NEWARK, N.J. - It didn't take much for Blues coach Mike Yeo to hear right wing Vladimir Tarasenko is good to go for today's game against the New Jersey Devils (6 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).
In fact, Yeo didn't need to hear anything.
"I just needed him to give me a nod, yep, and he did that," Yeo said after Tuesday's morning skate. "He said he was good to go."
So Tarasenko will play for the Blues (11-3-1) against the surprising Devils (9-3-1) after leaving practice early on Monday with what Yeo said was an upper-body injury sustained in the 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But Tarasenko skated on the line with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz and took part in power play practice with the first unit, giving all signs that he was good to go.
Not to mention showing no ill effects of an injury, smiling and joking with teammates.
"I told him that we might have a place in the lineup for him," Yeo joked.
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When the Blues started the season without injured forwards Alexander Steen, Robby Fabbri, Patrik Berglund and even Zach Sanford, there was a huge void left among the top six forwards.
Steen and Fabbri were penciled in to play with the top six, and when Berglund and Sanford, penciled to play the third line, would be called upon in that scenario to move up off the third line, it increased the void even more.
So who would fill in? How about the diminutive Vladimir Sobotka?
Many Blues fans scoffed at the idea, but Sobotka has filled in well playing with Steen and Paul Stastny. Sobotka's tallied a goal in three of the past four games and has six points in the past eight games after starting off with four assists in seven games to begin the season.
"We had some injuries and I got to play in the first line, second and third line," Sobotka said. "It doesn't matter for me. I try to do my best on the first line, whatever line.
"I actually play all positions. I'm good with that. I don't mind it."
Sobotka, who returned to the Blues last April after three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League with Omsk Avangard, has returned with more of an offensive flair to his game, something he picked up playing in Russia given more responsibilities over there.
"I try to work on it a little more than before," Sobotka said. "I think it's in my head, that it's about confidence and when you have confidence, you're going to make those plays. That's probably the most important thing.
"They just told me to play our game. Kind of same thing here, play our game, don't turn the puck over too many times."
And it's been a good fit for Yeo.
"He's done a great job up there," Yeo said of Sobotka. "There's been a couple times where we had to adjust things and that wasn't based on his play as much as it was just trying to get a spark or maybe light something up throughout the lineup. His play-making ability, his responsibility without the puck. Obviously scoring a big goal for us there last game, he's looked really good up there.
"... He's got an awful lot of poise. It shows up not only in the offensive zone or off the rush, but it shows up in our zone or in his ability to execute on the wall, allow us to make a tape-to-tape play as opposed to just throwing it out in the neutral zone, which in the long run helps us getting to our game."
Sobotka, who signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract upon his return to the Blues, is playing on the left side and prefers it or center as opposed to right wing; he likes the situation he's in, has played 17-plus minutes in 10 of 15 games this season and feels good about the fact the team is winning.
"We try to help each other on the ice, a lot of talk, support each other. It's going pretty good right now," Sobotka said. "Everything's fine. Everything's worked out well. I feel good, team's winning. Nothing better than that.
"It's fun to be on this team. Everybody's playing for each other. We feel confident, too, and we work for each other. That's the thing why we're doing so good right now."
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Many wondered with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester out with a fractured left ankle, how would Yeo put together his defensive pairings. Specifically, how would the third pair form and who would make it up?
So far, veteran Robert Bortuzzo and rookie Vince Dunn have not only formed a solid pair but one that's truly reliable in most situations.
For Dunn, his ascension has been a nice surprise, considering he had a number of ups and downs during training camp to come as far as he has in just 14 NHL games.
And for Dunn, who has two goals on the season, he credits Bortuzzo for helping him get acclimated to the NHL game.
"Obviously he's a big defender and I might be looked at as a smaller guy, so that helps me play with more confidence," Dunn said of Bortuzzo. "I don't feel like guys are going to be able to run through us. He always thinks defense first and he tells me that. He says he want to get the puck into my hands, so he gives me a lot of confidence more than anything probably. Just being in the league for a while and he understands you have to take the opportunities when they're given and to jump into the play, but at the same time, you've got to stick to the defensive side in mind. Just the balance of two is a pretty good pairing out there.
"It's just a work in progress. You learn more and more each game. I know that he's probably going to go in and take the body first and try to eliminate that and try to cause a battle for a puck to spit out for me to get. He's a big presence in the corners. I know he's going to be able to handle himself. I have to be that next wave to get the puck and get it out of our end. He's really reliable and he doesn't really complicate things in his own end. He's gonna move the puck up to the forwards, he's going to move it over to me. He's a pretty meat and potatoes player. He jumps up in the play, too, when it's there. ... He's always thinking defense first, but at the same time, I think we just have that real good balance."
Dunn doesn't fret over the fact he's only got two goals and came into the league with the penchant for being an offensive-minded defenseman.
"Obviously I want to be producing more (offensively) than I am, but at the same time, I want to be around the defensemen and someone that they can trust," Dunn said. "At this level, it's a business now. You've got to go out there and the coach has to know that you're going to do the right thing. I want them to know that I'm going to make the right play. I'm gonna make the safe play most of the time. I don't want to cause the team any hard when I'm out there. The numbers aren't really maybe there yet. Obviously it's my first year in the league, so there's still lots to learn but hopefully the next few games, things can finally turn around, but at the same time, I'm more worried about whether I'm going to cost the team rather than what I can give."
And after some hard love from Yeo early in training camp, the coach trusts using that pair when games are on the line now.
"We don't have to use them as a third d-pair," Yeo said. "We don't have to hide them. We can put them on the ice against anybody and have the confidence that they can defend, that they can help us get to our game. Both guys have been able to execute well and that's the biggest thing for us. We want to defend well and we need our defensemen to defend well, but talking about the game today, teams play too well offensively. If you want to play a puck-possession game, then you need your defensemen to execute, to make plays, to skate pucks out of traffic and they've been able to do that.
"[Dunn's] come a long way. He's improved an awful lot since the start of training camp and he needed to. That's where I give him an awful lot of credit because there were some tough conversations in there basically saying that 'the way you're playing the game right now will not be good enough to play in the NHL,' and he's adapted, he's changed, he's grown and I think that it's going to be important that we stay on him and he continues to have that same mentality."
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Jake Allen will get a fifth straight start tonight, a season-best.
Allen, who is 8-3-1 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, is a sparkling 5-0-0 with a 1.20 GAA, two shutouts and .952 save percentage lifetime against the Devils.
Carter Hutton, who is 3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and .950 save percentage, hasn't played since Oct. 27 against Carolina and would need to get some work in at some point after recently becoming a first-time dad.
It's hard for Yeo to overlook Allen's numbers against the Devils, but then again, is it?
"Right now, kind of what we've been doing is looking at what's the next game for 'Hutts,'" Yeo said. "Jake is our starting goalie, and basically what you do is you expect him to play almost every game and then we look at the schedule and try to figure out what times he needs to rest and what times are good opportunities for 'Hutts' to get in there. Obviously when you're doing thosr things, you're looking at past experience against the opponents for both goalies. Certainly that comes into play."
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The Devils, who had the first pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and selected Swiss center Nico Hischier, have thrust themselves up the Eastern Conference ladder after missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past five seasons.
It's been an impressive climb for New Jersey, which is getting impact work from Hischier (two goals, eight assists in 13 games) along with rookie defenseman Will Butcher (12 assists) and rookie left wing Jesper Bratt (five goals, seven assists). But then there's veteran left wing Taylor Hall, acquired from Edmonton prior to the 2016-17 season, who leads the team in points (17 on five goals and 12 assists).
"New Jersey's been scoring a lot of goals, too," Yeo said. "Even [Sunday] night, they didn't get the win, but they put [four] on the board and they've been doing that all year long. Their young players have really come in and done a really nice job for them, probably contributing even fast than I would say they would have even expected. It's going to be a good challenge. We're going to have to check real hard tomorrow and make sure that we're ready to defend against a team that plays real fast.
"You look at some of these teams last year, whether it's a team like New Jersey; maybe they didn't have a great year last year, but the year before, they were tough to play against. I know that they're well-coached and they weren't that far [off]. When you play against them, it's hard to play against them. You might win a game, but the margin between winning and losing is not a lot. Obviously those teams, they add one or two or three players that come in and are able to make a difference. All of the sudden, you've more than bridged that gap. I think we're seeing that around the league. There's so much parity and obviously, for teams that are doing well, it's tough to maintain that level and for teams that aren't doing as well, they're obviously looking to get better."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Vladimir Sobotka-Paul Stastny-Alexander Steen
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko
Dmitrij Jaskin-Oskar Sundqvist-Magnus Paajarvi
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Chris Thorburn
Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Robert Bortuzzo
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Beau Bennett and Nate Prosser. Jay Bouwmeester (ankle), Patrik Berglund (shoulder), Zach Sanford (shoulder) are out indefinitely. Robby Fabbri (knee) is out for the season.
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The Devils' projected lineup:
Taylor Hall-Nico Hischier-Jesper Bratt
Miles Wood-Adam Henrique-Drew Stafford
Brian Boyle-Pavel Zacha-Jimmy Hayes
Brian Gibbons-Blake Coleman-Stefan Noesen
Andy Greene-Mirco Mueller
John Moore-Damon Severson
Will Butcher-Ben Lovejoy
Cory Schneider is expected to get the start; Keith Kinkaid would be the backup.
The healthy scratch could be Dalton Prout. Steven Santini (upper body), who didn't play Sunday, skated with an optional group this morning; Travis Zajac (pectoral muscle), Kyle Palmieri (foot) and Marcus Johansson (concussion) are all expected to be out.