable for me to know what's going to happen."

It was Mason that fueled the Blues' 25-9-7 run a year ago, and Mason played in 38 of the 41 games. As he went, the team went, and more of the same is what his teammates are looking forward to.

"He's been like that all year," defenseman Erik Johnson said. "When you have that confidence in your goalie, it makes a huge difference. We know every night he's going to be on his game. It's up to us to be on ours as well."

Blues coach Davis Payne isn't one to jump on any superstitious notions but is more than happy to give the workload to his No. 1 guy.

"He's shown the ability not only to perform but carry that workload as well," Payne said. "We know that Ty (Conklin) is more than capable as well and itching to play, but everyone is in support of what Chris is doing.

"You see a guy who's reading the play very well, he's aggressive in the right areas and you see a lot of thinks defused in front of him as far as loose pucks and second chances. When a goaltender's tracking a puck in that situation, you realize he's feeling pretty good about the state of his game."

If Mason is given a workload like he received last season, there's an experience factor there that gives him the confidence that he can do it again.

"I do whatever I'm told to do," Mason said. "If that's what I'm told to do, then I'll do it. If not, then I'm here for the team. ... I know now that I'm capable of doing it. It's your level of play that determines if you're able to do that."

The Blues will make no changes tonight, with forward Cam Janssen and defenseman Darryl Sydor being healthy scratches.

The forward lines at practice were the same as Thursday:

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-Brad Boyes

Brad Winchester-Keith Tkachuk-B.J. Crombeen

The D-pairings also will stay the same:

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Carlo Colaiacovo-Mike Weaver

The Blues (20-19-7, 47 points) came into Saturday's action eight points in back of eighth-place Los Angeles.

They optioned forward D.J. King (broken hand) to Peoria this morning for a conditioning stint, one Payne said will take up the entire two-week stint.

Oshie will skate in his 100th game tonight.

- - -

The Rangers (22-18-7) come into St. Louis in a bit of a foul mood.

The Blueshirts have been blanked in the last two games -- both at home -- by New Jersey's Martin Brodeur (1-0 in a shootout Tuesday) and 2-0 against Mike Brodeur and the Ottawa Senators Thursday.

They've been held scoreless in 144:23, so there will be a sense of urgency for coach John Tortorella and his squad, who come in with 51 points. However, if history repeats itself, don't count on another shutout here, as the Rangers are one of two franchises the Blues have never shut out in their history. The Rangers stand at 126 games and counting.

But the Rangers, much like the Blues, play better away from their home at Madison Square Garden. They come in 12-7-3, including 6-0-2 in their last eight road tilts. They have not lost on the road in regulation since getting pasted 8-3 at Pittsburgh on Nov. 28.

"I would think they'd take every opportunity to direct play at the net," Payne said of the Rangers. "... We're going to have to be great coming back, we're going to have to be great in front of our own net."

The Rangers have made two changes to their lineup, as both Enver Lisin and Aaron Voros replace Donald Brashear (hamstring) and Ales Kotalik (healthy scratch):

Brandon Dubinsky-Chris Drury-Ryan Callahan

Vinny Prospal-Erik Christensen-Marian Gaborik

Sean Avery-Artem Anisimov-Enver Lisin

Christopher Higgins-Brian Boyle-Aaron Voros

The D-pairings will pit the following:

Marc Staal-Michal Roszival

Michael Del Zotto-Dan Girardi

Wade Redden-Matt Gilroy

The Blues will get a bit of a reprieve and not see stalwart goalie Henrik Lundqvist, as Chad Johnson will get a rare start in goal for the Rangers. It will be Johnson's third appearance of the season (0-0-1).

Lundqvist (20-15-6 in 42 games) gets a rare night off, as the Rangers turn around and fly home immediately after tonight's game to play host to Montreal Sunday.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Goal production dropoff not an issue for winger

New challenges has Boyes contributing in other ways for surging Blues

ST. LOUIS -- Since his arrival in the spring of 2007, Brad Boyes has been touted as the go-to guy, the sniper every team possesses, and visions of Boyes unloading the one-timer from the left circle is what's given him a name in this city.

And to the Mississauga, Ontario product's credit, he hasn't disappointed in his first two full seasons with the Blues.

Boyes has averaged 38 goals per season in his two years here, and the Blues justified those numbers by rewarding him with a hefty four-year, $16 million extension.

So when Boyes heads into tonight's matchup against the New York Rangers at Scottrade Center, it will be game No. 47 and fans will still be asking what's wrong with Brad Boyes.

Boyes comes in with nine goals on the season and is on pace for 16 goals this season, which would be his lowest output in any full season.

But what some may not understand is that Boyes is not necessarily relegated to the sniper's role. His assists are up once again -- he leads the team with 22 assists and 31 points.

Boyes is on pace for 39 assists, which would match last season's output, and now under new coach Davis Payne, Boyes has added another element to his game: playing a hard, physical, forechecking style and doing well with it on a line with Jay McClement and Alex Steen.

A top-six forward throughout his young career, it's the little things that don't always add up on the stat sheet that has Boyes playing some of his more consistent hockey in recent memory and the Blues geared to win a season-high fourth in a row.

"The last couple years have been good," Boyes said. "I've always been a guy that's gotten more assists than goals. I enjoy setting up plays. You've got to score to win games ... my job is to create offense, create opportunities. I definitely love scoring goals, and that's something I do have to get back to. ... I've definitely gotta be that guys that can score goals. You have to look at it if you get one, they'll come, but if that's not working, you have to find other ways to contribute and if it's trying to set guys up, then that's the offense that we need. Whatever I can do in a positive way is what's best for the team. Whatever I can do to help the team is all I care about."

Payne will not be one of those that will criticize Boyes and his lack of goal production, because the 39-year-old Blues coach sees what many may not view as vital.

"You look at the play late in the game against L.A. where they make a play to the back side and Brad's collapsed down, makes the read and disrupts the play," Payne said. "That was a one-goal hockey game.

"Earlier in the game, he had made a play coming out of the D-zone, great battle intent, makes a great play up the wall. Now all of the sudden, we've got a 2-1 lead going into the locker room."

And there was Boyes, creating the first Blues goal in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Columbus in which a hard forecheck forced a turnover that led to B.J. Crombeen's goal 1:54 into the game.

It was Boyes using his 6-foot, 200-pound frame that forced a turnover by Columbus' Jan Hejda.
It was the kind of precise play that led Payne to the idea of putting Boyes with a couple energy linemates.

"I think he's done a lot of things well," Payne said. "What led me to that is simply looking from a strict matchup perspective, putting a little more responsibility to play that 200-foot game but also having that matchup be a group that can apply pressure in the offensive zone. Brad has done a great job in understanding the intangibles that are involved in those situations, the defensive responsibilities."

It's certainly understandable why Blues fans are wondering why Boyes hadn't lit t he lamp more often. The drop in goal production is also reflected in Boyes' shooting percentage.

When Boyes scored a career-high 43 goals in 2007-08, he was scoring at a 20.8 percent clip, which is a career-best shooting percentage. Last season when he netted 33 goals, Boyes' shooting percentage was 15 percent.

However this season, it has been a struggle at times, and the shooting percentage is reflective at 7.8 percent.

But as all scorers feel, it's just a matter if time before they go into the net in bushels. If they don't, Boyes doesn't mind being a factor in other ways.

"I've had some chances," Boyes said. "It's just a matter of bearing down and putting the puck into the net, but the team concept is what matters and if I contribute in other ways and we're winning games, that's what matters to me most."

* NOTES -- The Blues assigned veteran forward Derek Armstrong to Peoria, as it appears that enforcer D.J. King will be sent to Peoria as well on a conditioning stint. ... David Backes led the Blues with six hits in Thursday's 1-0 win over Minnesota. ... Defenseman Mike Weaver had six blocked shots in the game, including a key block on Antti Miettinen with 4:48 to play in the game. ... Defenseman Barret Jackman led the Blues in ice time Thursday, playing 25:09. ... Center Jay McClement won 15 of 19 faceoffs Thursday, a 79 percent clip. ... Left winger Paul Kariya led the Blues with six shots.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Blues squeak past Wild 1-0 on early goal in third period

Oshie nets winner to give St. Louis third straight win

ST. LOUIS -- Despite a wide margin of shots through two periods and the game scoreless, the Blues had a sense that a breakthrough was imminent.

They certainly couldn't have imagined it coming so soon coming out of the second period locker room.

But T.J. Oshie's pin-point shot from just inside of the left circle through a screen got past Minnesota's Josh Harding 26 seconds into the third period provided the winning margin for the Blues in a 1-0 victory over the Wild Thursday at Scottrade Center.

The win was the third in a row for the Blues, who crept back over the .500 mark at 20-19-7 and snuck within seven points of eighth place in the Western Conference playoff race.

The Blues used a turnover that led to a 3-on-2, as Roman Polak got a cross-ice feed to Oshie, who skated into the left circle and snapped a shot that glanced off the stick of defenseman Kim Johnsson and into the top corner.

"Yeah, it was a great play," Oshie said of goal No. 9. "I stepped up when they made the turnover. I was yelling for it going down the wing and (Polak) made a good pass to me. It got tipped by someone, but it got through and I was just trying to put it on net ... and it went in.

"I was trying to find a hole around (Johnsson). Luckily, I found one. ... I couldn't even see the goalie. He was right in front of me, so I was just trying to shoot around (Johnsson) there."

The Blues, who outshot the Wild (24-21-3) by a 37-19 margin but held a 28-9 shot advantage through two periods.

No worries, though. There was a sense of breakthrough, and the players felt one.

"We liked our first two periods and we talked about and we talked about addressing a little more net traffic," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "We talked about sticking with the process. It's time and pressure, time and pressure. Eventually, we expect it to break."

The Blues did finally break through, and Chris Mason stopped 19 shots, including some solid stops in the third period for his first shutout of the season and 19th of his career.

His biggest save may have been on Minnesota's Guillaume Latendresse, whose point-blank shot was stopped by Mason late in the second period when the Blues goalie was seeing little action.

"I thought one of the big saves he made in the second period when we had a lot of play in their zone, not a lot going on in our zone and all of the sudden they got a play right to the front of the net," Payne said. "It's one of those ones where you're finding a way to stay sharp, stay in the game and all of the sudden, that chance comes at you. You can sometimes get surprised by that. I thought that was one of the big ones."

Those are the kinds of saves Mason wasn't coming up with for a good stretch there.

"A goalie's got to make a save like that and in the last month, I wasn't doing that," Mason said. "It was a good opportunity for me to kind of make a crucial save at a crucial point of a game."

There were defensemen making plays in front of the Wild net as well, with Mike Weaver blocking two crucial third-period shots including one on Antti Miettinen with 4:48 to play in the game on a shot from the high slot. And there was also Erik Johnson, who just got a piece of the stick from Martin Havlat with 15:59 remaining in the game on a play right in front of a wide open net.

"I think Havlat was coming down and he threw it across there and I was fortunately in the right spot for a block there," Weaver said. "It worked out for the best, I guess."

All-in-all, the Blues were busy preserving another scoreless third period for the second straight game after allowing third-period goals in nine straight contests.

"There's going to be times you have to find a way, plain and simple," Payne said. "There's also times where you just got to keep going with the way you're playing. ... Pretty good, solid 60-minute effort with that concept in mind tonight."

Oshie was also involved in a play the Wild players and coaches called dirty.

Oshie was engaged with the Wild's Andrew Ebbett battling for a puck in the left corner of the ice in the Wild end. The two players went down hard and crashed into the corner boards, setting off a scrum that resulted in Oshie getting a holding penalty, Minnesota's James Sheppard receiving a 10-minute misconduct and Wild tough guy Derek Boogaard getting two minutes for roughing David Backes.

The Wild claimed Oshie slew footed Ebbett, a play Oshie claimed was unintentional.

"I was trying to get body position on ... I'm not exactly sure who it was," Oshie said. "It was a penalty. It was a good call. I wasn't trying to get my leg behind him and throw him down. I'm not sure what else happened after that. I was on the ice from then on. I got up and just tried to grab a jersey."

Minnesota's side sure wasn't happy.

"There’s no doubt it’s a slewfoot. There’s no doubt," Wild coach Todd Richards said. "They weren’t going to call anything until everything broke out.

"If you watch the replay, if they talk about slewfoots and the danger of slewfoots, that’s exactly it. That’ll probably be in the teaching clip next year for the NHL. His head comes straight back and hits the ice and you go into the boards defenseless."

Ebbett claimed foul as well.

"(Oshie) kicked my feet right out from underneath me," Ebbett said. "I couldn’t even protect myself. We made eye contact and usually at a point like that you’re going shoulder to shoulder. And then all of a sudden he brings his feet right from behind me and kicks my feet out from underneath me while throwing me down. Pretty dirty play. And I’ve got nothing to protect myself and I’m going head first to the ice."

"I landed on the back of my head. I just tried to brace myself with my back so my head wouldn’t hit the ice. Muscles are all tight. I can't move anything right now. I tried to soften the blow with my shoulders and my back, and that’s what’s paying the price."

The Blues brought their game plan for three periods Thursday and were rewarded with two points when they needed them most.

"Big Walt (Tkachuk's) always saying go to the hard areas and keep putting pucks to the net and it's eventually going to go in," Oshie said. "We were able to squeak one by."

* NOTES -- The Blues welcomed forward Andy McDonald back into the lineup after McDonald missed Tuesday's win over Columbus with what was a mid-body strain.

McDonald, who was injured in the second period of Saturday's 4-3 win at Los Angeles, knew the injury wasn't serious but the proper precautions were taken and feels like he was good to go.

"I just kind of over-extended and turned a different way," McDonald said. "I don't know the reason (or) the mechanism behind it. It was just a little bit of a strain and hopefully, it won't bother me anymore."

* The Ed Belfour experiment is over.

The Blues, who hired the former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender to be the team's goalie consultant did not want to handle the heavy travel burden. And since Rick Wamsley became coach of the team's minor league affiliate in Peoria, there was not a need for Eddie 'The Eagle' there.

Belfour decided to step away from it all instead, citing the desire to be closer to his family.

Speculation of Curtis Joseph, who announced his retirement Tuesday, coming to St. Louis to be the team's goaltending coach, was quickly squashed by the former Blues netminder.

"I haven’t even thought about becoming a goalie coach or consultant," Joseph said from his home in Toronto. "I'm committed to staying home and raising my boys. I haven't heard anything from anyone."

... Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo skated in his 100th game with the Blues. ... The Wild are now 1-5-3 in the second of back-to-back games when they play the second game at St. Louis. They defeated Vancouver Wednesday.

(1-14-10) Wild-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- After getting Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya back in the lineup Tuesday, the Blues will welcome another top-six forward tonight.

Andy McDonald, who suffered a mid-body strain late in the second period Saturday at Los Angeles and who sat out Tuesday's 4-1 win over Columbus, will return to the Blues' lineup tonight against the Minnesota Wild.

McDonald, who leads the team with 14 goals and is second in points with 27, has skated all week and actually felt like he would be in the lineup Tuesday but was held out as a precaution.

McDonald skated this morning and felt no ill-effects and was deemed fit to go.

"The plan is to play tonight," McDonald said this morning. "The morning skate went well, each day it's gotten better so I'm looking forward to getting back in the lineup."

McDonald felt a twinge and did not return for the third period of a 4-3 win over the Kings.

"I just kind of over-extended and turned a different way," McDonald said. "I don't know the reason, the mechanism behind it. It was just a little bit of a strain and hopefully, it won't bother me anymore."

Blues coach Davis Payne said there won't be any precautions taken tonight. Once McDonald gets into the game, it will be full bore; no holding him back.

"Andy doesn't play a slow game, so we expect him to pick right up where he left off and be skating and putting pressure on the defense, attacking in the offensive zone and doing a good job from a 200-foot perspective," Payne said.

With that in mind, the Blues will only make one alteration to the lineup tonight, with Cam Janssen being the odd man out with McDonald's return. Derek Armstrong will also be a healthy scratch.

Tonight's lines will likely stay the same with one exception:

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Brad Winchester-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-Brad Boyes

Andy McDonald-Keith Tkachuk-B.J. Crombeen

* Forward D.J. King, who has missed all but four seconds this season because of a broken right thumb and who only played one game last season because of a shoulder separation, says he's fit and ready to get back into the lineup.

King, 25, has been regularly skating with the team for a couple weeks now. He is likely going to head to Peoria on a conditioning stint.

"I feel like I'm ready to go," King said Thursday morning. "I'm eager to get back at it. It's a long process, but it's something I've unfortunately went through before so I know how to mentally stay together. I'm getting really close, so I'm eager get back.

"Obviously, it's really frustrating, but you can't let it get to you because mentally, you have to get over it. You can't do anything about it."

The D-pairings will remain the same, with Darryl Sydor a healthy scratch for the ninth time in the last 11 games.

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Carlo Colaiacovo-Mike Weaver

Chris Mason will start in goal for fifth consecutive time.

Payne touched this morning on Sydor's value and the veteran's take on not playing.

"It's tough for a veteran guy to be out of the lineup," Payne said. "The conversations we've had with him, we know what we've got. He's a phenomenal pro in his approach of staying ready, staying positive. He doesn't want to be out of the lineup, but he certainly understands and supports the decision that's going on there.

"... We'd love to see him in there, but right now, this is the group we're going with. He understands that and he'll certainly be ready when he's called."

The Blues (19-19-7, 45 points), winners of two straight, trail Minnesota (24-20-3) by six points in the Western Conference standings and are 1-1 against the Wild this season. Each team has won at home.

- - -

The Wild, fresh off a 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks Wednesday at Exel Energy Center, enter tonight's contest with a four-game winning streak and those wins have come against the likes of Calgary, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Vancouver.

Since starting the season 7-12-2, the Wild have surged forward by going 17-8-1 in their last 26 games.

"They come at you," Payne said of the Wild. "They certainly have real good pressure with their forecheck and we've got to find ways to deal with that. That's the way the game's played. It's going to be up-tempo and fast and people are going to be finishing hits out there. ... It's going to be pressure on pressure."

The forward combinations for the Wild will likely have:

Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Antti Miettinen

Guillaume Latendresse-Kyle Brodziak-Martin Havlat

Cal Clutterbuck-Eric Belanger-Owen Nolan

Robbie Earl-Andrew Ebbett-Derek Boogaard

* Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star tribune is reporting that Clutterbuck is questionable (ill).

The D-pairings may also have a wrinkle in them as well, because Russo is also reporting that John Scott, who pummeled Vancouver's Alexandre Bolduc in a fight last night, has also fallen ill and is questionable, which would leave Minnesota with five d-men.

Greg Zanon-Marek Zidlicky

Nick Schultz-Kim Johnsson

John Scott-Shane Hnidy

Josh Harding will get a rare start in goal, only his 11th game of the season after Niklas Backstrom played Wednesday night in a 5-2 win over Vancouver.

The Blues should expect a physical game, as the Wild comes in fresh off three fights in the game against Vancouver Wednesday, with Scott, Boogaard and Hnidy all tussling in a three-minute span in the third period.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winchester given new lease on the ice

Blues' power forward has game geared in right direction since coaching change

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues signed Brad Winchester to a free agent contract in the summer of 2008, not much fanfare was made of the deal. It wasn't one of those mega-deals seen in the league in recent years.

But the signing at the time made sense for the Blues, because they were getting the kind of player that fit their style -- a big, bruising body that's not afraid of making his presence known in the offensive zone who also widens the space on ice for his linemates.

After not making the squad in the season's outset, it was a wake-up call to say the least. The Blues sent a disappointed Winchester to their American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria to get his game in order.

But once Winchester got back to St. Louis, he never went back down. And when all was said and done, 13 of his 21 career goals were scored. He finished with a career-best 21 points.

Winchester was brought back this season under a one-year deal and once again under Andy Murray, the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Madison, Wisconsin product was having an unproductive season by his standards.

He had one goal and four assists in 33 games under Murray and was scratched from the lineup seven times.

But when the Blues changed coaches on Jan. 2, not only did it send a jolt throughout the organization, it also shook up some of the personnel in the locker room.

If a player has had a revival in a sense, it was Winchester. Even though he didn't play in Davis Payne's first game against Chicago, Winchester has made the necessary adjustments in the four games since. The last two games have certainly been his best.

After getting a goal and getting into a pair of scraps in a 4-3 win at Los Angeles Saturday, Winchester didn't register a point in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Columbus, but he made a difference where not many would see it.

Winchester led the team with seven hits and had two shots in 11 minutes, 28 seconds of ice time. He was engaging, he was hitting everything within sight, forechecking hard and using every ounce of that 231-pound frame to create space for linemates Patrik Berglund and David Perron.

A certain aura of confidence has been visible in Winchester's game, and Payne is rewarding him with important minutes he wasn't getting -- nor earning -- earlier this season.

"I think you look at that game in L.A. and I think you look at the Brad Winchester that's capable of playing solid minutes in lots of situations in this league," Payne said. "He's a big body when he's moving like that and playing physical like that. As strong as he is on the puck and the abilities to make plays in tight, I think he can be real effective for us."

Two goals and four assists through 37 games certainly isn't anything to write home about, but if Winchester continues to engage himself in battles like he has the previous two games, he'll certainly reap the benefits.

"I think our style of play is one of the go-mentality that's coming from structure," Winchester said. "That certainly fits the way I want to play.

"(But) it's more of a collective mindset as a team. We're getting everybody to buy into (the system) and good things are coming into fruition from that. It's all four lines and all six defensemen."

While Blues fans have been clamoring for a permanent reunion of "The Kid Line" with Berglund, Perron and T.J. Oshie, having Winchester with two-thirds of that trio is certainly helping Berglund and Perron persevere in the offensive zone with another big body out there.

"He's super physical," Perron said of Winchester. "I'm not sure there's too many defensemen that like to go in the corner with him when he's skating hard and going on the puck. I think for a big guy, he's very mobile and he has a really good shot. ... It's fun to play with him.

"I think we saw it the last road trip and (Tuesday) night, he's been really good. I think he's getting a new chance with the coach and it's good for him."

It was a season ago that the threesome of Perron, Berglund and Winchester were put together on a trip to the west coast in December that saw Winchester tally two goals in San Jose. It started a streak of five goals in seven games.

"We've played together a bit before, so there's familiarities there," Winchester said. "We compliment each other well. Perron and Bergy both have individual skill, and both Bergy and I have big bodies.

"We want to get in on the forecheck. That's key for our line, to get in on the forecheck and protect the puck. All three of us can do that. We have to be good at both ends but certainly create chances."

It may have been tough for Winchester to play with consistency under Murray, but at least in the early going, he's certainly finding his niche under his new coach, and Payne will rightfully reward him as long as he's persistent.

"He played with a lot of energy, two scraps in the L.A. game and played with a lot of emphasis and determination in directing his game towards their net (Tuesday)," Payne said. "Obviously, we've seen portions of that. We want to see that every game."

* NOTES -- Blues forward Andy McDonald practiced Wednesday and all systems appear headed towards a return to the lineup tonight when the Blues play host to the Minnesota Wild.

McDonald, who suffered a "mid-body" injury against the Kings Saturday, missed Tuesday's game against Columbus as a precaution. He skated on a line with Paul Kariya and T.J. Oshie Wednesday in the absence of David Backes, who got a day off along with defensemen Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

First period sparks Blues in 4-1 win over Columbus

Steen, McClement lead way as team snaps five-game home slide

ST. LOUIS -- Fast and furious from the outset, the Blues displayed the passion and energy needed in their home building.

The winning formula has been mastered few times this season.

But on Tuesday against rival Columbus, the Blues used their energy players to set the tone, then delivered the knockout punch with a flawless third period in which the Blues did not allow a goal -- something not done the previous nine games.

Two goals from Alex Steen and a goal and two assists from Jay McClement, along with his second goal in as many games from B.J. Crombeen enabled the Blues to race out to a three-goal first period lead that ultimately led to a 4-1 victory over the Blue Jackets before 17,900 at Scottrade Center.

The Blues (19-19-7), who snapped a five-game winless skid at home (0-4-1) and improved to 7-14-3 overall in home games, were physical and energetic in the game's first 20 minutes. They forechecked and cycled the puck and forced the Blue Jackets (18-21-9) -- and winners of three straight -- to spend too much time in their own zone in the game's first period.

The Blues, who have beaten the Blue Jackets eight straight times here, got goals from Crombeen early in the game and Steen and McClement scored 42 seconds apart late in the first to stake them to a 3-0 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.

"We came out and we were physical, we were fast, we took the play to the net, we had some great offensive zone possessions and cycles, and more important than that, we were in right positions to apply pressure to the net at any given moment," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "I think if you look at the goals we scored in the first, two of them are a direct result of how we're trying to get our game directed."

Not only did the Blues score three times in the first, but the game was marred by four fights, including David Backes, who fought Columbus superstar Rick Nash that also resulted in an eventual fight and game misconduct penalties for the Blues' Erik Johnson and Columbus' Mike Commodore.

"They were kind of rubbing me the wrong way by ragging the puck, trying to lengthen the power play after it was 4-on-4 for a while," Backes said. "(Nash) was holding onto it, I went to hit him, he gives me a little reverse shoulder.

"He's a big boy. We looked at each other. I think he's one of the best players in the league, there's no question about it. If we can trade myself for him, I'm willing to do it for the team. By the time we got out of the box, we had a 2-0 lead."

Crombeen scored his second goal in as many games and third of the season following up a rebound of McClement's shot 1 minute, 54 seconds into the game.

McClement forced Columbus defenseman Jan Hejda into a turnover following a forecheck by Brad Boyes. McClement's shot was stopped by Mathieu Garon, but Crombeen was on the doorstep for a 1-0 lead.

Steen and McClement scored goals 42 seconds apart, as Steen netted his eighth of the season with a power play goal, one-timing Carlo Colaiacovo's feed from near the blue line.

"Carlo gives me a really, really good pass," said Steen, who has seven goals in the last seven home games. "It's nice and slow and gives me a lot of time to get set and get one off. It was a good pass.

"Get (the shot) off as quick as I can and obviously, hit the net. We've got some big bodies in front. (Keith Tkachuk's) in there, (Brad Winchester), Backes, we've got some big bodies in front. If you hit the net, good things happen."

McClement made it 3-0 by following up Barret Jackman's point shot where Garon allowed a big rebound in the slot.

The tone was set by the energy guys and the lead was established.

"It's good to take the heat off our top two lines," said McClement, who also won 14 of 23 faceoffs and was plus-3 in 21:01 of ice time. "It's always good for us to be able to chip in. I don't think we've done enough of that. We've relied too much on those guys. For us to be able to do that lately, it takes the heat off them. I think when that happens, hopefully we'll start relaxing a little bit too. When we look around the league, that's what good teams do. They have three or four lines that chip in all the time."

Tkachuk, who played for the first time since taking a puck off the mouth Jan. 2 against Chicago that resulted in the loss of four teeth, said the energy guys are a plus when they score, but the top lines need to bring it as well.

"Obviously Jay McClement played one of his best games of the year and Alex Steen and Crombeen gets a big goal," Tkachuk said. "We need more from our top six forwards and it has to come around for the top six to go out because we can't rely on those guys. But it's nice to see that. The skill guys, we have to pick it up.

"We just attacked and we were always on the move. We had a lot of energy. We got the puck deep and forced them to play in their own zone and forcing them to turn the puck over and playing in their zone the whole first period."

Along with Backes and Johnson, Cam Janssen scrapped with Jared Boll, and B.J. Crombeen mixed it up with Alexandre Picard. But with Backes' fight against Nash, that makes three Canadian Olympians the U.S. Olympian Backes has dropped the gloves with in the last couple weeks. He also fought with Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Anaheim's Corey Perry.

"No direct agenda there," Backes said with a grin. "They just tend to be the guys that are in my way and creating some havoc, so we'll keep going."

Columbus, which brought some of its best in the second and got a power play goal from Fedor Tyutin to cut the Blues' lead to 3-1, was poised to get within one on several occasions, but the Blues did not buckle and got solid goaltending from Chris Mason. Mason stopped 26 shots.

"I thought we did a good job of closing out. We made sure pucks got deep, especially around the lines. We got pucks out and in, and Mase played great. He made key saves when he needed to. It was a good win."

The locker room mood was one the Blues haven't experienced much this season, with music playing and guys leaving with smiles.

It's something they'd like to turn into a contagious feeling.

"It's been a long time coming," Tkachuk said. "I don't care how we played. We just needed a win bad. We came out of the gates strong, kind of let up a little bit in the second and they got some momentum. But we held on and that's the bottom line. We've got to keep building."

"It's been a while," McClement said. "It's nice to go home with a win. I don't know the last time it was. Obviously, we've got a couple more at home here before we go on the road. It's a good start. I think it will help with the confidence of our team."

* NOTES -- Blues forward Andy McDonald missed the game and is still bothered by what the team is calling a mid-body injury. McDonald was on the ice Tuesday morning, but Payne said the team wants to be cautious and not turn what is believed to be a strained muscle into a long-term injury.

"He's still going to be day-to-day," Payne said. "I think we're going to err on the side of caution there. ... We're going to see where we sit for Thursday. I don't want to have this one be one of those injuries ... if we can make progress in two days as opposed to turning it into a two-week situation, that's where we're going to sit on this one."

The Blues, who scratched forward Derek Armstrong and defenseman Darryl Sydor, also optioned Yan Stastny to Peoria after getting Tkachuk and Kariya back in the lineup.

(1-12-10) Blue Jackets-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues will welcome a pair of crafty veterans to the lineup tonight when the Blues square off against Central Division rival Columbus.

Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya have been deemed fit and ready to go.

Kariya has not played since suffering a concussion in the first period against Buffalo on Dec. 27, a span of six games.

Tkachuk has missed the past three games since getting hit in the mouth with a puck on a slap shot by teammate T.J. Oshie on Jan. 2 against Chicago.

Both skaters were on the ice this morning as was Andy McDonald, but McDonald will not play tonight and coach Davis Payne says he is listed as day-to-day.

Here is what the Blues coach had to say regarding all three players:

On Kariya -- We feel he's good to go and he's going to be in there. He's a dynamic player with great game-breaking abilities. We want to see him at what we've tried to establish over the last few days and week here as far as a five-man unit mentality and 200-foot game. His ability to make plays and put pressure on defense and playing an attacking game is exactly what we'd like to have in that lineup.

On Tkachuk -- Walt's going to go. He's obviously a tough competitor. He took one in the mouth there and has healed up enough. He's given us all indications that he's going to be the player we need him to be and the player we expect him to be out there tonight.

On McDonald -- He's still going to be day-to-day. I think we're going to err on the side of caution there. He won't be available tonight. We're going to see where we sit for Thursday. I don't want to have this one be one of those injuries ... if we can make progress in two days as opposed to turning it into a two-week situation, that's where we're going to sit on this one.

I saw Tkachuk in the dressing room this morning and saw him smile for the first time since the injury, and it reminded me of watching some of the old-time games from back in the 60s, 70s and even 80s when guys were missing teeth with regularity and had no issues disclosing their beaming gums.

Tkachuk said it's the first time he's ever suffered an injury in his 18-year career where he's lost his choppers, and I asked Payne this morning if his power forward now displays that old-school hockey look.

"Yeah, most of us in this business aren't models for a reason," Payne joked. "He and I are certainly proof of that case. I'll make sure I share that with him. I think he lost some endorsement contracts in that regard after this last one."

So on that note, the Blues' lines are not set in stone, but this is what was spotted out there this morning as they go for two in a row and try to get back to .500 overall (18-19-7) and improve on that awful home record (6-14-3):

Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie

Alex Steen-Jay McClement-Brad Boyes

Brad Winchester-Patrik Berglund-David Perron

B.J. Crombeen-Keith Tkachuk-Cam Janssen

The D-pairings will remain the same as Saturday:

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson

Carlo Colaiacovo-Mike Weaver

Chris Mason will make his fourth consecutive start.

So scratch Derek Armstrong tonight, as well as Darryl Sydor. Yan Stastny has been reassigned back to Peoria.

The Blue Jackets, meanwhile, are kind of in the same boat as the Blues, treading water near the bottom of the Western Conference. But they do come in winners of three in a row after a horrendous stretch where they won only three times in 24 games (3-14-7).

The Jackets (18-20-9) are two points ahead of the Blues with 45 but have played three more games than St. Louis.

Thanks to Aaron Portzline, Blue Jackets beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch with the following probable line information:

Kristian Huselius-R.J. Umberger-Rick Nash

Raffi Torres-Antoine Vermette-Jakub Voracek

Andrew Murray-Sammy Pahlsson-Chris Clark

Jared Boll-Derick Brassard-Derek Dorsett

The D-pairings will include:

Fedor Tyutin-Anton Stralman

Jan Hejda-Mike Commodore

Mathieu Roy-Milan Jurcina

Defensemen Marc Methot and Rostislav Klesla are on injured reserve; forward Fredrik Modin (foot) is also out, and defenseman Kris Russell (lower-body) is a game-time decision.

Mathieu Garon will get his fourth straight start tonight.