By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It was a three-day break that the Blues and the rest of the National Hockey League enjoyed.
But now that Christmas has come and gone, it's time to get back on the grind, and for the Blues (21-11-4) and Dallas Stars (26-7-2), who will play the first of back-to-back games against each other at 7 p.m. today (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), it's back to the grind of the Central Division heat.
The two teams will play the rematch Sunday in Dallas, but first thing's first. The Blues will look to duplicate the result of a 3-0 win against the Stars (the only time Dallas has been shut out this season) here on Dec. 12.
But when it comes to post-Christmas games, roll the dice, according to the coaches.
"I've found these games between Christmas and New Year's to be some of the wildest, most bizarre games you've ever coached in," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team has won four of five. "Just when you think you've got it figured out, you lay a egg. When you think you're going to have a tough time playing back-to-back because you haven't practiced, you play great. I don't think you can take anything from the next two or three games other than try to get points and go from there because you're going to see guys at different levels of fitness, you're going to see people at different levels of mental sharpness. I think you've just got to be able to play and move on. Once January 1st turns, there's a whole other temperature in the league."
Stars coach Lindy Ruff, a close friend of Hitchcock, agreed.
"Every team is the same," Ruff said. "All teams had three days off, all players want to take care of themselves the best way they think they can be ready for this game. I've seen some players that can come out of this and play unbelievable and the energy's great and I've seen the opposite at the same time.
"Because of Christmas and families and all the people that are in town and the fact that you've had three days and most teams will play three games in four nights and you won't practice, there's a lot of stuff that can happen. I think the history of being around it and [Hitchcock's] been around it long enough that sometimes you can get a pretty solid game and sometimes you can get a pretty loosely contested game."
The Stars, who have won three in a row and outscored their opponents 16-5 in doing so, are looking for different result.
"Our last trip in here, we got away from our game," Ruff said. "We were undisciplined. We took a couple tough penalties right off the bat that really allowed these guys to get the jump on us. We know what our game is and that isn't our game."
Hitchcock said it comes down to one aspect.
"It's whichever team makes the other one more uncomfortable," he said. "We made them uncomfortable early and they made us uncomfortable late. It was as close to an even game as you could get. We had a lot of minutes in their zone in the first period, they had a lot of minutes in our zone in the second. The third kind of was back and forth. There wasn't a lot of difference in the two teams. We know how good they are. We know how well they play. They've had very significant wins since. Quite frankly they've won a lot of games in the second half of games, which to me is the thing that you have to manage because they just seem to keep playing at a level and the opposition wilts. They did it against Minnesota, they did it against Chicago and those are good teams, real good teams and they just kept playing at a certain level, and neither one of those seemed to be able to sustain it at that level for the balance of the game.
"... We know how hard the game was against Dallas. They know how difficult it was against us. I think you've got everybody's attention from both sides. Should be a whale of a hockey game."
The Blues will close out 2015 with four straight against Central Division foes and see an opportunity beginning tonight as a chance to get a firm grip on a top spot within the division, where they're 8-3-0 this season. The Stars are 5-2-0.
"More than the weekend, I think it's the next six days or whatever it is between the next four games before the new year is pretty important for us," said goalie Jake Allen, who will start tonight. "Back-to-back against these guys in their building and then here against two of our biggest opponents the last couple years (in Nashville and Minnesota). It's going to be a tough stretch, fun stretch and good couple days off and ready to get back.
"We're still trying to catch Dallas and take over that top spot. We've got a little ways to go, but this is a great opportunity for us. It sets up well to cap off 2015 on the right note and then start fresh in 2016. These points are going to be crucial. It's such a tight division. Four out of four could change a lot."
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The Blues will make one lineup change, moving defenseman Carl Gunnarsson back into the lineup and making rookie Joel Edmundson a healthy scratch.
Gunnarsson missed the win at Boston on Tuesday with an upper-body injury sustained the previous night in a 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. He will play alongside Robert Bortuzzo.
"I tried it the last two periods in Philly and didn't feel great, so just took Tuesday off," Gunnarsson said. "It wasn't even like a big hit. We just kind of tangled up there by the boards and it happened (with RJ Umberger).
"Yeah, it felt OK. Been better, but it feels pretty decent."
Edmundson and Bortuzzo were a strong pair in Boston, but Hitchcock said Gunnarsson deserves to stay in the lineup.
"We're not going to take 'Gunny' out because of an injury; a guy doesn't lose his spot on the team because of an injury," Hitchcock said. "We'll go with this combination and see how it looks tonight."
As for Bortuzzo, who played for the first time in 10 games Tuesday, Hitchcock won't take him out of the lineup.
"I just liked the way he played," he said. "He played with quickness, he played with agility, he played smart, helped us exit from some of the zone play we had. I liked the way he plays."
Bortuzzo, who was a healthy scratch in 10 of the past 12 games before playing Tuesday, has been working at his game while being out.
"Our backend does a great job of communicating with each other making it easier on you when you are sitting out and coming back in," Bortuzzo said. "Anything we can do after practice and staying sharp is going to be huge because sometimes it's easy to fall into a lull if you're out. We have a great group of guys here who were excited to have me in and we definitely appreciate that and it goes a long way. I felt like we left her all out there (Tuesday).
"... I know that's part of my game is playing physical and playing hard and playing tough and taking space away. I didn't want to do too much. Sometimes that can happen when you're coming in and out. I just kind of wanted to play our game and move pucks up to our high-end forwards and get it out of our zone quick."
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Forward Jordan Caron, who made his Blues debut in the win at Boston but was reassigned to the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League on Wednesday, was called back up by the team on Friday and will play again tonight in place of Kyle Brodziak, who will miss a fourth consecutive game with a lower-body injury as a result of a skate cut sustained Dec. 17 against Nashville.
"Same as 'Welshy;' heavy, strong on the puck, real good on the bench," Hitchcock said when asked of Caron, referring to Jeremy Welsh. "Exactly what we need. That's the type of player you want to come in. If we expect to get saved offensively by people playing in the American League, that's a big mistake on our part, but when we get guys from the American League and the coaching staff says these guys are playing heavy and hard down there and they're competing at a consistent level, that's exactly what we need."
Caron will play on a line with Ryan Reaves at right wing and Dmitrij Jaskin at center.
Hitchcock liked Jaskin's game down the middle and might be something worth considering down the line.
"Center might be his natural position," Hitchcock said of Jaskin. "We'll see down the road here, but it might be his natural position. He seemed to have more time and space, he seemed to be able to make more plays, he wasn't restricted to one half of the ice. It'll be something quite frankly we think of down the road here."
Brodziak skated Saturday morning and is considered day-to-day.
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After scoring Tuesday, it marked the second time in Robby Fabbri's rookie season he's scored in back-to-back games; he scored Monday in Philadelphia. He also did it Nov. 23 and 25 in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
Fabbri is scoring without hesitation on shots, which is something that comes with familiarity with the NHL game and of course, confidence.
"I guess you can say earlier in the year, you think you hear someone calling and think that's my first thought (is to pass)," Fabbri said. "But I've got more confidence in my shot now and I'm using that a little more. I'm still looking for that open guy as well."
Said Hitchcock: "He's become a real pro. He's a dangerous offensive player, really dangerous offensive player. He doesn't need a lot of chances. There aren't many players in the league now that can score from distance. He's got six, seven goals now and he's got four from distance. He can really shoot the puck."
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Tonight will mark a matchup of the top two NHL goal scorers in Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues and Jamie Benn of the Stars.
Each come into the game with 22 goals. Benn has 24 assists; Tarasenko has 16.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Magnus Paajarvi-Paul Stastny-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen-David Backes-Troy Brouwer
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Scottie Upshall
Jordan Caron-Dmitrij Jaskin-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Colton Parayko-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal. Brian Elliott will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Scott Gomez and Joel Edmundson. Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured-reserve.
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The Stars' projected lineup:
Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin-Patrick Sharp
Valeri Nichushkin-Jason Spezza-Ales Hemsky
Antoine Roussel-Cody Eakin-Colton Sceviour
Mattias Janmark-Vernon Fiddler-Patrick Eaves
Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya-Jason Demers
Jyrki Jokipakka-Jordie Benn
Antti Niemi will start in goal. Kari Lehtonen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth and Travis Moen. The Stars report no injuries.
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