ST. LOUIS — T.J. Oshie is feeling better and better every day. And a healthy Oshie returning to form could be a key for the remainder of this rugged first-round playoff series against the Blackhawks.
"That first game I felt like I was lost and I got it taken to me and I wasn’t really a factor for us," Oshie said of his return for Game 2. "Luckily, we got the win on that one. But last game I felt like I was a lot better, the best game I’ve played probably in a month. The pucks didn’t go in for me, but I had a lot of shots and I have to build from there."
The Blues’ second-leading scorer in the regular season, Oshie suffered a brutal hit to the head from Minnesota’s Mike Rupp on April 10, which earned Rupp a four-game suspension from the league office and sidelined the Blues’ forward for the final two games of the regular season as well as Game 1 of this series.
Oshie has logged a lot of minutes in Games 2 through 4 but has basically been a nonfactor offensively for the Blues.
In the three games, he’s been on the ice for 76 minutes and 11 seconds, over 101 shifts, and has yet to record a point while taking only three shots on goal. He has a plus-minus rating of minus-3 — he was minus-1 in each game — and has lost each of his six faceoff attempts.
Oshie’s best game, by far, was Game 4, when he recorded three shots on goal in 27:14 of ice time and took 37 shifts in the overtime loss.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said following Friday’s morning skate that Oshie is playing better every game.
"The last half of the last game was the Osh that we know," Hitchcock said. "He’s up to speed. I thought he really had an impact in the second half of the game, which is great to see. Coming out of that game he said for the first time he felt normal and alert, and I think you saw it in his play. He had way more tempo in his game. He had his tenacity back. He wasn’t hesitating on the ice, as far as reads go. His relentless pursuit on the puck in critical ice was exceptional in the second half of the game. If that’s the player we’re going to get tonight, that’s going to be a significant player."
Oshie’s teammates have seen it as well.
"He looked confident with the puck," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "He looked like he was seeing everything. Sometimes when you feel good, everything just kind of slows down a bit for you. … He was just finding the right places to be without the puck, and when he was getting the puck he was making the right plays with it."
Oshie still has time to put his stamp on this series.
The Blues have been outscored by the Blackhawks, 12-11, in the first four games of this series, and there’s been little difference between the two squads. Offensively, St. Louis has been led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s four goals, but then seven other players have lit the lamp — though no goals yet from Oshie or David Backes, who did not play in Games 3 and 4.
St. Louis scored three times in Game 4, but it wasn’t enough as the Blackhawks rallied for the OT victory. Still, offensively, the Blues have done well but are capable of more.
"I think our power play can pitch in a little bit more," Oshie said. "Just a little bit more traffic I think would go a long way for us. And when the puck is going to the net, getting people on their way there instead of already there and standing or working our way out of the zone. We need to crash guys there, and when the puck goes there we need three guys on their way, one guy there, two on their way, not three standing around."
That’s just one of the areas where the team missed Backes the past two games in Chicago.
"It helps a lot having his big body in there," Oshie said. "He’s one guy that I’ve seen that’s gotten hit with a lot of pucks and doesn’t seem to complain about it. He almost likes it, seems like. We miss him in front of the net there and everywhere on the ice."
BACKES STILL UNCERTAIN FOR GAME 5
Hitchcock wasn’t quite as coy with the media Friday as he was two days earlier regarding the possibility of Backes returning for Game 5, but he tried to be.
Has the center been ruled out for tonight?
"No," Hitchcock said. "Like I said in Chicago, there’s lots of rinks here in St. Louis, too, so you never know. He might just jump on the ice and be there and be skating in the warmup, and you can all press send on your tweets and away you go."
Backes is still dealing with the aftermath of the hit late in Game 2 by Brent Seabrook, who earned a three-game suspension. The team captain also is still recovering from a foot injury he sustained when he was hit by an Alexander Steen shot on April 8 against Washington.
Hitchcock might have tipped his hand slightly with his lineups during the morning skate, which had Derek Roy centering the second line with Jaden Schwartz and Oshie.
Roy played in the first two games of the series but was a healthy scratch for Game 3 and played just 10:43 of Game 4. He was one of the last Blues off the ice during the morning skate Friday, which is unusual for a player who is going to play in that night’s game.
But whether this was another example of Hitchcock playing mind games with the Blackhawks or whether Roy is indeed in the lineup in place of Backes remains a mystery — and will until the Blues take the ice for pregame warmups.
Hitchcock had some interesting lines together Friday.
The Blues had Steen, Vladimir Sobotka and Tarasenko together on the first line, then Schwartz, Roy and Oshie on the second line, Steve Ott, Patrik Berglund and Adam Cracknell on the third line, and Chris Porter, Maxim Lapierre and Ryan Reaves on the fourth.
"I told you all to put it in pencil last game because we were switching and three shifts in, we switched," Hitchcock said. "The lineup that finished the game was the lineup we anticipated playing (and) if we didn’t get the right jump early, we didn’t have the right jump early and we switched."
The coach said he thinks that depth will persevere in this series and the Blues need to play with more depth, so he spread it out among the four lines.
"We’ve had success doing that," Hitchcock said. "I think one of things we’re looking for is to have two third lines, and by balancing the way we did it today, it’s going to allow us to have two third lines. If we split those minutes, it’s going to give us more tempo early and not wear us down as much. I think it works for us. Instead of playing one line seven or eight or nine minutes, we can get maybe two groups of 12 minutes each. And I think it’s going to give us better balance and be able to keep the tempo up rather than having to use eight or nine forwards to mount the comebacks like we’ve had to."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.