By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues took care of business to open this four-game homestand, beating the teams (Edmonton and Detroit) that they're supposed to beat.
Now comes the real challenge.
The true tests will arrive in the form of the best team in the NHL (Tampa Bay) on Saturday, and the hottest team going (Vegas) on Monday.
The Blues (39-27-8) will look to gain ground in the Central Division when they host the Lightning (58-13-4) at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM). St. Louis is four points ahead of the Dallas Stars for third in the Central and four behind the Nashville Predators for second.
The Blues have won the first two games of the four-game homestand (7-2 over the Oilers and 5-2 over the Red Wings) but now play a team in search of their third eight-game winning streak of the season; they have won seven in a row for the fourth time in one season, matching only the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers.
"We played them well last time we were in Tampa, right," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We know what we're capable of inside this room. We played them well, we looked at it this morning, same type of recipe. We know what we can do."
The Blues beat the Lightning 1-0 in overtime on a Brayden Schenn goal Feb. 7, their fourth straight win during what turned into a franchise-record 11-game winning streak.
"We controlled the pace of play," Pietrangelo said. "We kept them out of our end, for one. They want to play direct, they want to play on the move, so we want to play the game into their end. It's two teams that maybe play a little differently, but whoever can control the pace of the game is going to have the most success."
Them come the Golden Knights on Monday, who are 10-1-0 since the trade deadline when they made the big splash and acquired Mark Stone from Ottawa.
These are the tests the Blues will see come playoff time, so it'll be a good opportunity to get a gauge on where they're at.
"Both are good teams," Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. "Tampa obviously the best record in the league. Just going on that game we played in Tampa it was just a real competitive game. They've got high-end skill and they compete hard. Vegas has really turned it up since the trade deadline with a couple acquisitions that have really helped them out and they're on a roll.
"That [Lightning] team's focused for sure. Their coach does a good job of doing that and keeping them focused and they've got veterans on that team that have been around and won a lot of games. They know they've got to stay playing and stay focused, so it's going to be a tough game."
The Lightning, 19-2-0 the past 21 games, already have wrapped up the Presidents' Trophy, need four wins from tying the NHL record for most wins in one season (Detroit, 62-13-7, 1995-96). The Lightning also must win their remaining five road games to set the NHL record for most road wins in one season (Detroit, 31, 2005-06).
"We just want to continue to find ways to win games," Lightning center Steven Stamkos said. "That's what this whole season's been about. We've had some quality opponents the last few games, including this one tonight.
"... It was a 0-0 game if I remember correctly (against the Blues) going into overtime. Both teams defended well, both teams' goaltenders were on. They check well. The second half of the season, they've been one of the top teams in the league to get back into a playoff spot. They're a really good team and we're going to have to stay disciplined. We expect a low-scoring game."
The Blues, 3-0-0 against the Lightning and Golden Knights this season, have done well against the teams at the top of the standings.
"I think the big thing for us is to look at it as another game," Blues forward Zach Sanford said. "Come prepared and come ready to play hard. It is a good test. They're a good team and we'll see how we match up against them.
"Vegas has been hot too and they're a strong team. It's two good tests for us."
With the Predators and Winnipeg Jets set to square off tonight, a win for the Blues means they will gain on someone.
"It's a pretty good test for us," Blues forward Robert Thomas said. "We've been playing up and down a bit lately. We've got to be real sharp if we want to beat these teams.
"We're still fighting to move up in the standings here. The teams below us are playing real well as well. Every game matters that much more, especially against the top teams. You want to build some momentum going into the playoffs and really elevate your game."
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It'll be an interesting evening in the home of Joe and Eddy Pietrangelo on the Toronto suburbs tonight.
Alex Pietrangelo's parents will welcome the parents of teammate Michael Del Zotto and Stamkos over to watch the game tonight.
Two sets of Blues parents vs. one for the Lightning.
Well, it goes back to when Pietrangelo, Del Zotto and Stamkos were part of the assembled all-star team known as the Toronto Blues, a group of kids that played summer hockey together.
The team featured Toronto's John Tavares, Tampa Bay's Cameron Gaunce as well as goalie Michael Hutchinson, who's with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.
Pietrangelo and Del Zotto have spoken of their experiences about it, but Stamkos also remembers it vividly, including the 49-1 record they had.
"We were probably 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 (years old), in that range," Stamkos said. "We had a pretty amazing summer team together. We went like 49-1 in three summers or something like that. It was a lot of fun, a lot of great players that were on that team. My dad [Chris] was the coach and just pretty much opened the doors and let us go. We used to have one practice at the beginning of the summer for everyone to get to know each other, for the parents to get to know each other and that was it. We just went out and played. We had some great times together.
"It was summer hockey so it was a little more fun. Tavares was on that team, Michael Hutchinson was the goalie, so we had a lot of NHLers. Cameron Gaunce was on that team for a little while as well. The fact that we all grew up together, kind of grew up in the same neighborhoods and played with or against each other pretty much our whole lives. Maybe something in the water that birth year, but it was pretty special looking back now seeing guys who have gone on to have great professional careers. We played together when we were seven, eight years old all the way to 15."
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As if Ryan O'Reilly hasn't received enough praise this season for helping the Blues get to where they are, potential Jack Adams winner and Lightning coach Jon Cooper had the experience of coaching O'Reilly for Canada at the 2017 World Championship and had some glowing comments about O'Reilly, who leads the Blues in points (69) and assists (43).
"I think everything I'm about to say here has been said a thousand times about him, but there's not an area on the ice that he doesn't excel at," Cooper said. "It's from the drop of the puck, whether it's faceoffs, penalty kill, power play, in the locker room. He's one of those guys that I think teams that win, he's a big part of that. I just know from that experience at the Worlds, and we ended up losing in a shootout in the end, without guys like Ryan O'Reilly driving the bus for us in that tournament, we wouldn't have gone as far.
"One of the things about coaching in those tournaments is building relationships with other players not on your team. I was very fortunate to be able to be with Ryan for a couple weeks."
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Blues forward David Perron will take a 17-game point streak (nine goals, 13 assists) into the game, a personal career-high.
The Blues will look to register a hat trick for the third straight game, which would be a franchise record. Jaden Schwartz had one against Edmonton on Tuesday and Ivan Barbashev recorded one THursday against Detroit.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Brayden Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz-Oskar Sundqvist-David Perron
Pat Maroon-Tyler Bozak-Robert Thomas
Zach Sanford-Ivan Barbashev-Alexander Steen
Vince Dunn-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Colton Parayko
Michael Del Zotto-Robert Bortuzzo
Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches will be Robby Fabbri and Mackenzie MacEachern. Joel Edmundson (lower body), Carl Gunnarsson (upper body) and Sammy Blais (lower body) are out.
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The Lightning's projected lineup:
Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-J.T. Miller
Tyler Johnson-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Mathieu Joseph
Adam Erne-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman-Mikhail Sergachev
Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn-Jan Rutta
Andrei Vasilevskiy will start in goal; Louis Domingue will be the backup.
Healthy scratches will be Danick Martel and Cameron Gaunce. Dan Girardi (lower body) and Anton Stralman (lower body) are out. Yanni Gourde will not play and will serve the first of a two-game suspension.
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