Blue Jackets-Blues Preview
By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN
(AP) -- The St. Louis Blues no doubt want to earn the Western Conference's top seed, but first they can record their first division title in more than a decade.
The Blues can clinch the Central Division crown as they begin a three-game homestand Saturday night against the league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets.
St. Louis (48-20-10) holds a slim lead over Vancouver for the West's best record. The Blues are up by eight points over second-place Nashville in the division, and will wrap up their first Central title since 1999-2000 with at least one point Saturday.
The club felt the one point it got Thursday in a 4-3 shootout loss at Chicago wasn't totally deserved. St. Louis was outshot 40-20 overall and needed third-period goals from Jason Arnott and David Perron to send the game to overtime.
"We were outplayed bad. I don't even know how we got a point, to be honest with you," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We didn't compete at a high level. It looked like we wanted the game to be easier."
Perron scored the equalizer with 1:32 left in the third period, giving him four goals in six games.
"I still think it's a big point for us this time of year and we'll take it," Perron said. "The way we played at the point when it was 3-1, I'm not sure that we'd get one (point), but we battled back and finally got one."
The Blues should be boosted by the return of Andy McDonald, who has missed the last six games with a shoulder injury. Hitchcock has indicated that the four-time 20-goal scorer will see some ice time against the Blue Jackets (26-45-7).
Perron and David Backes each has five points in helping the Blues win four of five against Columbus this season. Brian Elliott, tied for the NHL lead with nine shutouts, has started two of those meetings and allowed one goal each time to win both. Jaroslav Halak has a 2.35 goals-against average in going 2-1-0 in the season series.
The Blue Jackets have questions with their goaltending. Steve Mason is out with an upper-body injury and Curtis Sanford with a quadriceps injury.
Columbus, though, got 30 saves from Allen York in a 4-1 win over Florida on Friday. York made 29 saves for his first NHL victory Wednesday, 4-2 over Detroit.
The Blue Jackets got offense from an unusual source Friday as defenseman Nikita Nikitin scored twice for the first time in his career. Nikitin has 31 points in 50 games for Columbus since he was acquired Nov. 11 from St. Louis.
"I wasn't sure what to expect from Niki," coach Todd Richards said. "But to me that's been a great trade when you look at it."
The Blues are an NHL-best 30-4-4 at home, where they have won four straight and have not lost in regulation to a West opponent since Dec. 3.
"They're obviously a tough team in their barn," York said. "We've just got to keep playing like we are, and I think we can compete with anyone."
The Blues are 13-1-1 in their last 15 home matchups against the Blue Jackets.
Updated March 30, 2012