ST. LOUIS — The Blues made plenty of moves and survived remarkably well without one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.
Some key additions on the blue line and improved goaltending helped the Blues go 14-8-3 since an abdominal injury sidelined Kevin Shattenkirk on the first day of February. He’s projected to finally return to the lineup in Saturday’s game against Columbus, set for 7 p.m. on FOX Sports Midwest.
"Tomorrow’s a big, big day," Shattenkirk said after an optional practice Thursday. "A big benchmark and to see where I am. That’s the plan and has been all week, just to kind of feel it out tomorrow and go from there."
Coach Ken Hitchcock says Shattenkirk passed a grueling conditioning test Wednesday, and he’ll face serious physical contact during drills Friday to see if he’s truly ready. It could be exactly what’s needed for an offense that, despite the occasional outburst, hasn’t come close to matching the output that made the Note the NHL’s highest-scoring team from Thanksgiving through January.
The 4-3 win in Washington when Shattenkirk went down with his injury in the first period capped off a remarkable 10-0-1 stretch during which the Blues averaged 4.3 goals per game. Many of those came in transition as Shattenkirk started the rush and tallied seven assists in 11 games.
Since St. Louis lost its Norris Trophy contender, goals have been much harder to find. The Blues have averaged just 2.56 per game, even with eight assists in the last 10 games from veteran defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.
Fellow defensemen Robert Bortuzzo and Zybnek Michalek have undoubtedly made the Blues stronger in the back since donning the Blue Note following trade deadline deals. Both made an effort to make up for some of the lost production, but their games simply aren’t built to replace the offense of a player such as Shattenkirk.
"I think that’s one aspect of my game that I want to improve, and I practice shots every single day in practice to try to get better at that," Michalek says. "I know I can be much better offensively than I have been, but it’s a work in progress."
He finally recorded his first point since the trade at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, when his long shot turned into an assist for Alexander Steen’s game-winner. Bortuzzo scored the Blues’ first goal of the game, ending the team’s slump of just two even-strength goals in its last 10 periods.
St. Louis has scored at least two goals in 15 straight games with Shattenkirk in the lineup, dating to Colorado’s 5-0 shutout of the Blues two days before Christmas. They’ve failed to score more than a goal five times in 12 games this month, though they still managed to get five of 10 possible points in those contests by holding opponents to one goal or fewer in five of the last eight games.
Of course, even Shattenkirk knows he won’t return to his top form immediately after missing nearly eight weeks, two more than he had originally hoped. But efforts to stay fit that began mere hours after his surgery should mean it won’t take too long if he can avoid any further setbacks.
"It’s going to take me a couple games, for sure, to get back to speed and (do) little things, getting the puck, picking your head up and being able to make that pass quickly and put it on the tape," says Shattenkirk, who led the NHL with 24 power-play points before his injury. "That’s something that I’m just going to have to adjust to and get used to in the game."
Hitchcock says St. Louis might put seven defensemen in the lineup to give Shattenkirk some protection, and he likely won’t spend as much time on the penalty kill. But when the Blues have the man advantage, expect to see plenty of their most dangerous defenseman.
The St. Louis power play could be poised to go on another hot streak after scoring three goals in its last seven chances, and Shattenkirk wants to make sure he’s a part of it. Hitchcock believes Shattenkirk could be back to playing 20 minutes per game as soon as next week, and the Blues are eager to have him back.
"We’ve shown we have great depth, but obviously (Shattenkirk)’s a huge part of our team," goaltender Brian Elliott says. "Hopefully, we can kind of squeeze him in here and there and not put too much of a workload on him right away and get him back to the type of form he was in before."