Minus entire line, Blues stay in playoff hunt

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This was not the team Ken Hitchcock expected to coach. Yet minus an entire line for an extended stretch and with an All-Star goalie benched indefinitely, the St. Louis Blues have answered the challenge.

Vladimir Tarasenko was among the top rookies early but has missed 10 games with a concussion. Two-way standout Alex Steen returned from a shoulder injury with a goal and two assists Thursday, but speedy Andy McDonald remains out.

It's anybody's guess when Brian Elliott, part of a goalie tandem that led the NHL with 15 shutouts last season, will get another chance given he's saddled with a 3-6-1 record and bloated 3.65 goals-against average.

Somehow, the bottom has not fallen out. Discovering a hidden gem in rookie goalie Jake Allen and getting more out of the healthy bodies, the Blues are in third place in the Western Conference, surviving so far the condensed schedule that resulted from the lockout.

''I've never seen a schedule this difficult ever, and we still managed to come out of this thing OK,'' Hitchcock said.

Another forward, T.J. Oshie, missed Thursday's game with an apparent shoulder injury from a check against the Ducks. The grind and the pileup of injuries has convinced Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with the Stars, that it's best to keep things simple. See what the roster looks like that day and go from there.

''You know what, I've got to tell you I'm day to day, moment to moment,'' Hitchcock said. ''Who can play, who can't play. This is survival now, all this is is survival. When we're missing the players we're missing, we've just got to find energy somewhere else.''

The 22-year-old Allen, a second-round pick in 2008, was an afterthought for a team seemingly loaded at goalie when the season began. Not anymore.

Allen has become much more than a junior partner with Jaroslav Halak, winning seven of eight career starts with a 2.23 goals-against average and getting the nod four of the last five games. Allen faced 41 shots, by far the most the Blues have allowed, against the Sharks on Tuesday and turned away all 28 Phoenix shots in a 3-0 victory Thursday.

''He's given us that stability in net,'' said forward Chris Stewart, coming off consecutive two-goal games. ''He doesn't really panic. He's a down-to-earth, well-grounded kid and it's good to see his hard work is paying off.''

Allen appreciates the break he's gotten. But not to the point where he goes along with conventional wisdom that it's better for a goalie learning the ropes to stay that busy.

''It's just part of the game, you're ready for everything,'' Allen said. ''It gets you a little tired as well.''

Elliott led the NHL with a 1.67 goals-against average last season. Since surrendering 18 goals on 86 shots in four consecutive losses from Feb. 5-11, he has gotten one start and played once in relief the last 15 games.

Allen got his NHL debut in relief in the first game of Elliott's nightmare stretch, and showed he was up to the job when he won his first start at Detroit Feb. 13.

''He's stopping the puck and he's a good puck-handler as well,'' defenseman Barret Jackman said. ''I think his overall game is just getting better, and we're finally maybe helping out the goalies a little bit.''

It's been a collective effort on offense filling the void left by the missing second line. Seven players had a point apiece against the Sharks before Chris Stewart's clinching empty-net goal.

''Missing almost half your hockey club, and still we get the win,'' Hitchcock said. ''That's a good sign.''

The 21-year-old Tarasenko flashed immediate potential with five points his first two career games, but now he's stuck on six goals and 12 points, Steen had a team-leading 16 points in 18 games when he was sidelined with a shoulder injury and McDonald had 11 points in 18 games when he injured a knee.

The Blues have regained their stride after a recent slump, winning four of five with a grinding style that wears down their opponents.

''I think they play more of a team defensive game the last two years,'' San Jose forward Brent Burns said. ''They're never easy to play against. You know coming into this place it's going to be a man's game.''

Stewart is noticeably quicker after shedding about 20 pounds in the offseason and has 13 goals, tied with Patrik Berglund for the team lead. David Perron has nine goals and 20 points, and David Backes (18 points) and Oshie (17) are right behind.

Vladimir Sobotka, ostensibly a checking specialist who's also the team's best faceoff man, had his first career hat trick at San Jose.

''I think we see the value of work and compete,'' Hitchcock said. ''I think we're starting to trust the fact that the score will take care of itself if we compete at this level and play at this level.''

St. Louis has gotten consistent production from the back line, too, with Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo among the NHL's top scoring defensemen. Jackman, a stay-at home type throughout his career, had six assists in five games in a streak that ended Thursday.

''Everyone is chipping in,'' Allen said. ''You've got to do that little extra work missing some of our top players, but all these guys are skilled and great players in their own right.''

Tagged: Blues, Sharks, Alexander Steen, Chris Stewart, Brian Elliott, Jake Allen

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