ST. LOUIS - For being division rivals, the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild certainly haven’t seen each other much.
The last (and only) meeting this season was way back on Nov. 29 at Xcel Energy Center. Vladimir Tarasenko scored a goal in regulation and added the shootout winner to help the Blues to a 3-2 victory.
As the Blues host the Wild tonight, they prepare for a team that’s very different in terms of personnel. The Wild team in November didn’t have goalie Devan Dubnyk, who since being traded to Minnesota on Jan. 13, has made 27 consecutive starts, recording a 19-5-1 record with a 1.69 goals-against average, a .937 save-percentage and five shutouts. In addition, the Wild acquired former Blues Jordan Leopold and Chris Stewart at the trade deadline.
Over the last 26 games, Minnesota has surged to the top Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, going 19-5-2 since Jan. 15. They’ve also won six consecutive road games and have collected points in 12 of the last 13 on the road.
“I think our focus has to stay the way it has been all year,” David Backes said of preparing for Minnesota. “That’s working on our game, getting better every day, and whoever our opponent is that night, whether we’re at home or on the road, a division opponent, an Eastern Conference team - we need to play our game and we’ll like the result.
“They’ve changed more personnel than we have, but they’ve got plenty of points, we’ve got plenty of points. We’re going to concentrate on our team and how we’re playing. Take care of business tonight and we’ll take care of the rest after that.”
As the season enters the final stretch, the Blues and Wild will become a bit more familiar with each other. The teams meet three times in the final 15 games. And although the personnel has changed, Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock knows what to expect from Minnesota.
“I don’t see any change in the way they play other than there’s a little more calmness with the goaltender in there,” Hitchcock said. “They play us hard, they play in our face, give us a lot of tough games. We seem to get the right goal at the right time (against them), but we’re going to have to play a heck of a lot better than we did back in November if we expect to win the hockey game, because we were not good in that game and still ended up getting two points.”
ST. LOUIS - Exactly one week ago, the Blues and Flyers met at Wells Fargo Center. Jaden Schwartz scored in the first period and the Blues took a 1-0 lead to the third, but the Flyers scored three times in the final 10:13, including an empty-netter, to earn a 3-1 victory.
The Blues have have won both games since and are preparing for a different result tonight (7 p.m., FSMW, KMOX).
“A week ago seems like a month ago,” Blues forward T.J. Oshie said. “We’re just ready to get back out there. Had a nice day off yesterday, a good skate this morning and we’re ready to go. It should be a physical battle tonight. It’ll be fun and a real good test.”
“Playing with two skilled guys, I don’t want to change anything that they’re doing,” Porter said after the morning skate. “Play straight lines, create a little room for them and have a little fun myself. You don’t usually get these opportunities so I try to make the most out of it. I want to help the team in any way I can, whether it’s practice, games or whatever it is.
“When I get my opportunity, I want to make my mark.”
Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said he’s looking for Porter to bring his usual energy.
“I think he’s an underrated player offensively, so this is giving him a chance to really jump up and play on a good line in a top-nine role,” Hitchcock said. “I just want him to relax and bring good energy. The energy will be there.”
Patrik Berglund will sit out tonight in what Hitchcock called a “coach decision” but will play on Saturday. Also, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester will return after missing two games with an illness. Hitchcock also said Olli Jokinen, who left with an injury in the third period Saturday in Toronto, will play this weekend.
Zbynek Michalek skated with the team today and could make his Blues debut soon. “It’s now his call. When he taps us on the shoulder, he’s in.”
ST. LOUIS - The race to win the Central Division is heating up.
And so is the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, as a matter of fact.
At the time of this writing, the Blues (87 points) sit four points behind the Nashville Predators (91) and Anaheim Ducks (91) with three games in hand on both. A win tonight against the Winnipeg Jets would move the Blues to within striking distance of the overall NHL lead.
And what better way to make up ground than by collecting points during a three-game home stand?
“All these divisional games are big. Winnipeg is a team that is chasing us, so we’ve got to keep these teams behind us,” said Blues forward Ryan Reaves. “We’ve got to start chasing teams above us. Everybody’s ramping up, everybody’s going to be playing playoff hockey. It started a couple weeks ago and it’s only going to get more intense.”
The Jets come to town tonight as the final Wild Card team in the Western Conference. At 33-21-12, the Jets sit three points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings. On Saturday, Winnipeg beat the Predators, 3-1.
Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said the Jets are physical and because of that, they skate hard. The Blues will need to be ready to match that effort.
“I like these games. They’re fun to coach in, and I think the players enjoy playing these games,” Hitchcock said after the morning skate. “Really for two years now, every game is really close, there’s not much difference between the teams. They give you great evaluation postgame of what you like and what needs to get worked on. They’re games that are great barometers of what our team play, strengths and weaknesses are.”
“When they initiate, I feel like they get teams on their heels a bit,” Reaves added. “You find yourself trying to claw your way back into that game. So if we initiate, we get them on their heels and that would be a lot better approach for us.”
TORONTO - Less than a week ago, Olli Jokinen traded his blue sweater for, well…a blue sweater.
The shades are a bit different of course. And if he had played more than six games for the Maple Leafs, tonight might be sort of a homecoming for the 17-year NHL veteran.
Jokinen, who played 48 games with the Nashville Predators, was traded to Toronto on Feb. 15. On Monday though, the Leafs moved him back to the Central Division with a deadline day deal with the Blues, acquiring Joakim Lindstrom and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2016.
Tonight, Jokinen will wear his 10th NHL sweater when he makes his Blues debut at Air Canada Centre.
“As a new player, you come in and try to fit in and try to make the best of the opportunity you get to play,” Jokinen said. “I’m not any different than every other guy here. Every player wants to play and I understand my role. I try to stay positive when I play or not play, and hopefully it’s a long rest of the year.”
The 36-year-old Finnish forward has played in 54 games this season, registering three goals and four assists. For his career, Jokinen ranks eighth among all active skaters with 1,223 games played and is one of eight players with more than 1,200 games played and 700 points.
“(He brings) a lot of experience. He’s a very veteran guy, very versatile,” Alexander Steen said. “You can throw him into any situation: top six, bottom six, center, left wing, right wing - he can play everywhere so he’s an easy guy to slot in and out.”
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong said he likes the depth Jokinen can give his club.
“When I look at our roster, I like our group of 12 very much,” Armstrong said. “But our ability when a top-nine player gets injured … we really didn’t have a player that could slide up and play consistently in that top nine. Coming in now, he’s comfortable, he’s played in that environment before and he was experienced in those areas.”
“It will be important for us to stay true to ourselves and play the same way,” Ott said. “(Jokinen) has a lot of games played, a lot of points in this league. He’s played in all situations and he’s been a heck of a centerman. I’ve gone against him in a lot of years throughout my career and I know what he can bring.”
"It was a quick stop here (in Toronto) and I really liked my time here," Jokinen said. "The focus is now on St. Louis and I am trying to fit in here. I am looking forward to my first game with the Blues. It’s pretty exciting."
PHILADELPHIA - As luck would have it, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo will make his Blues debut tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center (6 p.m. CT, FSMW, KMOX).
As any Penguin would, Bortuzzo developed a dislike for the Flyers overs his four seasons in Pittsburgh, and that’s some extra motivation for him tonight.
“This building is obviously fun to play in,” Bortuzzo, who will wear No. 41, said after today’s morning skate. “I had a couple good battles in here. It’s exciting.”
Bortuzzo, who was traded to St. Louis on Monday in exchange for Ian Cole, brings significant size to the Blues’ defense. The 25-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont. native is 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 215.
“It will be great going down the stretch with some bigger bodies. In the playoffs, having size and mobility really wears on the other team,” Barret Jackman said. “He’s a big kid that plays hard. He sticks up for his teammates, so that’s something we have a lot of respect for in this locker room.
When asked to describe his game, Bortuzzo describes himself as a competitive player.
“I want to be hard to play against,” he said. “Get pucks in and out of our zone as quick as possible. Obviously we have a very talented forward group up there, so obviously I need to get pucks in their hands.”
Bortuzzo has played in 113 games over the course of his career, recording four goals and 16 assists. In those four seasons, he’s collected 171 penalty minutes.
VANCOUVER - A win tonight would move the Blues to within three points of the division-leading Nashville Predators. A win would also put the Blues seven points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks, who sit third in the division.
Both Nashville and Chicago are idle tonight and have played 63 games. Tonight will be game No. 63 for St. Louis (8:30 p.m., FSMW, KMOX).
“I think the players recognize what’s at stake,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said before Saturday’s game in Edmonton. “We’re preparing for Edmonton (now), but less than 24 hours later we’ve got to get ready for Vancouver. I think you just prepare to play your game and play it as well as you can.”
After traveling from Edmonton last night, the Blues did not have a morning skate today in Vancouver.
The Canucks are injury-riddled group that is without defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Christopher Tanev and Alex Edler. They’re also without right wing Alexandre Burrows and goalie Ryan Miller. Despite the injuries, Vancouver is 4-2-0 in their last six games and sits in second place in the Pacific Division.
The Blues can’t afford another slow start tonight at Rogers Arena.
“I'm concerned about our slow starts,” Hitchcock said last night’s 2-1 win in Edmonton. “I'm concerned about the way we play in our starts. We don't look like we get to our game near soon enough … and we're going to have to find a way to get into our game a little bit earlier.”
EDMONTON - Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester will reach 900 games played tonight when the Blues meet the Oilers at 9 p.m. at Rexall Place (FSMW, KMOX).
Bouwmeester, an Edmonton native, will become the 15th active defenseman to have played in 900 games. Montreal’s Sergei Gonchar (1,294) is the active leader in a Top 10 that includes Ottawa’s Chris Phillips (1,179), Boston’s Zdeno Chara (1,174) and former Blue Chris Pronger (1,167).
“It’s one of those things where your career kind of goes in stages,” Bouwmeester said after the morning skate. “At first you want to just get playing and establish yourself and stay healthy over time. I’ve been lucky I haven’t missed a lot of big stretches in the year or anything, so it got here relatively quick. It goes by quick, it’s kind of scary.”
The 900 games number seemed to surprise people around the Blues locker room. Bouwmeester, who joined the Blues after a trade in 2013, is only 31 years old.
“He’s 31 and he’s already at 900 games? I mean, that’s incredible,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It shows you he’s been healthy and he came in the League early. It’s incredible. A lot of those guys, when you get to 900 or 1,000, guys are 35, 36 years of age.”
Earlier this season, Bouwmeester’s 737-game iron man streak ended as the fifth longest in NHL history. This season, the Blues defenseman has played in 53 games, recording two goals, eight assists and a plus-6 rating.
“He’s only missed seven games or so the last however many years,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “It speaks to him as a professional, the way he takes care of himself off the ice and the way he trains. It goes a long way as to why he’s been able to play as long as he has.”
Bouwmeester met friends and family last night, and they’ll be in attendance tonight to share No. 900 with him. That’s something Bouwmeester’s teammates are excited to be part of.
“As a player with him over the last few years, you know what he’s going to bring every night: his consistency,” Pietrangelo said. “That’s what makes him such a professional. You know what you get with Bo every game.
“It’s a special game for him and a special moment for all of us to share that with him.”
WINNIPEG - If tonight’s game at MTS Centre is even half as memorable as the last one, Ryan Reaves is going to have a pretty good story to tell.
Back on Nov. 23, the 28-year-old Winnipeg native broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period to help the Blues to a 4-2 win against the Jets. A large contingent of friends and family watched from the stands and were pleased to see the goal stand as the game winner.
“I did a little spin-o-rama, tried to get it on net, I don’t think the goalie was ready for it,” Reaves said after the game. “I’ve never gotten a point playing here in front of my family. I’ve had one or two fights, but never a goal. It’s always fun.”
That game on Nov. 23 was the first one Reaves’ father, Willard, attended this season. After the Fathers’ Trip in January, Willard has now attended four games. Ryan has scored in three of them.
And yes, Willard will be watching at MTS Centre tonight.
“It’s always special coming back and playing in front of friends and family,” Reaves said after the morning skate. “The family is coming. It might be a little smaller (group) than last time, but I hope I put on a show for everybody.”
Reaves knows that putting on that show won’t be easy. The Blues are facing a Jets team that has points in four of their last five games, most recently a 4-2 win Tuesday at home against the Dallas Stars. Winnipeg holds the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference with 73 points, and the Jets have done some lineup tinkering of late, acquiring Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers from Buffalo and yesterday, Jiri Tlusty from Carolina.
“They look a little different. We’ll get ready for them but one thing we know is this is an emotional building,” said Blues forward Alexander Steen, who also grew up in Winnipeg. “They like to come out fast. This is a great test for us. Tonight will be a fast paced and usually pretty physical hockey game.”
“We’re going to need 60 minutes if we expect to win. There’s lots at stake,” said Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock. “We’ve all got 20, 22 games (or so) left. We’re in a good position, but we’ve got to build on the position now. They’re in a good position now, they’ve got to build on it, too.
“This is what you hope for. A chance to get in the playoffs, a chance to do some damage, but now you’ve got to go out and earn it with your good play.”
ST. LOUIS - Jake Allen’s first game against the Montreal Canadiens didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.
With his friends and family making the eight-hour drive from Fredericton, NB, Allen made 26 saves but lost 4-1 to the Canadiens at Bell Centre on Nov. 20.
It was an important game for Allen, who grew up a Canadiens fan in part because his dad, Kurt, was one. Then, Jake played two seasons in Montreal in the QMJHL, where he recorded 39 wins. While there, he saw plenty of Canadiens games, which made him a bigger fan than he was previously.
Tonight, he starts in goal for the Blues and gets another chance to beat his childhood team. This time, he won’t be so nervous.
“He was really nervous when we were in Montreal there,” Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said today after the morning skate. “I don’t want to say it’s old hat, but he’s certainly more comfortable and calm about it than he was before.”
Allen has certainly looked comfortable and calm in net in 2015. Since turning the calendar to a new year, Allen has won six consecutive games and his 1.50 goals-against average ranks third in the League, while his .937 save-percentage ranks fifth.
“I just need to be myself out there and enjoy it,” Allen said. “I got away from that the last few games in 2014, but I just had to get back to that.”
Regarding tonight, Allen expects a tough test.
“They’ve got a lot of talent up there and firepower. Even from the back end, they’re a dangerous team,” he said. “They’re very well-rounded with (Carey) Price in net, solid defense, solid forwards. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”
“In fairness to Jake, he’s played really well the last couple games,” Hitchcock said. “Let’s give him an opportunity. This is a big game for both teams and it’s an important comparison game. Let’s give him a chance and see what he can do.”
ST. LOUIS - Last night’s 5-1 win against the Boston Bruins carried with it plenty of memorable moments. A four-goal outburst in the second period. Petteri Lindbohm’s first career goal, Vladimir Tarasenko’s 30th and 31st, some great saves from Jake Allen.
Unfortunately, there’s not much time to reflect.
After today’s morning skate, the Blues got right to work on preparing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, less than 24 hours after last night’s win.
“Today will be a quick review of what happened last night, and we’ll get ready for Pittsburgh tonight,” Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said before today’s team meeting. “We know the energy they play at and we know the energy we’ve got to have for tonight. Let’s save it all and prepare closer to the game.”
If the Blues need any pointers on how to play Pittsburgh, Marcel Goc might be able to help. Goc played 55 games over the last two seasons with the Penguins before being traded to the Blues in January in exchange for Maxim Lapierre.
“If you look at the lineup, they’ve got a solid team over there,” Goc said of his former team. “We’ve got to bring our A-game tonight to give ourselves a chance to win this game. They might ask me for (advice), but there are no secrets to any team (in the NHL). You have to be ready and mentally sharp from the start. We’ll go at this like every other game.”
Since joining the Blues, Goc has played in 12 games, registering one assist. In 11 games with Pittsburgh, Lapierre has one assist.
“I think it’s a trade that helped both teams,” Hitchcock said. “We have a hunter mentality on our fourth line, and we needed someone to just kind of calm it down between the dots. Goc has done that for us. He’s allowed (Steve Ott and Ryan Reaves) to get turned loose and get after people. On the other side, Pittsburgh needed that size and durability that Lappy brings.
“For me, it’s a good trade for both teams.”
Tonight’s game, the third of a four-game home stand for the Blues, begins at 7 p.m. (FSMW, KMOX 1120 AM).