By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As the Blues close out 2015 by hosting the Minnesota Wild (7 p.m. on FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), they can look back on their 23-12-4 record with a sense of pride.
Last season at this time, the Blues were relatively-speaking healthy, no major injuries to deal with, but this 2015-16 season, it's been a rolodex of key players that have been out with significant time.
However, when the Blues play their fourth straight Central Division game tonight, they will look to close out 2015 winning their seventh game in the past nine and six of seven on home ice.
But now that Patrik Berglund (shoulder) is on the cusp of returning, Jaden Schwartz (ankle) is not far off the horizon and Steve Ott (hamstring) is a ways off but expected to return in the not-too-distant future, the Blues have been able to bag points when they could have easily fumbled them away with a makeshift lineup on the ice at times.
"What we've put in the bank has really helped us," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "When we were in a tough spot from game seven to 25, we got points in those games that looks like we're going to need all of them that we got; we're going to need them now. That’s the bonus part. We were in a tough spot, but we got points and kept ourselves into it and now we have a chance to get healthy. Bergy's back quickly here and that'll be another guy that helps us. We still don’t know what our lineup is; we don’t know what we look like yet; we haven’t played one hockey game knowing what we look like. I just look back on that time, and what really was a wakeup call was watching us play in game 11 against Minnesota and you're going, 'Where's this guy, where's that guy?' We were in a tough spot, but we still got points. Those have really paid off for us right now."
So to be seven points off of first place in the tough division that they play in and coming close to playing with a full deck soon, the Blues like the position they're in and hope there's more in store for 2016.
"I think we like where we are at," captain David Backes said. "We've played a few more games than other teams but we've dealt with a lot of adversity and a few tough stretches and come out on the other end better for it. You like that sort of character from our guys. We've done a pretty good job of filling holes and patching the lineup. With a guy like 'Bergy' returning imminently and hopefully 'Schwartzy' chasing him down. He's been strolling around here pretty well. We'd love to see what this team is like with every body healthy and every weapon at our disposal.
"I feel like last year was maybe more of the anomaly than this year is. It feels like we've had a significant piece or so out for extended times in most of the years. Last year was the exception. Guys playing different roles and comfortable expanding their ability to play in different situations and different spots up and down the lineup will give us a lot more choices come playoff time and later in the season when push comes to shove or when guys are tired or injured, then you've got a lot more decisions to make. Those are great problems to have."
The Blues started off December losing four of their first five but have righted things even though games have been air-tight.
"The last month or so, we've had dips in our game, but we've found ways to win hockey games," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "This time of the year, fatigue sets in and you've got to find ways to do that. Nashville was a good example of that where maybe we slipped mentally but we found a second effort there to pull through in overtime. We look at the overall body of work. We've put ourselves in a pretty good spot in the standings, so you've got to be pleased with that."
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The Blues, 1-1-0 against the Wild this season that included a 3-2 overtime win on Halloween on Backes' winner, his second of the game, will face the Wild (19-10-6) without Zach Parise (lower-body injury).
"We've got to worry about our game," Backes said. "They've got plenty of other capable bodies over there and we've got to stick to what we do the best and we'll like our result. They're a team that's had success against us in the playoffs and we've split the two meetings with them so far this year. It'll be a good good divisional rivalry and another contested game for a full 60 minutes."
The Wild beat the Blues 3-2 on Oct. 10 and in the Western Conference First Round playoffs last season in six games. There's a reason for the close-knit games.
"No space," Hitchcock said. "Neither team gives you much. You've got to earn it. Not a lot of scoring chances, both teams have groups of forwards that work for the defense. You have to stay really patient and if you don't stay patient, then you end up making mistakes and you pay for it. Both teams are pretty honest teams that play an honest game. They're not easy for either team to play in."
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Before the Blues put 2015 behind them, they have to take care of business first before making any New Year's resolutions for 2016.
Some believe in them, some not so much.
"I don't believe you should wait for a holiday or a special time of year to make changes or make resolutions," Backes said. "I'm always trying to do something different or make myself better or make the next week better no matter where it is in the year. I haven't thought that far ahead. We've got a good game we need to win tonight and then we'll worry about New Year's resolutions and maybe a nice kiss from my wife after midnight."
Pietrangelo said he always has something in mind but ...
"I'll probably come up with something later tonight that doesn't make much sense," he said.
How long does it last?
"Usually about a week," Pietrangelo said, who said he gets ideas from his significant other as well but, "Let's be honest, that never works out either."
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Pietrangelo was leading the league towards the end of November in ice time, which is uncommon for him.
But since the return of Kevin Shattenkirk, Pietrangelo's minutes have been reduced and something the Blues wanted to do to keep him fresh.
Pietrangelo has only gone over 26 minutes four times in the past 17 games. He was over 26 minutes in 18 of the first 22 games.
He feels like he's been playing better and being able to keep his responsibilities in check.
"In the last month or so, especially me and 'Bouw' together, we've been on the penalty kill and elevated that and it's just kind of carried into our 5-on-5 game," Pietrangelo said. "Minimal opportunities for the opposing teams' best players and we're starting to create some offense, too. Our goal night in, night out is to chip in defensively, power play, penalty kill. If we can do that night in, night out, we feel like we're going to have a lot of success. Coaches have given me the opportunity to do that."
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When the puck drops tonight, left wing Jordan Caron will play for the fourth time in five games since being recalled from Chicago of the American Hockey League.
Caron, who's averaged a touch over six minutes in the three games he's played on the fourth line, knows the plug could be pulled on him at any moment with the Blues getting healthy. But he's making the most of his chances.
"Obviously I want to stay here," Caron said. "It's my goal to be in the NHL and that's what I work for every day. Right now, I'm just happy to be here and I'm taking it day by day and I'm enjoying every moment and I think that's the right approach to have to stay here.
"It's been good. It's a really good team, a heavy team, plays really good defensively and can score a lot of goals with the top two lines. I think it's a good fit for me. A defensive-minded team that likes to play physical and use their size and get on the forecheck. I feel I fit in pretty well with that group. I'm excited to be here. ... Every time I've been up in Boston, it was always been that same kind of role, fourth-line guy, getting on the forecheck and stuff, more of a checking role so I'm used to that. I'm enjoying it. I want to be in the NHL and I'm ready to take any role that they're going to give me."
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Former Blue Chris Porter will make his second appearance in St. Louis since the Blues decided not to resign him and he signed with the Wild as a free agent over the summer.
But the last time Minnesota was here, it was on the second of back-to-back games and there was no time to soak in what he called a second home.
"I really enjoyed my time here," Porter said. "Eight years in the organization. They gave me my opportunity to play in the NHL; it'll always be my second home. I've built a ton of great friendships. It's always tough coming into a building where you played here and you know all the guys, the coaching staff, training staff. You try and put that aside for the 60 minutes that you play, but it's hard to look across there and know you have friends over there as well."
Porter spent time with Berglund having dinner Wednesday night, and he said, "Bergy's still Bergy."
But Porter, who has two goals and two assists in 34 games, has found a niche similar to the one he had here.
He has family in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a 6.5-hour drive.
"Obviously first choice was to come back to St. Louis," Porter said. "I really felt I built a great thing here, but being from Minneapolis and I'm living there, it's nice to be home. I'm close to family and friends. It's an organization that's built a lot of great things over the years. I'm hoping to add to that piece. It's been a lot of fun so far."
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Vladimir Tarasenko missed the morning skate and did not play against the Wild because of illness. Tarasenko, who leads the Blues in goals (22) and points (39) missed his second game of the season. Ironically, he missed his only other game this season against the Wild on Oct. 31 because of the flu.
Scottie Upshall, a healthy scratch Tuesday, crew back in.
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The Blues' probable lineup:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Magnus Paajarvi
Scottie Upshall-David Backes-Troy Brouwer
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Dmitrij Jaskin
Jordan Caron-Kyle Brodziak-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.
The healthy scratch includes Joel Edmundson. Vladimir Tarasenko is sick. Jaden Schwartz (ankle), Patrik Berglund (shoulder) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are on injured-reserve.
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The Wild's probable lineup:
Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Thomas Vanek-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine
Chris Porter-Jarret Stoll-Ryan Carter
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella-Matt Dumba
Jonas Brodin-Nate Prosser
Devan Dubnyk will start in goal. Niklas Backstrom will be the backup.
Zach Parise (lower body) is day-to-day, and Darcy Kuemper (concussion) is out at least four games. The Wild has no healthy scratches.
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