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After upgrading on defense, Blues look to Elliott

April 3, 2013

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The St. Louis Blues upgraded their defense for the playoff push, adding Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold.

“It’s two guys that any team around the league would be looking for,” defenseman Barret Jackman said Wednesday. “You look around our dressing room and we have every piece we need.”

Except maybe a goalie to step up in place of Jaroslav Halak, who is out indefinitely with a groin injury.

Brian Elliott, half of the NHL’s stingiest tandem last season, has been a disappointment this season. He will play Thursday night at Chicago with no guarantees past that.

“We’re on a one-game basis,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “So, we’ll see how he plays Thursday and then we’ll evaluate Friday.”

The Blues were tied for eighth with Nashville and just a point ahead of Edmonton and Columbus. It’s been tough slogging for a franchise that put up 109 points last year and was the No. 2 seed in the West, but hasn’t been able to duplicate a mix of shutdown goaltending.

“Last year, everything went right, every goal was scored at an important time,” Hitchcock said. “We lived on the fine line, and the right way.

“We’ve played really well the last three weeks, maybe not being rewarded like some other teams.”

Elliott played well in relief in Monday’s 4-1 victory at Minnesota after Halak was hurt in the first period, his first action since a conditioning stint in the minors. Now, the question is how Elliott, just 4-6-1 with a 3.51 goals-against average, deals with the stress of starting.

“I’m not going to think about the past,” Elliott said. “It’s just about getting back to form.”

Elliott, who had a 1.56 goals-against average and nine shutouts last season, embraced the decision for a minor league rehab that gave him needed playing time without pressure. But he wasn’t accepting all the blame for his statistical swan dive.

“You know, as a team we were struggling so I don’t want to put the burden on my shoulders, either,” he said. “You have to have confidence that you are a good goalie, and it’s not a one-man team out there.”

Leopold made his debut Monday after coming in a weekend deal with Buffalo and Bouwmeester could be in the lineup at Chicago if he clears visa issues. They jump ahead of Kris Russell and Ian Cole with a third defenseman, Wade Redden, traded to Boston for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.

The 29-year-old Bouwmeester is under contract next year at $6.6 million and has played in 621 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the NHL, while playing in 750 games total without a playoff appearance.

“He can really play against top players and he eats up a lot of minutes,” Hitchcock said. “We’re trying to build a team that’s going to win long-term and he’s a good fit for us.”

The Blues have the rest of the season to decide whether Leopold is more than a rental.

“I was glad to get the first game out of the way,” Leopold said. “There was a lot of emotions, anticipation, anxiety. I’m excited moving forward.”

They have 14 games left to put it together. It starts against formidable Chicago, which they haven’t beaten on the road since Feb. 3, 2010.

“No excuses in here, we just need results,” said forward David Backes, the team captain. “We need to stick together and bring it every night, and when we do we like our chances.”

At least, they’re past the trade deadline. It was almost as stressful for the coach.

Hitchcock said he’d rather not know what’s going on behind closed doors.

“I hate the fact you’re coaching a player that might get traded,” Hitchcock said. “The player is nervous enough at times and especially at this time of the year, you show any different body language when you’re working with him I think it throws everything in a big tizzy and I hate that.

“When it’s done, tell me.”

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