By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- A battle of past Olympians and 2014 Sochi Olympics hopefuls representing a plethora of countries will happen Saturday night when the Blues face the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at Scottrade Center.
But both teams, top-tier teams in each conference, will be missing some key pieces when the puck drops.
The Blues (10-2-2) will insert defenseman Ian Cole into the lineup in place of veteran Jordan Leopold (hand), who blocked a shot in a 3-2 victory Thursday against the Calgary Flames.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock called Leopold's injury day-to-day, but a better prognosis won't be known until Monday.
"We'll know a little bit better on Monday how long he's going to be out for," Hitchcock said. "Right now it's just day to day and we'll see how he feels. Whether it's a week or two, we'll see how it feels. We'll know more on dates on Monday."
Cole has played just two of the team's 14 games this season (at Winnipeg Oct. 18 and at Tampa Bay Nov. 2). He has no points and is a plus-1 with two penalty minutes.
"We've liked him a lot," Hitchcock said of Cole. "This is a big step up for him, but he's matured. He's matured as a person, he's matured as a professional. I think there's a lot of trust and confidence from the coaching staff that he's going to be a really good player.
"He brings a different element than Leo, very effective though. He brings a real physicality, he brings a real tenacity on the puck. He's a big guy that's got great mobility. Once he calms down and gets to play a few games in a row, I think he's going to end up being a real good asset for us."
Cole, who will be paired with Roman Polak tonight, is looking forward to the challenge of facing a star-studded lineup featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin among others.
"Those guys are such world class players," Cole said of the Penguins. "A few years ago when we played them, I had the opportunity to play against them and played quite a bit with (Alex Pietrangelo). We were very successful in what we had to do to win that game.
"Guys are world class players, but at the same time, you can't give too much space, you can't honor them, you can't give them too much time with the puck. Then they will be world class players. You want to try and give them as little time as possible to make those world class plays. Obviously that is challenging because they are so fast and skilled. It's a matter of calculated risk and being able to press them as hard as you can without letting them break for something big. There's definitely a very fine balance there, but you definitely have to be careful while being as aggressive as you possibly can. It's kind of an oxymoron being carefully aggressive, but it's kind of how you've got to do it. ... You don't want to take risks, but you want to be in their face and be tough to play against while at the same time respecting them and giving them enough space knowing you can recover if something does happen. It's a very tough balance."
Playing with Polak will help.
"I think that we play hopefully a similar game," Cole said of Polak. "Just continue to play how the coaches want me to play and how I've been successful in playing, how I need to play to be successful. Romy is obviously a world class player right along with these guys with the Penguins. It makes it a lot easier when you can play with a guy like him."
The Penguins (11-5-0) will be without defenseman Paul Martin (undisclosed), but they are expected to get right wing Beau Bennett (lower-body) back into the lineup.
"He's not going to be available for tonight's game, Paul Martin," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "That leaves us with six defensemen here."
Bennett returns after missing the last 11 games and will play on the Penguins' second line with Malkin and Jokinen.
"A lot can be learned from watching [from the press box], but it'll be exciting to get back out there, that's for sure," said Bennett, who has two assists on the season.
"The injury was kind of hampering what I can do out there. It got to the point where I couldn't just go anymore. Good to have some time off and get it back to full strength. I feel a lot better because of it."
As for players playing tonight who are either locks to participate in the Olympics or are hopefuls, they include (from St. Louis): David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk and T.J. Oshie (USA), Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester (Canada), Vladimir Sobotka and Polak (Czech Republic), Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Jaroslav Halak (Slovakia) and Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia); (from Pittsburgh): Crosby, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Kunitz (Canada), Malkin (Russia), Brooks Orpik (USA), and Olli Maatta (Finland).
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The Canadian players in tonight's game know Blues coach Hitchcock has a watchful eye on those Olympians, as he will assist Detroit's Mike Babcock in Sochi. But for Bylsma, who will coach USA, he gets an up-close view of Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk tonight.
"Right now this year with Backes and Steen as a line, we're talking about a top line right now with the way they've played," Bylsma said. "Maybe that's a different case for T.J. Oshie than you might have had going into this season.
"Right now with that line, even with the way David Backes is playing and his production and the offense he's providing, maybe is a little bit different than you might have thought about David Backes prior to this year. They're certainly a formidable top line right now with the way Steen's playing, Backes down the middle and Oshie's grit and speed. It doesn't go long right now to not see his skill as well in his game."
The Blues players will have one goal in mind tonight: two points for their team and the rest will take care of itself.
"The team success will drive my success," Shattenkirk said. "That's what's been happening here the last few weeks. From as long as I can remember, that's always been the case. That's always how it works."
Said Backes: "We'll keep our eyes on the task at hand, and that's two points tonight. If we take care of business, there will be plenty of impressions made. I think that goes for everyone. Whenever there's somebody up in the stands watching or somebody on the other team that potentially has decision-making abilities, we'll take care of our business and the rest will sort itself out.
"We've got a very good opponent tonight that can make you look silly in a hurry if you're not on your game. It's going to be a good test for us."
Oshie added: "I think for our style of play, just playing the way we can. I think that's hopefully enough. It definitely will be for 'Backs.' I think if we get over-extended and try to impress someone, we're going to make a worse impression. Just go out there and stick to the game plan and get the two points."
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Former Blue Matt D'Agostini, who has dressed in only two games this season dealing with various ailments, will also return after missing four games.
"It's always good to get back in the lineup," D'Agostini said. "Coming back here's obviously pretty special. It's fun to play in these types of games.
"It's fun coming back in here and seeing the boys again. Playing against old teammates is always fun."
D'Agostini and Shattenkirk both cheer for the New York teams in the NFL, with Shattenkirk a Giants fan and D'Agostini with Rex Ryan and the Jets.
"I shouldn't even say anything," D'Agostini joked. "The Giants are doing horrible. We're squeaking out games ... I don't know how we're doing it, but we're winning games."
D'Agostini was signed over the summer to a one-year contract after being dealt from the Blues to the New Jersey Devils. It's his first visit back in St. Louis.
"It was tough obviously with my season and not being able to get in," D'Agostini said of the time he was traded. "You find yourself on the outside looking in and those type of things tend to happen when you're in that type of situation. It was a shock, but you know, at the time it was really tough leaving the boys, really tough leaving the organization. I've grown to love this team, this organization, but I went to Jersey and went about it just like anyone else would. And then I came here in the summer."
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Penguins winger Joe Vitale, from St. Louis, was able to host the entire team at his parents' house for dinner Friday night.
And being of Italian heritage, The Hill was at the forefront of what would be served up.
"It was great. It was my parents, my family, my wife, my mother in law," Vitale said. "Everyone pitched in and they just did a wonderful job. They all made something and my dad was in his element for sure with all the guys there, serving up pasta and meatballs and bread. It was a great thing. I’m really glad it went well. It was pretty short – in and out – but guys ate well. Hopefully we didn’t eat too much … we’ll be sinking in the ice tonight.
"Everything was homemade. Got ingredients from The Hill. But everything was homemade. The only thing that wasn’t … we had Cold Stone Creamery come in with a stand and guys had a little Cold Stone."
Vitale, a graduate of CBC High School, wouldn't have it any other way.
"We’re frequent stoppers down at The Hill," he said. "My brother and I, we used to have a house down on The Hill during high school and college. Whenever my wife would come to town, I’d always say, ‘I’m going to Cunnetto’s … jeez, there’s so many places … Zia’s … but yeah The Hill is a big part of my life. That’s where my (grandparents) immigrated to in the ‘30s when they came over here. A lot of great memories there, so we try to get down there whenever we can."
And what did the players think?
"It was great," Crosby said. "I don't think you really get the opportunity to do with so many guys from all over the place to have it work out where he's that close to the city and you can go over to his house.
"It was nice to meet everyone in his family. It was a nice spread. It was the whole Italian deal. We had it all. It was a good night. Fun to get all the guys together, fun to see where Joe grew up."
Added D'Agostini, an Italian himself: "It's an Italian family. They know how to serve food."
If the Penguins had their choice, maybe the array of food wasn't in their best interests. They each likely gained weight they don't need for tonight.
"The only rule with my dad is you have to finish your pasta before you have any steak or chicken or anything else," VItale said. "That’s pretty much it.
"Guys were great. Everybody just settled in right away. The food came out good. Obviously the drinks were good. ... I have three sisters and two brothers. Between my parents and in-laws, wife, I had two of my kids there last night running around naked. They were on a terror. They’re very, very little."
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Steen comes into tonight's game leading the NHL with 14 goals and points in nine straight games (12 points, including 10 goals), but Shattenkirk has quietly put together a seven-game assist streak (eight assists) that is tops in the NHL right now.
"I'm just rolling with it," Shattenkirk said. "I'm not getting too crazy over it. When I start thinking about it is when you start getting asked about it more and more. It's nice to hide in the shadows of Alex Steen and not worry about it. I'm hoping he keeps his going for as long as possible and no one will hear about mine."
But Shattenkirk, who has 11 assists in 14 games, is without a goal. When does that come?
"I'm not worried about that. It's coming soon," Shattenkirk said. "I can feel it. As long as I put it on his stick, it's going in the net either way. There's a lot of guys who are trending upwards right now and playing better hockey. It's made my job easier."
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Don't think the Penguins, who don't see the Blues often, aren't respectful of their opponent tonight.
"Probably not the top team in the West just because they haven't played as many games," Bylsma said. "You can certainly talk about their whole lineup, but their top line with Steen with his 14 goals, leading the league, Backes is playing extremely well. That line with Oshie as well, but it's a tough team right throughout their lineup. It seems like there's a little bit of battle with the Olympics here as well with the numbers they have and the players we have on our team. Their power play's been outstanding. Steen's been a big driver in that. That group has been very good. We're really looking forward to this match."
"They play a pretty quick game, they're physical," Crosby said of the Blues. "I remember the last game I played here was pretty intense, pretty physical. ... They play well here. They've had a good start to the season and we expect a pretty fast-paced game."
The Blues are mindful of who they're playing as well, especially Backes, Steen and Oshie, who will likely draw the assignment of containing Crosby's line
"He's the best player in the league, and you're going to have to bring your 'A' game in order to have a good matchup against him," Backes said of Crosby. "It's not a one-on-one tournament. We'll have five guys on the ice and so do they. We need to have a concerted effort as a group to make sure to limit their time and space and hopefully make them play in their d-zone as much as possible."
Said Oshie: "It kind of comes with the territory when we take pride in being able to shut the other teams' top lines down and hopefully be plus-one, plus-two on them. We're going to have a big task in front of us tonight and we're looking forward to it."
So how do you stop or contain Crosby?
"I can't tell you all my secrets," Backes joked. "Hopefully, I've still got a few more years left to play and use all my secrets. They're dynamic players that have reached the pinnacle of the game for a reason. They work their butts off and they've got skill to complement that. Not give them too much respect but make sure that you're not running out of control trying to look for big hits or anything because they make players like that look silly in a hurry. Find that happy medium. It's not one guy. Steener and Osh are going to be out there with me. If it's Bergy's line or if it's Sobe's line, those guys are going to have to bind together and make sure if one of them's forechecking, they can't all three go charging into the corner and let the odd-man rush parade happen. We've got to make sure we're eliminating the quality and frequency of their chances."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Derek Roy-Vladimir Sobotka-Chris Stewart
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-Vladimir Tarasenko
Chris Porter-Maxim Lapierre-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak gets the nod in goal; Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Adam Cracknell is the lone healthy scratch. Brenden Morrow (upper-body), Jordan Leopold (hand) and Magnus Paajarvi (upper-body) are out with injuries.
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The Penguins' probable lineup:
Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis
Jussi Jokinen-Evgeni Malkin-Beau Bennett
Tanner Glass-Brandon Sutter-Matt D'Agostini
Craig Adams-Joe Vitale-Jayson Megna
Brooks Orpik-Deryk Engelland
Matt Niskanen-Kris Letang
Olli Maatta-Roberto Bortuzzo
Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start in goal. Jeff Zatkoff will be the backup.
Dustin Jeffrey is Pittsburgh's lone healthy scratch. Paul Martin (undisclosed), Rob Scuderi (ankle), James Neal (upper-body), Tomas Vokoun (blood clot) and Chuck Kobasew (lower-body) are all out with injuries.
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