Vancouver Canucks: 57 GP, 25-26-6, 56 pts, sixth in Pacific Division
St. Louis Blues: 57 GP, 30-22-5, 65 pts, third in Central Division
Let's start with the good news—both Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter were back on the ice for Thursday's morning skate in St. Louis after missing Tuesday's shutout loss in Pittsburgh with injuries.
Now, the not-so-good news—while both players are making reasonably positive comments about how they feel, they'll both be game-time decisions.
With the Canucks' two important centres banged up, that five-day break next week will be a godsend in terms of offering some extra healing time. But first, it's three games in four nights, starting in St. Louis against the surging Blues.
Though Ken Hitchcock has an excellent reputation as an coach, he's also known as a taskmaster whose message eventually goes stale when dealing with NHL players. As of this moment, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong looks like he read his team's situation perfectly when he dismissed Hitch on February 1, a few months ahead of his intended departure at the end of the season.
At the time of the firing, St. Louis had gone 1-5-0 in its previous six games. Starting goaltender Jake Allen was struggling to the degree that he was given some time off in January to try to re-set mentally, and after reaching the Western Conference Final in last year's playoffs for the first time in 15 years, the Blues had slid into the wild-card section of the Conference standings and were at risk of missing the playoffs completely this year.
Of course, the Blues' lineup has also changed significantly from the group that put together the strong playoff run. Captain David Backes and winger Troy Brouwer both left as unrestricted free agents, while goaltender Brian Elliott was traded to the Calgary Flames. In their place, Armstrong brought in goaltender Carter Hutton to back up Allen and acquired David Perron and Nail Yakupov up front.
Despite all those challenges, the Blues have turned their game around just as Armstrong hoped when he moved Hitchcock out and moved Mike Yeo into the head-coaching job. Under Yeo, the Blues are 6-1-0, which has pushed them back into third place in the Central and given them a five-point cushion for postseason position.
Allen has played five of St. Louis' seven games since Yeo took over and has given up just seven goals in those five games. Not surprisingly, the Blues aren't taking a morning skate today as they get set for the second half of a back-to-back, but it's expected that Allen will get the nod tonight after Carter Hutton recorded a 2-0 shutout on Wednesday in Detroit.
By the way, that shutout wrapped up a 5-0 road trip for the Blues—a wildly enviable result from the point of view of Canucks fans, who have seen their team go 8-18-3 away from Rogers Arena this year. St. Louis has now boosted its road record to a fantastic 17-9-4. It's strange to see that the team is just .500 at home, but that record basically comes from the Hitchcock regime—the Blues have played just two games at home since Yeo took over.
As the Canucks wait for clarification of their status at centre tonight, the Blues are dealing with a couple of key injuries of their own. Sophomore winger Robby Fabbri is out for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL a couple of weeks ago, and centre Paul Statsny was placed on injured reserve after suffering a lower-body injury during a collision with Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 9.
Offensively, the team is being led once again by sniper Vladimir Tarasenko. His 26 goals are four off the current NHL lead, which belongs to Sidney Crosby, and his 53 points rank him 11th overall in the NHL. Tarasenko has been reasonably quiet since Yeo took over, though—he's usually close to a point-a-game pace but has collected just four goals in his last seven games and is pointless in his last two games. Due for a breakout?
Markstrom was in net in the teams' only previous meeting of the year. Back on October 18 at Rogers Arena, the Canucks beat the Blues 2-1 on Henrik Sedin's overtime game winner to open their season at 3-0.
In addition to the Blues' win on Wednesday, the Calgary Flames also picked up a 3-1 win over Philadelphia. That vaults Calgary back over L.A. into the second wild-card spot with 61 points, which means the Canucks have gone from four to five points out of a playoff spot.
The Kings' bye week comes to an end tonight against the Arizona Coyotes, while Winnipeg visits Pittsburgh and Dallas travels to Minnesota.