By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Over the big picture, there's much more on the line for the Blues when they put their seven-game winning streak and 9-0-1 point run on the line Saturday afternoon against the Minnesota Wild.
Sole possession of second place is on the line between two teams tied for points with 98, but for the Blues (44-20-10), and for the Wild (46-21-6) for that matter, it's quite simple: win and they're in.
There's different scenarios of clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs for each team, but for the Blues, they can take care of the formalities on their own by just winning and not relying on a loss by the Los Angeles Kings that would also put them in should they not prevail against the Wild, who the Blues are looking to sweep the season series against after winning in dramatic fashion against them, 4-3 in overtime, here last Friday.
The Blues can also get in by earning at least a point and the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the Kings in any fashion or the Edmonton Oilers beat the Vegas Golden Knights in regulation.
The puck drops at Enterprise Center at 2 p.m. Saturday before the Blues hop on a plane and take on the Nashville Predators on Easter Sunday at 5 p.m.
"It's a big game. They're right there with us," Blues coach Craig Berube said of the Wild, who have won three in a row after losing here on April 8. "It's always good games against them. Looking forward to it."
And why wouldn't the Blues be looking forward to it. They just keep rolling along after a 6-2 win at Buffalo on Thursday, but now that they know their plight -- captain Ryan O'Reilly didn't know at first -- the task is simple.
"I didn't know that, but that's good to know," O'Reilly said. "I look at the standings seeing where we are. It looks like it will be Minny (in the first round), but still a lot of hockey left and we're still taking it one game at a time and it's going to be an exciting game tomorrow. A good team that we're probably going to be seeing a lot of soon. It's going to be an intense one.
"Any year you want to obviously clinch as soon as you can and that's an opportunity for us tomorrow, so definitely we'll be thinking about that. We've got to stay in the details of the game, do things the right way and know that it's not going to be easy."
The Blues fell behind 3-1 against Minnesota before rallying to win it in overtime. It'll be more of a physical style of game, not just Saturday but Sunday as well, in contrast to what the Blues faced against the Sabres, and the Boston Bruins last Tuesday to a certain degree, teams that like to transition it more and play a run-and-gun style.
"They pressure you hard, they're physical, got some real high-end players over there and they've got good size," Berube said of the Wild.
"It's going to be very physical," O'Reilly said. "Our last game against them too was a physical, tight-checking game. They're a relentless team. They work, they forecheck hard, they defend hard. It's one of those games that has that playoff style to it. As we ramp up here and can potentially see them, it's an important game. It's going to be an intense game, but I like that. That's what we need at this time of the year in preparing."
What's been impressive about this recent run is the Blues' ability to adjust and be able to play the style their opponent prefers.
"I think our team does adjust pretty well to different styles," Berube said. "Obviously teams play different, like Buffalo last night. They're a good puck-possession team, they make a lot of plays, but we did a good job of countering that and got some goals but (Jordan) Binnington had to be good. That was the big thing because they had some chances. They made plays and I didn't think we checked very well in that game."
But going back to the big picture again, the Blues have eight games left; the Wild have nine. A loss wouldn't hurt in this situation, but will make it tough to gain the home ice advantage in the first round, but winning could help the Blues gain that edge in a building where they're 25-9-4.
"I think our building's an electric place and we want to be in here as much as possible," O'Reilly said. "Home ice is definitely important. You don't want to look at outcomes and get ahead of ourselves here. It's one game at a time, outplaying our opponents and building our game in that playoff mentality. It is something that we want. We've got to fight for it and it's going to be tight."
"I think it's important for sure to have home ice," Berube said. "You just want to stay consistent here. That's the biggest key. We just need to focus on the game tomorrow. That's it."
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Not only are the Blues winners of seven straight, but a 10-game point streak has put them in a great position. They've scored four or more goals in each of the past 10 games, a franchise record.
They've come a long way since that demoralizing 7-2 home loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 26.
"We really started to show urgency in our game after that, intensity, a checking side of things and just playing harder hockey," Berube said. "When we do that stuff, we have the skill to score goals. That doesn't take away from your scoring."
It hasn't taken away from it in this 10-game point streak run. The Blues have outscored their opponents 48-24, averaging 4.8 goals per game while allowing an average of 2.4.
"We want to keep building and building our defensive side of the game and make sure we're solid that way, but I thought we've done a good job of finding a way to put the puck in the net and just find ways to beat whoever we're playing against," O'Reilly said. "It's been a good stretch where I think it's given us a lot of confidence in this group knowing that we can play with anyone and have success against anyone. It's exciting for us."
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Which line is the hottest in the NHL right now?
I think those that follow the Blues know it's Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Buchnevich and Robert Thomas.
After that trio combined for 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in the win against the Sabres, their numbers are flying off the charts right now.
Tarasenko, who had his first five-point game in the NHL Thursday (three goals, two assists), has 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists) in 18 games.
Tarasenko, who leads the Blues in goals (31) and points (72) in 67 games, has rebounded from two injury-filled seasons and is on one of his most successful stints in his career.
And Berube said it's all about Tarasenko's skating, and skating north.
"If you look at the opening draw (Thursday), and it's just a little thing, but for me, it means a lot," Berube said. "We lose the draw, but he just spins off his guy, he's right on his toes right away and he just jumps. He gets the puck in the offensive zone. That's what he's showing me right now, he's on his toes and he's skating. I see him tracking back a lot, hard, breaking plays up, being physical. He had a nice, big hit in the game last night in the game again. He's a physical player and he's driving wide on the 'D' and taking the puck right to the net.
"For me, he's been pretty good all year. I said it to you before, it was a while back, he should have 30 goals by now. He's created tons of good opportunities to score goals. They're going in now."
Thomas is on an absolute heater. He has an NHL career-high 11-game point streak (six goals, 17 assists) after a career-high five-point night (five assists), and Thomas has 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) his past 15 games; he has 71 points (18 goals, 53 assists) in 64 games.
Thomas is the first Blue with 50 or more assists since Doug Weight had 51 in 2003-04.
"You put them together, you've got a scorer (Tarasenko), you've got a high-end playmaker and puck distributor in Thomas and you've got a guy that, Buchnevich for me, he's a very intelligent player, got a great stick and great vision," Berube said. "That's really what it boils down to with him. That's a pretty good combination on a line. Buchy has great instincts, breaks a lot of plays up from a defensive standpoint. That's helpful on the forecheck, having a good stick breaking plays up so the puck gets in our hands, gets in Thomas's hands. Vladi's always in a scoring position. That's one thing he does, he always finds open ice.
"He's created separation a lot and that's a big thing, to create that separation and he's very good at it because when he cuts back and turns up, he's already moving out of that and creates some separation, so that's going to open some ice up. He's going to make plays off that."
Buchnevich, who's quietly put together a point-per-game season thus far with 65 points (26 goals, 39 assists) in 65 games, is on an eight-game point streak (five goals, nine assists) and has 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) his past 14 games.
Folks, that's 74 points (29 goals, 45 assists) the past 18 games from that trio.
"It's fun to watch, that's for sure," O'Reilly said. "Some of the plays that they're making, like the one goal last night where 'Tommer' hits 'Buchy', who then hits Vladi backdoor. There's not many guys you see in the crease make that pass backdoor and put it home. It's such an amazing play. These guys, they're confident, they're playing so hard, they worked so hard last game and to see them get rewarded for it is awesome. I know for fans, it's exciting to watch these. They're so dynamic and dangerous. Every time they get the puck, it just creates so much and that's something we feed off of."
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The Blues held an optional practice Friday, and among the skaters were injured Tyler Bozak, who's missed the past 15 games with a lower-body injury but appears to be on the brink of returning, and Mackenzie MacEachern, who's missed the past three games with an upper-body injury.
However, the Blues put MacEachern on long-term injured reserve, thus ending his regular season, and recalled Dakota Joshua from Springfield of the American Hockey League under emergency conditions.
Also, defenseman Scott Perunovich, who hasn't played since Jan. 15 after having left wrist surgery, was on the ice getting in conditioning work done but limiting the use of his left hand. He still seems a ways off from actual competition.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Brandon Saad-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron
Pavel Buchnevich-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko
Ivan Barbashev-Brayden Schenn-Jordan Kyrou
Alexei Toropchenko-Logan Brown-Nathan Walker
Marco Scandella-Colton Parayko
Nick Leddy-Justin Faulk
Torey Krug-Robert Bortuzzo
Ville Husso is expected to start in goal; Jordan Binnington would be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Niko Mikkola, Calle Rosen and Dakota Joshua. Tyler Bozak (lower body), Mackenzie MacEachern (upper body) and Scott Perunovich (wrist) are out.
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The Wild's projected lineup:
Kirill Kaprizov-Ryan Hartman-Mats Zuccarello
Matt Boldy-Frederick Gaudreau-Kevin Fiala
Tyson Jost-Joel Eriksson Ek-Marcus Foligno
Brandon Duhaime-Nick Bjugstad-Nicolas Deslauriers
Jacob Middleton-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Dmitry Kulikov
Jordie Benn-Alex Goligoski
Cam Talbot is expected to start in goal; Marc-Andre Fleury would be the backup.
The healthy scratch is Connor Dewar. Matt Dumba (upper body), Jordan Greenway (upper body) and Jon Merrill (upper body) are out.