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Blues can clinch Central by beating Columbus

by Brian Hunter
BLUE JACKETS (26-45-7) at BLUES (48-20-10)


Last 10:
Columbus 4-6-0; St. Louis 5-2-3

Season Series: Sixth and final meeting between these Central Division rivals. The Blues have won four of five, scoring 10 goals in the two previous games at Scottrade Center. David Backes and David Perron each have 2 goals and 5 points, while Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak each have a pair of victories.

Big Story: The Blues begin a three-game homestand looking to clinch the Central, wrap up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and perhaps secure the Presidents' Trophy as well. St. Louis is an NHL-best 30-4-4 this season in their building, and has games left there against Detroit and Phoenix as well before closing the season April 7 in Dallas.

Team Scope:

Blue Jackets: If any notice needed to be served that Columbus isn't going to make life easy for opponents heading into the playoffs, consecutive victories over Detroit  and Florida should serve as a warning. The Blue Jackets achieved both those wins, including Friday night's 4-1 triumph at Nationwide Arena, with rookie Allen York in net. After the rookie picked up his first NHL win against the Red Wings, he came back with a 30-save performance to keep the Panthers from moving closer to wrapping up a playoff berth. RJ Umberger and Nikita Nikitin each scored twice and Nikitin added an assist.

"When you look it at, it kind of feels like (the season) is going too fast," Umberger said. "It was a lot of fun tonight and last game was a great effort. We gave the fans something to get excited for. That's what we play for."

Blues: The battle for second place in the Central behind St. Louis and home ice in the first round of the playoffs is going down to the wire, and the Blues had to contend with one of those teams on Thursday when they visited the Blackhawks. After Chicago opened the scoring, Alex Steen scored his first goal in his third game back in the lineup after missing almost three months due to a concussion. The Blues also rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the third on goals by Jason Arnott and then Perron with 1:32 remaining. But they had to settle for a single point as the Blackhawks prevailed 4-3 via the shootout.

"They were Stanley Cup champions two years ago … and they're ramping it up for the playoffs," Backes said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We've almost taken a half-step back, and we've got to find a way to keep pushing forward."

Who's Hot: Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash has 2 goals and 4 assists during a four-game points streak. Umberger has 6 goals and 2 assists in his last five games. Nikitin has 3 goals and 6 assists in his last seven games. … Perron has goals in consecutive games, 4 in his last six and 6 in his last 10 for the Blues. Elliott has three consecutive shutouts and has given up four goals total in his last six starts.

Injury Report:
York figures to continue getting the call until Columbus goalie Steve Mason (head) is ready to return to the lineup. Forward Derek MacKenzie (concussion) also missed Friday's game. … St. Louis is expected to activate forward Andy McDonald (shoulder) off injured reserve to play Saturday. Forward Matt D'Agostini (concussion) was activated prior to Thursday's game, but did not play. Defenseman Roman Polak (knee) is day-to-day.

Stat Pack:
Nikitin's multi-goal game was the first of his career. In his second season, he has 31 points in 50 games for the Blue Jackets after the Blues traded him early this season. He had 9 points in 48 NHL games at that point. … Despite giving up three goals Thursday (the fourth goal awarded the Blackhawks for the shootout win does not count in the season totals), the Blues have allowed only 151 for the season and remain on pace to break the 2003-04 Devils' record of 164 for an 82-game season.

Puck Drop:
Halak has played more games (44 to 36) and recorded more wins (25 to 23), but Elliott has a better goals-against average (1.48 to 1.92) and save percentage (.943 to .927) and more shutouts (9 to 6). It all creates an interesting dilemma for St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock as to how best to use his terrific goalie tandem entering the playoffs.

"These guys have been the story for us from day one, and I don't think it's fair for either guy to get away from things, to allow a guy to get off his game," Hitchcock said in the Post-Dispatch. "I don't believe in letting a guy go more than seven days without getting back in the net again. Jaro was good, Brian has had an exceptional run, but we need Jaro playing. … We need him playing well. We need him with some starts, just like Brian. My tough decision comes in a couple weeks, so I'll make it then. But I think both guys playing is healthy for our team."

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