By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues ended last season as the 30th-ranked power play team in the NHL, and with a litte more consistency, probably would have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing out by one point.
It's still early in the process, but through 11 games and with the player personnel changes they've made, the Blues (4-4-3) enter Saturday's game at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) against the Minnesota Wild (7-3-2) as the fourth-best power play team in the league (29.8 percent).
The Blues have scored at least a man-advantage goal in four straight games and nine of their 11 games this season (14 power-play goals in all) and are doing it by, according to coach Mike Yeo, finding different ways to do it.
"I think we're scoring goals different ways, which is important," Yeo said. "We're a little bit more aggressive with that. When you start having success, confidence comes with that as well, so that helps. Obviously, special teams are so important all year long. The league's so tight, every game's so difficult, so obviously if you can be plus-1 or better on the special teams, then you're going to give yourself a huge opportunity to win the hockey game.
"One thing we focused on is we want to be more dangerous all throughout the zone. I thought that we were a little too predictable last year, a little bit one dimensional. I think that we have threats on both sides of the ice, I think we have threats up top and now we have threats down low. I think a good power play is taking what the other team gives you. Obviously there's something that's going to be available and we're making good reads with that."
Adding players like Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Pat Maroon to the mix of players that already included Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn have helped the early-season surge.
The Blues are taking what the opposition is giving them and making the most of their chances.
"I think we work," O'Reilly said. "We've got two good units that just work hard. We go out there and we want to be the unit that does it. Every time we touch the ice, we've got a good game plan. I think our coaching staff does a good job getting us prepared for it. It's nothing major. We've got the extra guy. It's shooting pucks and making sure we're all on the same page. When we do that, we seem to be scoring."
Tarasenko, who had just six power-play goals all of last season, already has four this season and one in three straight games (he has four goals in all during this streak).
"We talked to Vladi and Vladi has scored goals a certain way for a long time; he'll continue to do that, but we need to find different ways to score goals for him as a goal scorer," Yeo said. "That was a good example of that last game. When you do those things, other things open up for you."
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Blues defenseman Colton Parayko will be a game time decision tonight because Yeo said he's feeling "under the weather."
Parayko, who has five points (three goals, two assists) in 11 games this season, missed the morning skate.
"We'll see how he's doing when he comes to the rink tonight," Yeo said. "We just wanted to keep him away this morning and give him a chance to get some rest so we'll see how he's doing.
"If he's not there, we'll talk more. I feel pretty good that he's going to be ready for tonight but we'll see. I'm not going to put him or the team in a bad spot."
Jordan Schmaltz skated in Parayko's spot paired with Joel Edmundson during the morning skate and would go in if Parayko is unavailable.
"'Schmaltzy' has taken a big step for us this year," Yeo said. "He's always looked like a guy who has NHL defensemen qualities: skating ability, puck-moving ability, I think he thinks the game and defends the game fine. For him, the big step now is not trying to get through games but impact games, trying to be a difference maker in games. When he has that mindset going on the ice, he can impact the game with his gap control, with his skating ability, his closing ability, his stick, creating turnovers and defensively being aggressive. He can impact the game on the offensive side of things, we've seen that from him in his puck-moving ability, his ability to get involved in the offensive part of our game as well."
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Rookie center Robert Thomas will play in his eighth game tonight and be just one game short of playing in his allotted nine games before the Blues have to make a decision whether to keep him in the NHL full-time or send him back to juniors.
But with the way he's played the past two games, Thomas, who had two assists in a 5-3 win against Vegas on Thursday, has started to figure out his place in the NHL.
"For me, I'm just trying to do my best to continually get better," Thomas said. "I think that'll be one thing that helps me stay if I keep getting better each day and each game. I'm just trying to do everything to make it a really tough decision for them and show them my best.
"As every practice goes on and every game, I get more and more comfortable and confident. I think that will continue and I'm hoping to keep building off each game. ... I think the biggest thing's just watching my video. The game's totally different from junior and I think that's what I needed to adjust to from the first five or six games. I think just being able to watch myself and watch clips of other guys on our team like O'Reilly and Schenn and 'Bozie'. All of that combined, you get a picture of what you need to do to be successful."
Captain Alex Pietrangelo knows a thing or two about what Thomas is going through. He went through it twice in 2008 and 2009 when he was sent back not once but twice to junior before becoming a full-time player.
"You've just got to play," Pietrangelo said. "You can say all you want, right? It's always in the back of your mind for sure. It was for me at least. You've got to go out and prove that you belong here. He's played really well for us. It's gotten better obviously. Getting to play, the more you play, the better you're going to feel. It's hard, it is hard. It's hard to put away all the noise, but the only thing you can control is the way you play and I think he's doing that right now.
"You've got to understand sometimes it is for your best interests. It's hard for me to argue with it now, you can say. But you can't think like that. He has to think that he deserves to be on this team. He's got to think that he's got to earn his spot. He's in the lineup, so he's obviously playing well. They're not going to put anyone in he lineup that doesn't deserve to be there. That's a good sign for him."
Pietrangelo said he hasn't talked to Thomas about it because "if it's not in his mind, I don't want to put it in his mind."
But Keith Tkachuk has.
Thomas, who's living with the Tkachuk family for the time being, can't help but listen to a U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer when advice is offered.
"He went over a couple of my shifts [Thursday] night and gave me (some words)," Thomas said of Tkachuk. "I had a couple tough shifts and he let me know about it. It was fun."
Thomas, who has three assists in seven games, helped create the play on linemate Oskar Sundqvist's second goal Thursday by helping to eliminate the stick of the defenseman and dragging a forward with him to open up a lane for Sundqvist to shoot the puck, something he's done before.
"It's something that I've always kind of done," Thomas said. "When I looked up, I saw when the d-man was going down to block the shot, so I knew he couldn't get up and re-gap up and the other forward was trying to hit me. So I decided I'd leave it there and both of them came right to me and 'Sunny' made a sick shot there. ... To be honest, I didn't know he had that kind of shot. That was pretty sweet."
Thomas, Sundqvist and Robby Fabbri will account for the fourth line again tonight.
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Speaking of Fabbri, it's a good sign that he's healthy and ready to move on to another game. He and defenseman Carl Gunnarsson both made their season debuts on Thursday and will play again tonight.
"Both guys had real strong showings," Yeo said. "With 'Gunny,' that's what you're hoping to see. He was surprisingly very confident, aggressive. For me, that's when he plays his best hockey. At his worst, he's always going to be sound and reliable. At his best, he creates turnovers, he plays a little bit more aggressive with gaps and closes a little bit quicker in d-zone. He played that way last night. I thought he looked very strong and Robby, it was just a good, strong game for him. Good first game. Certainly he didn't look like a player that missed the amount of time he has. For him to step in, generate opportunities like that, it shows his instincts, it shows his competitiveness and his skill."
Fabbri played just 8 minutes 45 seconds but had an assist and was a plus-2 in the game. Gunnarsson played 13:52 and partnered with Vince Dunn.
"That wasn't bad. I think it was like 13-14 minutes," Gunnarsson said. "The top pairs are going to face the top lines. That's kind of expected. Special teams, didn't see much of that. It was good. I got out there at the end though and I was happy about it.
"It worked out pretty good. 'Dunner' and I, we kind of switched it up a little bit and made it easy for me. I thought I felt pretty good on that (right) side."
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Blues defensemen continue to supply offense in the early part of the season, just like they did last year.
Entering play Saturday, the Blues have 10 goals in 11 games from their blue liners, which is tied with Dallas (12 games) and Minnesota (12 games) for the second-most in the NHL. Ottawa is first with 11 goals in 12 games.
"I think the forwards are doing a good job of working the puck down low and when we're working the puck down low, everyone's got their backs to us and that's when we just find an open hole and they've been finding us," Edmundson said. "Also, the forwards have been going to the net hard, taking the goalie's eyes away. If we get the shots on net, the goalie can't see it. I think it's a combination of the forwards and 'D.'"
A perfect example of reading the play was Parayko on his goal Thursday that gave the Blues a 4-2 lead. He worked down into position while O'Reilly, Zach Sanford and Perron turned the puck over and was in position for the one-timer from the left circle on the O'Reilly feed.
"That was a great read by him," Edmundson said of Parayko. "When I see him going down, I slide across and fill in his position. We read off each other. Me and 'Pary' talk about it all the time if one guy slides in for the other guy, he found the open hole and O'Reilly had the nice pass in. Just simple things like that. As a d-core, we've been doing a good job of finding the holes."
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O'Reilly will put his six-game point streak (three goals, eight assists) on the line tonight.
In going 3-1-1 the past five games, the Blues have averaged 4.8 goals per game and scoring 24 goals total.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko
Zach Sanford-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron
Pat Maroon-Tyler Bozak-Alexander Steen
Robby Fabbri-Robert Thomas-Oskar Sundqvist
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Carl Gunnarsson
Jake Allen will start in goal; Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches are likely to be Ivan Barbashev, Nikita Soshnikov and Jordan Schmaltz. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) remains on injured reserve.
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The Wild's projected lineup:
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund
Jordan Greenway-Eric Staal-Charlie Coyle
Jason Zucker-Joel Eriksson Ek-Nino Niederreiter
Marcus Foligno-Eric Fehr-J.T. Brown
Ryan Suter-Matt Dumba
Jonas Brodin-Jared Spurgeon
Nick Seeler-Greg Pateryn
Devan Dubnyk will start in goal; Alex Stalock will be the backup.
The lone scratch is Matt Hendricks. The Wild report no injuries.