By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues have played more than half of their games this season scoring two goals or less, so one would think the record is less than stellar.
But that's not the case.
Their 11-15-5 record isn't anything in black and white to write home about, but when one thinks that this is the record scoring two goals or less, 27 points in the standings is quite remarkable when one thinks about it.
"I don't know if that's something to be proud of not so proud of," captain David Backes said before the Blues (33-17-9) hosted the Los Angeles Kings (33-20-3). "We've found ways to win those games, but offensive production, if winning by two or three goals isn't something that's illegal or looked down upon by any means, it might leave some of the stress on Hitch's heart ... it's just too close for comfort at times. We've had struggles at scoring at moments and other times, we've been firing on all cylinders. We're looking to build that game where we're firing on all cylinders on all facets of the game.
"I think it's shown a lot of great character and ability to find ways to win those tight games, buckle down and batten down the hatches when you have a one-goal lead late in games. I don't know that we want to rely on that too much. You start playing on your heels, that prevent style defense, the saying is the only thing you prevent is you prevent the team from winning. We've got to be on our toes, stay on the attack."
The Blues have really buckled down defensively in recent weeks, and the play of Brian Elliott (13-3-2 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .946 save percentage) in goal, it's no secret why.
"I think I like our commitment to doing what it takes to win games, and sometimes that has to do with playing well defensively and knowing score and time of the game, the momentum of the game," Backes said. "That next shift needs to be concerted towards what we need as a group. We've gotten that a lot of times and that's why you've seen us stifle other teams' pushes and enable to turn the tide or neutralize it so we're not getting bombarded with shots."
When told of the mark, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester wasn't surprised.
"I wouldn't doubt that because we haven't scored a lot," Bouwmeester said. "At times, I think you're still living a little dangerously. If you score that extra goal ... even that last game, if we can find a way to score one more goal, it's probably not an overtime game. Over the last few years, we've played a lot of close games; everyone's used to playing them. You're comfortable at the end of it when you have a one-goal lead and things like that. It's better you can hang onto them and win them than give them up."
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Two teams that haven't done a lot of scoring will look to bring their respective big, heavy games to the table Thursday.
When the Blues and Kings play in an important Western Conference showdown (7 p.m. on FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), neither team has exactly lit the lamp the past two games. The difference is the Blues have won two in a row scoring four goals, including once in overtime, and the Kings, who are playing the sixth of a season-long seven-game trip, have lost two straight scoring one goal.
The Blues are always compared against the teams that they would potentially have to overcome to prove themselves when it comes to success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Kings, who eliminated the Blues in 2012 and 2013, are one of those opponents the Blues need to show a level of consistency against. They hope to do so Thursday after the Blues defeated the Kings, 2-1 in a shootout, the last time the teams played Jan. 9.
"It was a great little morale boost," Backes said. "But we don't start with any points on the board. It's a clean slate and we've got to build our game right from the puck drop."
The Kings, who missed the playoffs for the first time last season that ended a five-year run, are in first place in the Pacific Division this season and closing in on a return to the postseason. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock calls games against the Kings defining moments.
"I don't know that it's a rebound. They played well last year," Hitchcock said of the Kings. "They were on the wrong end of a lot of close games, but they played well last year. They played well enough to win and I think you get in that sometimes when you're a target. When you're a target, you get everybody's 'A' game. If you're not on the mark every time, it's hard to sustain such a high level. To me, they're playing exactly the same now as they were before. They've got a lot of good players who play predictable to each other and that's why their team looks faster than probably it is skating-wise just because they play so predictable and their anticipation on where the puck's going to be. Their puck management is probably one of the best in the League right now."
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Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz isn't quite ready to return as a full-time player.
Not yet, according to Hitchcock.
Schwartz, who missed 49 games with a fractured left ankle and returned last Friday against Florida, has three points (two goals) since his return.
But Hitchcock said it would take at least 5-6 games before Schwartz can get worked into special teams play, which which are roles he's played key roles in the past.
"I'm not sure. That'll be up to the coaches," Schwartz said when asked Thursday. "Whenever they fell like I can, hopefully I can soon. At the end of the day, that's their call and we'll have to wait and see.
When asked if he's 100 percent, Schwartz simply replied: "Good enough to play."
When asked, Hitchcock said, "Maybe next week. So I would say two or three more games before we get to there.
He's played three times. He's had two really good games and one where the energy wasn't that great. He's on schedule and we're hoping he takes the next step and we build him in at both ends of special teams sometimes next week."
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Playing with Alex Pietrangelo has been commonplace for Bouwmeester.
So when Pietrangelo went down with a right knee injury five games ago against Minnesota, Bouwmeester knew change was coming, and a different partner was in the cards.
It meant readjusting and getting used to a new partner, which has been Kevin Shattenkirk.
After an inauspicious start against Winnipeg, a 2-1 shootout loss, things seem to be on the up-and-up for the duo.
"There's always little adjustments," Bouwmeester said. "Just personally having played with 'Petro' so much over the past couple years, you kind of get reads off each other; they're pretty easy. I think we've done a pretty good job. The first game was a little tough. As a whole team, we didn't play very good, made a lot of things look worse than they were. I think we've concentrated on talking and having little plays and talking on the bench so you can get inside each other's head and thinking different plays. It's been fine."
Hitchcock said Shattenkirk was the one that had to adjust and has done accordingly.
"'Bouw's game doesn't change," Hitchcock said. "The game that needed to change was 'Shatty's. 'Petro' and 'Bouw' play underneath each other. 'Shatty' plays a different game. They had to make that adjustment, so it was more 'Shatty' had to make the adjustment to play with 'Bouw.' 'Bouw's the same every time. 'Shatty' had to make that adjustment because the pair that 'Shatty' was with was allowing 'Shatty' to play ahead of the pressure and by having to play under it now, I think it took him that first game to adapt and now there's some continuity on exits, on counters, communication there and I think it's helped both of them."
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The Blues penalty kill will be put to the test again tonight, and they'll do so as the No. 1 PK unit in the NHL.
The Blues, who have killed off 21 in a row and 31 of 32 the past seven games, are killing penalties at a 87.1 percent clip.
Why the recent success?
"I think the pressure," Hitchcock said. "When we go, we go with four. I think that's what's helped us. We're not afraid. When there's a bobbled puck, we jump and there's no hesitation in all four guys jumping. And then I think we've made good decisions after we put pressure on people too and get the puck down the ice. It's been the same since the start of the year. It's been probably the most consistent part of our game. We had a tough start to it, but we've really gained momentum off of it.
The big test comes with the Kings, who are No. 3 in the NHL on the power play at 22.7 percent.
"We've got a big test tonight," Hitchcock said. "This is a team that's not afraid to play on the power play on the road and they do a good job. This will be a good test for us."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Joel Edmundson-Robert Bortuzzo
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jordan Binnington will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Magnus Paajarvi and Peter Harrold. Alex Pietrangelo (knee), Jake Allen (knee) and Steve Ott (hamstring) are out.
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The Kings' projected lineup:
Milan Lucic-Anze Kopitar-Dustin Brown
Dwight King-Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli
Tanner Pearson-Vincent Lecavalier-Trevor Lewis
Kyle Clifford-Andy Andreoff-Jordan Nolan
Brayden McNabb-Drew Doughty
Jake Muzzin-Alec Martinez
Jamie McBain-Luke Schenn
Jonathan Quick will start in goal. Jhonas Enroth will be the backup.
Nick Shore and Kevin Gravel are healthy scratches. Matt Greene (upper body) and Marian Gaborik (lower body) are out.