BLUES (30-17-9) at PANTHERS (32-16-6)
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET; FS-MW, FS-F, NHL.TV
SUNRISE, Fla. -- With his father in the stands as part of the St. Louis Blues' fathers' trip, forward Jaden Schwartz will make his long-awaited return to the lineup Friday against the Florida Panthers.
"I knew the timeframe was going to be around this time, so I kind of had this area circled on my calendar and just tried doing everything I could to put myself in a good situation to make sure I'm ready," Schwartz said after the Blues' optional morning skate. "I'm not sure what to expect. I'll probably just try to keep my feet moving early, try to touch the puck a little bit, make some plays."
Schwartz missed 49 games because of an ankle injury he sustained in practice in late October. Schwartz, who had four assists in seven games before his injury, will skate on a line with Jori Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Coach Ken Hitchcock warned against expecting too much too soon from Schwartz.
"The guy has missed 50 games," Hitchcock said. "It's a very difficult challenge to come back and (he might have) all the energy in the world, but he hasn't been hit before. We've got to really dial down the expectations and hope at the end of the day he feels good about myself and that he can grow from here.
"What rubs off with Schwartz is he works through anything … that's what makes him such a valuable player. He plays a consistent, relentless game (and) when he's on top of it that draws other people into the battle. That's what we've missed all year and he's very valuable when he gets up to speed. That's why we're hoping he can show that he's up to speed now so we can grow his minutes."
On the blue line, the Blues will play their second game without defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who is expected to be out until the end of February because of a knee injury.
Florida again will be without center Aleksander Barkov (upper body), and defensemen Erik Gudbranson (upper body) and Willie Mitchell (lower body). Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said the three also would be out against the Nashville Predators on Saturday, but was hoping Barkov and/or Gudbranson could be available Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Panthers begin a six-game homestand, which matches their longest of the season. After scoring his 739th career goal in the Panthers' 7-4 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, forward Jaromir Jagr needs two goals to tie Brett Hull for third place on the NHL's all-time list.
"We've got a good homestand coming, but we worry about tonight's game," Gallant said. "A lot of good hockey teams, a lot of good games coming, but you don't look ahead, you just take care of one at a time."
Center Derek MacKenzie scored twice Dec. 1 when the Panthers beat the Blues 3-1 at Scottrade Center. Forward Brandon Pirri scored and goalie Roberto Luongo made 29 saves for the Panthers.
Forward David Backes scored for the Blues, who had their six-game win streak against Florida snapped.
Florida came into the first game against St. Louis with a 10-9-4 record and has gone 22-7-2 since.
"I really thought at that point it was going to be we've got to make a stand here, have a good road trip or we're going to be falling out of the playoff picture and it's going to be real tough on our team," Gallant said. "We went out and had a great trip. That St. Louis game we played really well. Even last year we played a great game in St. Louis. Why? I don't know, because they're one of the tougher teams to play against. They're a big team. It was probably one of our better games of the year, for sure."
The Blues come into the game off a 2-1 shootout loss Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets, the fifth time in six games they failed to score at least two goals.
A total of 20 fathers, including former NHL player Thomas Steen, accompanied the Blues for their two-game trip, which concludes Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"We've had a few days of practice, we've got the dads on the trip for a little inspiration and we're looking to have a good effort tonight against a really good team from the Eastern Conference," Backes said.
Here are the projected lines:
Patrik Berglund - Alexander Steen - David Backes
Jaden Schwartz - Jori Lehtera - Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri - Paul Stastny - Troy Brouwer
Scottie Upshall - Kyle Brodziak - Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester - Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson - Colton Parayko
Joel Edmundson - Robert Bortuzzo
Injured: Steve Ott (hamstring), Jake Allen (lower body), Alex Pietrangelo (knee)
Scratched: Peter Harrold, Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi
Jonathan Huberdeau - Nick Bjugstad - Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen - Vincent Trocheck - Reilly Smith
Quinton Howden - Brandon Pirri - Logan Shaw
Garrett Wilson - Derek MacKenzie - Shawn Thornton
Brian Campbell - Alex Petrovic
Dmitry Kulikov - Aaron Ekblad
Steven Kampfer - Brent Regner
Injured: Aleksander Barkov (upper body), Erik Gudbranson (upper body), Willie Mitchell (lower body), Dave Bolland (lower body)
Scratched: John McFarland
Status report: McFarland was called up from the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League on Friday and was expected to arrive in South Florida in the afternoon. Forward Corban Knight was sent to Portland after recording seven points (two goals, five assists) in 20 games. "Everybody we've called up so far has played really well," Gallant said. "It's nothing against Corban. Corban has played well, he just hasn't gotten a lot of minutes lately. We're just giving another guy another opportunity." … With Allen still sidelined by a knee injury, Elliott will make his 13th consecutive start for the Blues.
Who's hot: Fabbri had three power-play assists in the past two games. … Stastny has 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 12 games against Florida. … The Jokinen-Trocheck-Smith line has combined for 14 goals and 20 assists in the past nine games.