ST. LOUIS — Vladimir Sobotka will make his return to the lineup for the St. Louis Blues tonight after missing 12 games over the past six weeks with a broken kneecap.
"I feel good," Sobotka said following the morning skate Thursday. "I’ve been skating hard for the last four days and I feel pretty good. So I’m ready to play tonight."
The 26-year-old center last played Jan. 31 in a loss at Carolina. He missed the final four games before the Olympics — he was chosen to represent the Czech Republic but was unable to participate — and the eight contests since the Games. The Blues went 8-2-2 during his absence.
"It’s been six weeks," Sobotka said. "I’m kind of over the Olympics. It was just bad timing, but right now we’re first team in the league and I’m looking to play hard for this team."
Sobotka, who was paired with T.J. Oshie and Vladimir Tarasenko at the morning skate, said he will be trying to keep things simple tonight against the Edmonton Oilers at the Scottrade Center.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is thankful to be able to write Sobotka’s name into the lineup once again.
"He’s an 18-minute player," Hitchcock said. "He’s arguably had the best season of anybody on the team. So when you get an elite player like him back, it’s going to help you a lot. We expect him to be helping us. It’s going to take him a few shifts to get up to speed. He’s such a good player for us. … He controls the middle of the ice. He’s a really competitive guy. The more the merrier. The more depth we add to our group, the better we feel about it. He stabilizes anybody he plays with because he manages the ice so well."
Hitchcock doesn’t know how many minutes the center will play tonight but said even if Sobotka plays only 12 tonight he will help the team because of his versatility to play not only five-on-five, but also on the power-play and penalty-kill units.
Sobotka has 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) and is plus-17 in 46 games this season. He was averaging a career-high 16:31 of ice time before his injury and winning his faceoffs at a career-best 60.9 percent clip. That mark is the highest among the Blues and ranks third in the NHL among players with at least 3.05 attempts per team game, according to STATS LLC.
As for where Sobotka fits into the lines, Hitchcock said that is not a great concern.
"We know we can go back to 9 (Schwartz), 17 (Sobotka) and 91 (Tarasenko) and be effective, but we’ll probably wait on it for a couple days and see how this looks," the coach said. "Right now we need other people playing better than worrying about where Sobie is going to fit. He’ll fit wherever. He can play left wing. He can play center ice. He can play on the No. 1 line. He can play on the four line. Just the way he plays is very effective."
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BERGLUND BACK AT LEFT WING
Sobotka’s return to the lineup means Patrik Berglund can move from center to left wing, at least for now.
That is a move Hitchcock has tried on a few occasions this season and has liked the results.
"He’s good on the boards," Hitchcock said. "He’s big. Some guys are just more effective without the puck. He plays faster. He gets up ice. He can hang on the offensive zone a little longer. He’s a good player for us when he plays left wing.
"Every time we seem to get him there we get an injury and we can’t recover and we end up putting him back at center ice, but I think all of us like him at left wing. He’s very effective for us. He’s great on the forecheck. He’s a smart player. He hangs onto the puck. I think he’s way more effective offensively when he’s able to play left wing."
Berglund has 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) and is plus-11 in 62 games. He has not been consistent offensively this season but has been better since helping Team Sweden win silver at the Winter Olympics.
In six games this month, Berglund has four goals and one assist for five points and is plus-4. He has most recently been centering a line with Schwartz and Tarasenko.
The odd man out tonight will be Brenden Morrow, but that is by design.
"We’ve got a game plan for Brenden," Hitchcock said. "There will be two, maybe three other occasions that Brenden will sit out getting ready for the playoffs. There’s a plan there. … Brenden is a planned exercise by both Doug (Armstrong) and myself in getting him to have high energy when it’s really on the line."
Morrow, 35, has 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) and is plus-2 in 59 games. In his 14th NHL season, Morrow is averaging a career-low 11:48 per game.
David Perron will make his return to Scottrade Center tonight following the offseason trade that sent the high-scoring forward north of the border in exchange for Magnus Paajarvi and a 2014 second-round draft pick.
"I don’t know what to expect," Perron said. "I know I still have a lot of fans here, but at the same time they cheer for the Blues’ players more than they will cheer probably for other guys, and that’s totally understandable. I’m just going to look to come here and have a good game and hopefully make it a good time once we do get the win. It’s going to be a fun time, for sure."
Perron played six seasons with the Blues and is on pace for his best season statistically in his first campaign with the Oilers.
The left winger has a career-high 24 goals and also 22 assists for 46 points in 62 games. Perron is playing 19:15 per game, which is the most in his seven years in the NHL. He scored a career-best 50 points in the 2008-09 season, his second year in St. Louis.
The Blues and Oilers have already played twice this season, with St. Louis winning both games in Edmonton, but this will be Perron’s first game here.
"I saw them up there, but it’s different coming in here and seeing, I guess, all the roads and restaurants and places I used to go to," he said. "(David) Backes and I went to dinner last night. It was a pretty fun experience just to go to his house and see his wife and all the animals they’ve got. … I’m really looking forward to tonight."
Still only 25, Perron is now one of the building blocks in Edmonton. The Oilers are 23-35-8 with 54 points, the second-fewest in the NHL, but have several young players like Perron they can build around.
It’s a similar situation to his early years in St. Louis when the Blues were suffering through growing pains as they tried to build a contender through youth.
"Nowadays every organization is going that way — not so much the New York Rangers’ way of free agents and trades and stuff like that," Perron said. "It’s more of drafting guys, and it’s definitely an organization that we can look up to and try to be more like them."
BACKES TAKES RESPONSIBILITY FOR LOSS
Don’t be surprised if David Backes has a strong game tonight.
Backes wasn’t happy with his performance in the overtime loss Tuesday night against Dallas. He had a bad turnover near the blue line that led to the Stars’ second goal early in the third period, then missed an assignment that led to the game-winning goal.
"It wasn’t our best game, but I think I need to shoulder a lot of the blame," he said afterward. "I made a terrible play for their second goal and then my guy gets loose and scores the third goal. If I’m getting beat in my matchup by two (goals), that’s not the way we win games and I need to be a lot better. I take a lot of responsibility for it. Thanks to a couple of my teammates picking me up — Roman (Polak) scoring and Millsy (Ryan Miller) making some big saves — we got one point out of the night. But I need to be a lot better, and I take full responsibility for that."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.