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Canucks and Blues battle for top spot in West

by John Kreiser

CANUCKS (27-14-3) at BLUES (25-12-5)

TV: SNET-Pacific; FS-Midwest

LAST 10 : Vancouver 6-3-1; St. Louis 6-3-1

Season Series : The teams are meeting for the third time, but haven't seen each other in more than two months. St. Louis won 3-0 in Vancouver on Oct. 26, and again by a 3-2 score in St. Louis on Nov. 4.

Big Story: First place in the Western Conference is on the line as the Canucks complete a four-game road trip with a visit to St. Louis. The Blues lead the NHL with 17 home wins, and a regulation win will move them into first place in the conference, ahead of the Canucks.

Team Scope:

Canucks: Elite teams find ways to win when conditions are against them, and that's just what the Canucks did Tuesday night at Tampa Bay. Playing their third game in four days on the road, they blew a 4-2 third-period lead, but won 5-4 in a shootout as Mason Raymond scored the only goal and second-year goaltender Cory Schneider ended the game by denying Steven Stamkos, the NHL's top goal-scorer.

"They came at us hard at certain moments in this game," coach Alain Vigneault said after his team improved to 2-1-0 on its current trip. "They tied it up at the end, and we still found a way to win, so I'd say that's positive."

Blues: The early-season wins against the Canucks were among the Blues' few highlights before Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as coach on Nov. 6. St. Louis was 6-7-0 before the change; since then, the Blues are 19-5-5 and are tops in the Central Division.

They're coming off back-to-back shutout wins, including an emotional 3-0 victory at Montreal on Tuesday that marked the return of goaltender Jaroslav Halak to the Bell Centre. Halak became a hero in Montreal after leading the Canadiens to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, but was traded to the Blues a few weeks later.

"Usually when you play on the road you don't come out as a star, so they told me to stay there and come out," Halak said after receiving an ovation from the Montreal fans. "It felt great to come out and get the ovation from all the people. "

Ovation or not, Halak is expected to watch this one as backup Brian Elliott -- who blanked Colorado on Saturday -- gets the start. Elliott was in goal for both wins against the Canucks this season.

Who's Hot: Canucks center Henrik Sedin has four points in his last four games and leads the NHL in scoring with 50 points. … Blues captain David Backes has goals in three straight games and is 3-3-6 during a four-game scoring streak.

Injury Report: The Canucks lost defenseman Sami Salo (concussion) and forward Andrew Ebbett (broken collarbone) on Saturday; they're still without forward David Booth (knee). … Blues defenseman Barrett Jackman left Tuesday's game with a hip injury. Alex Steen (concussion) and Kris Russell (groin) have been out since late December; center Andy McDonald (concussion) and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle) have not played since late October.

Stat Pack: The Blues are 9-0-1 in their last 10 at home and have won their last three games at Scottrade Center by a combined score of 12-4. … St. Louis has allowed a combined total of 34 shots on goal in the shutout wins against Colorado (15) and Montreal (19). … The Blues haven't posted three consecutive shutouts since the first week of December 1988. … St. Louis is a League-worst 0-5 in shootouts; Vancouver is 2-3 after its win at Tampa Bay. … This is the Canucks' last road game this month; they play their next six games at Rogers Arena and don't travel again until a visit to Colorado on Feb. 3.

Puck Drop: The Canucks finished first in the overall standings last season and came within one win of taking home the Stanley Cup, so being among the NHL's elite is nothing new to them. That's not the case with the Blues, who've made the playoffs only once since 2004 and have had to dig out after a slow start.

Hitchcock feels the meeting with the Canucks will be a good measuring stick for his team.

"From our standpoint, you play good teams, you want to be evaluated," he said Wednesday. "You want to see your own team play against good teams. Those big four in the West (Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose), any time we play against them, we want to know how we measure up. What areas are we good at? What areas do we need to work at? So for me, for a team trying to climb up the ladder ... I don't look at the points where a team's at. I look where you want to be at the end of the day."

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