Friday, January 3, 2014


Leopold activated, Backes practices again; 
Halak to return; top line success; Reaves shines

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The Blues are on the verge of gaining another player back into the active lineup, possibly as early as Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Or perhaps two players.

Defenseman Jordan Leopold, out since Nov. 7 when he suffering ligament damage on the knuckle of his right hand that required surgery, was activated off the injured  reserve list Friday.

Leopold, 33, has missed 26 games since suffering the injury against the Calgary Flames. He played in 13 games this season, posting two assists.

Leopold, acquired by the Blues from the Buffalo Sabres late last season, has skated for the past couple weeks and after another go Friday with an optional skate, Leopold was deemed fit to resume game action by team doctors despite a lack of full practices under his belt.

"It's tough this time of the year when you're injured to get good practices in," Leopold said. "It's mostly optionals or pregame skates. ... The only quality practice we had was before the Christmas break. Since then, we've had guys sick and injured. We haven't had a lot of competition drills. 

"Fortunately enough, I've played a lot of games in this league. Hopefully I've got good energy whenever that may be where it's time to come in."

Fortunately for the Blues, who are also missing Roman Polak (ankle/foot) from the back end, Ian Cole and Carlo Colaiacovo have stepped in and provided good minutes in the absence of top six defensemen that's enabled the Blues to take their time with Leopold.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said when Leopold got cleared, he would go in.

"It afforded us another two weeks with 'Leo,' yeah," Hitchcock said before Leopold was activated. "It got us to where 'Leo's' 100 percent. ... If we get the clearance, then he's going to go in and play. But yeah, it bought us more time and (Colaiacovo and Cole) made themselves a good pair. It gives us a lot of confidence that with Polak, we've got eight defensemen who can play in the National Hockey League. 

"If you look at any of the teams that are doing well right now, they've got eight guys. They don't have seven, they've got eight, and they've got eight guys that can come in and play. You look at Chicago, they rotate those three guys (Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank and Michael Kostka) all the time. Everybody gets a game, so they're staying sharp that way. I think we'll probably do some of that same stuff. We'll keep all eight guys on the move here."

Leopold has been wearing a brace on the first finger of his right hand and after some adjusting, is used to it.

"It's been a challenge because I do have a brace on," Leopold said. "It is what it is and you work with what you've got. I've been able to practice with it for quite a long time. It makes almost like a piece of me. I don't foresee any problems.

"We've talked about the depth on our backend since summer really. 'Coler' and Carlo have stepped up and done a tremendous job when they're in there. It's a testament to 'Army' (Blues general manager Doug Armstrong) bringing the right guys in and bringing the right guys back and having a good, collective group that's on the same page."

The Blues also could get David Backes (undisclosed upper-body injury) back against the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday after the team's captain got in another practice session, the fifth straight day, without any complications.

Hitchcock said the Blues would again go through the day Friday to see how Backes feels on Saturday and make a decision. Backes has missed three straight games and five of the past eight.

* Halak to return, Elliott stays hot -- The Blues were comfortable enough to ship goalie Jake Allen back to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League after a 5-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday because Jaroslav Halak, who has been battling the flu, was declared well enough to return to the team Saturday.

Halak has not played since being pulled from a 6-5 shootout win against Chicago this past Saturday. He was scheduled to start Tuesday at Minnesota but was declared out. Halak has stayed away from the team the past two days but will be back to back up Brian Elliott on Saturday against the Jackets.

"We kept Jaro away again today, but he's going to join us tomorrow," Hitchcock said. "He's feeling better. He should be fine to back up tomorrow. 

Halak, who is 17-6-3 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, should get a start on the upcoming Western Canada trip that will take the Blues through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver in four days.

"He's going to take a little bit of time. He's missed quite a bit here lately," Hitchcock said of Halak. "We'll get through tomorrow's game and then we've got two or three days to get ready for Edmonton and go from there."

In the meantime, Elliott, who is 11-1-2 with a 1.84 GAA and .928 save percentage on the season, has won his past five decisions (including two shutouts) and is 7-0-1 in his past eight decisions with a 1.52 GAA and .941 save percentage.

"I think it's good for him and good for the team," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "Brian's been trending that way for a couple weeks now. It's nice to see. We sure could have used it.

"He's like any other competitor now. He doesn't want to give up the net. He got the net here and he doesn't want to give it up, so he wants to play well enough that he makes us think about things when we're putting guys in, which is good for him."

* New top line? -- In the absence of Backes and Alexander Steen, the production the Blues have gotten from Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Sobotka and T.J. Oshie has helped the team alleviate those missing points from two of their top guns.

The Schwartz, Sobotka and Oshie combination again shouldered a big role in another victory Thursday against the Kings, with Oshie scoring twice and Schwartz and Sobotka each getting an assist.

"They check the puck back well, really well," Hitchcock said. "But it was no different than when Steen and Backes were there. They did the same thing. Our top two lines, when they're on top of things, they check as well as anybody. So when we play that way, we're very, very effective. 'Sobe' knows how to play that way, Backes knows how to play that way, Steen plays that way, 'Osh' plays that way, Schwartz plays that way, 'Vladi' Tarasenko plays that way ... all our top guys check, and when they check, they get scoring opportunities which is exactly what happened yesterday again."

Schwartz, who saw his six-game streak scoring a goal snapped Thursday, said for what the three lack in size, they make up for with hard work.

"All three of us work hard, I think that's the biggest thing," he said. "We usually have good sticks. When it's on the forecheck, we get a lot of our chances by getting the puck back, stripping them and just putting pressure on their guys. I think that's helped create a lot of turnovers. They both see the ice well and they can both finish. It's been fun so far and we're just doing our job. 

"Our tenacity on the puck is a big thing. All three of us like getting on the forecheck and checking the puck back. A lot of our goals have come from getting to the net, stripping the puck back and then making the play."

When Backes and Steen return, would Hitchcock break up a unit that's produced 12 points (six goals, six assists) in the past three games? 

"You never know. Hitch switches things up pretty quick," Schwartz said. "You never know what the lines are going to be sometimes. 

"Obviously those two are a lot of fun to play with and going good so far. I've played with 'Sobe' for a lot of the year and I've played with 'Osh' before. They're definitely good players to play with. At the same time, once 'Backs' comes in, things switch up. It doesn't really matter who I'm playing with. I've got to do my job."

* Reaves returns -- Apparently missing 17 games didn't set Blues tough guy Ryan Reaves back any.

The Blues' right winger returned to the lineup Thursday after breaking his hand in a fight on Nov. 23 against Dallas. He played 9 minutes, 1 second and tied with Chris Porter with four hits.

"Really good, really good," Hitchcock said of Reaves' game. "That's the first time we've had that type of energy from that line in a little while. It's a good sign."

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