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Blues' Stastny in groove as he sets to face Avalanche

by Louie Korac

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The numbers may not have reflected it earlier in the season, but for St. Louis Blues center Paul Stastny, popping up on the score sheet more often recently is the reason why the Blues invested so heavily in him.

And the offensive numbers have accumulated just in time for Stastny to make his first appearance against the team he spent the first eight seasons of his NHL career with, the Colorado Avalanche.

The Blues play the Avalanche at Pepsi Center on Saturday. Stastny missed the Blues' first game against the Avalanche on Nov. 1 after sustaining a shoulder injury, so this will be his first game against the only teammates he knew for eight years.

"You just want to get that first one out of the way, but I'm excited," said Stastny, who has seven goals and 12 points in 21 games with the Blues this season. "I think I have a lot of friends [in Denver], not just hockey-wise.

Paul Stastny
Center - STL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 12
SOG: 44 | +/-: -1
"Once the puck drops, it'll just feel like a normal game. Sometimes the anticipation takes longer than normal, but it's part of the business."

Stastny, who has four goals in the past three games and five points in a four-game point streak, may be downplaying his return to the only NHL home he knew prior to this season, but his teammates know better.

"I think it'll be pretty special," said Alexander Steen, who remembered his first game back against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. "I wasn't in Toronto as long as [Paul] was in Denver, so it will be pretty special for him tomorrow. We're going to make sure we're ready to play and give him our best effort."

Stastny's return to St. Louis has been a bit of a bumpy ride. He began the season with four points in two games and played four games in all before a shoulder injury against the Arizona Coyotes sidelined him eight games. It took time to get the gears motoring upon a return to the lineup, and as recently as last week, coach Ken Hitchcock was on record as saying that the Blues need more from Stastny.

But the recent string of games has seen Stastny produce in ways the Blues expected when they signed him to a four-year, $28 million contract when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1. Adjusting to a new system, new surroundings, a new coach and new teammates have seen their ups and downs.

"Sometimes, the bounces go your way, sometimes you've just got to keep working hard trying to prove yourself," Stastny said. "It's been good the last couple games, especially with the team winning. After those back-to-back losses, I think we wanted to get back on a run again.

"I wouldn't say it's hard to adjust. With the amount of skill we have, I think we could be doing other things to create more chances. But that's the way our system is. Sometimes you've just got to keep sticking to it. So far, it's paying off and I think we're playing well this year."

"Well, I think he's playing better than he was," Hitchcock said of Stastny. "He was tentative coming back from the injury. He's playing better. He's a gamer. When the game is on the line, he seems to raise his level.

"I think the thing we'd like to see more of is not wait to take charge. I think sometimes when you're new to a team, you wait for other people to do the job. I think it's on us and it's on him to do more taking charge, rather than wait for the score to determine whether you're going to do it or not. I think that just goes with confidence that you're entrusted with some of that responsibility. I think that's the big thing for us. Since he's come back and felt healthy, when the game is on the line, he's always been a good player. But we'd like to see him set the tempo and set the tone a little bit more."

Stastny has seen his share of ice time with a plethora of teammates, including Steen and 2014 Sochi Olympic teammates T.J. Oshie and David Backes, among others. There have also been stints with energy-type players, all in an effort to get more production and a better overall game out of him.

"I think he's been playing great all year," Steen said of Stastny. "The point production might not be there. … It's really easy to look at a piece of paper and numbers and say stuff about guys, but when you actually watch games and what they do for the team, I've had no doubt about how good [Paul's] been playing this year."

The thought of coming back to the city where he grew up, getting married over the summer and the big contract were all pressure points in getting Stastny to produce from the get-go. The shoulder injury seemed to derail things momentarily, although he has been gaining steam in recent games.

"That injury … that's tough," Oshie said. "You're coming in off of a summer where you're working hard, your body is in the condition that you want it to be in and you hurt your shoulder and then you've got to sit out for however many weeks that was. That's tough and then jumping right into it, and the pressure from the media and the fans that he's going to come in and dominate, when we're very team-oriented in how we get our wins. But he's definitely buying into the system, and he's doing a great job and you can see on the score sheet, it's finally showing up there, the hard work that's putting in on the ice."

Stastny will likely draw a chorus of boos from the Avalanche faithful. It's generally the reception one gets when leaving via free agency, that "you left us" mentality, but the 28-year-old felt like he parted on amicable terms.

"I don't know if there's anything for me to prove," Stastny said. "Everyone knows what kind of player I am. I just try to continue to prove myself every game. To me, it's not something I've done in the past, not something I'll do in the future. It's kind of just game by game for me. I want to reestablish myself every game.

"I had an unbelievable eight great years there. I have nothing but respect for the organization and all the players. I'm still best friends with a bunch of those players. To me, it's a win-win situation. I'm excited to go back to play."

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