Lehtera returns, likely to play Sunday, excited for World Cup of Hockey
selection; Blues to get plenty of rest in March; extended shootout goes right way
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Jori Lehtera was back at practice for the Blues on Wednesday, his second time skating in as many days but first with the team.
Lehtera missed the past three games after being struck in the mouth area with an inadvertent puck against the New York Rangers on Feb. 25; he was back centering Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, aka the "STL Line."
Lehtera, who has seven goals and 27 points in 63 games, is "pretty sure" he's returning to the lineup when the Blues next play on Sunday at Minnesota.
"It was a good practice today," Lehtera said. "I feel better the whole day. ... It hit right here (above the lip) and it swelled. There was a hole, so they put the stitches inside and outside. A little headache, but now it's all gone."
Lehtera said it was difficult eating anything in the immediate few days after being hit. He was relegated to soups for the most part, but the first thing he had after the game he was injured? An Oreo milkshake he called "terrible."
"I didn't see anything coming," Lehtera said of the play. "It wasn't even that hard hit. I had a terrible headache, but now it's gone. I'm ready to play again."
Lehtera did receive some good news a few weeks back but wasn't officially announced until Wednesday when the respective countries unveiled their rosters for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, which will be played in September in Toronto.
Lehtera will represent his native Finland.
"They called me a couple weeks ago; of course I was happy," Lehtera said. "I saw the teams' rosters yesterday and there's the best players. Of course I'm happy to be there. ... It's always nice when they call you."
And regarding his Finland's roster?
"I think it's the best one Finland can have," Lehtera said. "If you play bad, the whole (country of) Finland is going to hate you. Of course there's huge pressure, but it's a lot of fun."
Lehtera joins current teammates Alexander Steen (Sweden) and Tarasenko (Russia) to make the opening roster, which consisted of 16 of the 23 players being selected by each team. Suspended Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka was selected to represent the Czech Republic.
The remaining seven spots will be revealed in June.
It will be the fourth appearance for Lehtera at the international stage; he has been part of two World Championships (2009 and 2014) and one Winter Olympics (2014).
"Olympics, World Championships ... of course, it's a good group of guys there," Lehtera said. "Good team spirit and I like to be there. ... It makes you play better, push harder.
"In Finland, there's five million people and in the World Championship final, there was three million people watching. It's a pretty big sport in Finland too."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock felt some of his other players should have been picked.
"I'm a little surprised that we didn't get more, to be honest with you," Hitchcock said. "Hopefully that next wave, we get a bunch more guys. I think we've got some good, character players that can add to the teams that are already picked. I'm hopeful that we get more. I was a little surprised that we only had three chosen."
Among those that could be under consideration when the rosters are filled include Kevin Shattenkirk, David Backes and Paul Stastny for USA, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo for Canada, Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko for North American's 23-Under squad and Patrik Berglund for Sweden.
Did Hitchcock lobby Blues general manager and Canada GM Doug Armstrong?
"I'm not doing that," Hitchcock joked. "I'm in the neutral zone this year."
Blues head equipment manager Bert Godin and head athletic trainer Ray Barile were chosen to represent USA.
* Rest up -- Now that the calendar has turned to March, the Blues (37-20-9) for a change will have the opportunity to get some valuable rest for a team that's been battered and bruised most of the season.
On Wednesday, the Blues began a stretch of playing one game (Sunday against the Wild) in seven days; they'll play only 12 games in the month and have seven stretches of two at least two days off between games, including four days from Wednesday through Saturday.
"That's perfect," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "I've never had a schedule like this where it's so front-loaded on us. That gives us a good opportunity to have some days off, get some rest, a look at some areas of our game that we need to improve, areas that we need to tighten up, even areas of our game that we've done really well and we can get good, positive feedback on it and get a good feeling in here. I like it just because you have a couple more days at home, a couple more days with the family, a couple days to relax and refresh yourself because you know the playoffs is always a taxing time."
Players certainly don't mind the extra time off, especially since the Blues usually have a back-loaded schedule.
"It's unusual for us and I think we've kind of put our work in and had a lot of competition early in the season so now we can get rest when it really matters," captain David Backes said. "That was kind of one of our feedbacks going into the season is that we had so many games at the end of the year, it's tough to have that jump in the playoffs when we really needed it.
"You need to make sure when games are there, you're not taking that rest for granted and you're in that game mode because we've shown when it's every other day or so that we can put a streak of a few together. We need to get the two points when they're on the line but also use those days when it's practice days to get some work done but also rest up so that we're bringing 100 percent for 60 minutes with a group of 20 guys."
However, Hitchcock isn't a fan of the extended days off, even though he likes the opportunities to implement practice time.
"I don't like it. I don't like it from the standpoint that everybody gets to play catch-up to us, so you're looking over your shoulder and I don't like the part of looking over your shoulder," Hitchcock said. "I think we'd rather get playing once our energy's back. I think the toughest part of this is waiting until Sunday to play because other teams are going to be playing three games and we're playing none until we catch up. So we've got to just manage our time properly so we've got the energy to play on Sunday. We don't want to show rust. We did what we did today. We put a double session in today, we'll rest tomorrow, we'll go back at it on a good pace Saturday and then we'll include the pregame skate with it on Sunday.
"I remember last year we were playing a lot. This year it seems that March is a little bit lighter. More time for practice and balance. It's just finding the right balance, it's finding the balance between rest and work. That's why we're in constant communication with the players and seeing what their energy's like, what their needs are and what our needs are. From a coaching staff's standpoint, we've got to get certain things out of the practice and the players need to get certain things too. You've got to get that sense of balance."
The Blues put in a double session on Thursday after having off-days on Monday and Wednesday; they'll take off Friday and skate hard Saturday before flying off to Minnesota.
"When we talked it over with the leaders, we're going to skate as a group in Minnesota, so when we put that skate in, the leaders wanted to skate as a group there," HItchcock said. "Rather than go every day, we decided to pull in another day."
* Shootout fun -- The Blues weren't pleased that they nearly squandered a second point in Ottawa on Tuesday after getting a 3-0 lead, but seeing the game go to a marathon shootout, it takes some of the intensity out of the game.
Berglund finally ended the Blues' longest shootout in franchise history when he converted in the 11th round as the 22nd shooter of a 4-3 victory against the Senators.
And in honor of that scintilating performance in which Jake Allen and Andrew Hammond dominated their respective nets, the Blues had a shootout contest at the end of practice Thursday.
The results resembled Tuesday when goals were at a premium until Robby Fabbri scored to win it for his team in the race to the finish.
"That's the longest one, especially without any goals," Fabbri said referring to Tuesday's shootout. "Pretty intense.
"I think the goalies did a great job. 'Snake,' you see in practice, he's a tough guy to beat in practice and he shows in the game as well. Hammond did the same thing. I give credit to the goalies on that one."
Brouwer added: "Today was an indication for guys to try and score some goals but for also coaches to have a good look to see if we get a little deeper into those shootouts, who's got good moves."
Eleven rounds really is nothing for Brouwer, who was part of the NHL's longest-ever shootout when his Washington Capitals lost the Florida Panthers last season in the 20th round.
"In Washington, I was like the 5-6 guy," Brouwer said. "I was coming up in a shot or two (for two attempts).
"At the very beginning of shootouts, it's intense, but once it goes further, it gets a little bit more and more funny because guys are on the bench panicking, trying to pick out their moves. Somebody that otherwise wouldn't get to shoot gets to go. It is a lot of fun to get to see your teammates go out there and have fun when you're the only guy on the ice."
Backes and Ryan Reaves even got superstitious and turned their backs to the ice in the later stages, choosing to get reactions from the crowd to tell them what happened.
"We've got a little routine trying different things to bring the mojo to our guys," Backes said. "That's what it had come to and it was to look away and stare up in the stands and getting some gestures and some boo's. Then we saw them getting up to leave the rink and saw our guys cheering and it was a good result. ... It's part of the fun of the game to enjoy that."
* Reaves misses practice -- Reaves was the lone skater not present at practice, with Hitchcock calling it personal time.
Reaves' wife Alanna is due to deliver the couple's first child, and Hitchcock said the right winger will be available for practice Saturday.