*Note: Coach Ken Hitchcock has announced Jaroslav Halak will now start instead of Brian Elliott. [2 pm, Friday]
The St. Louis Blues have won three straight and have not been beaten in 2012 in regulation.
Yet this inter-conference contest on Saturday will be one of the biggest games to date for the Blues for numerous reasons.
The Hot Wings
Not the kind you want. I'm talking about the Red Wings.
The Detroit Red Wings are the NHL's hottest team. Having won five straight, Detroit is atop the Western Conference with 63 points. St. Louis has played one less game and has 62.
While St. Louis is hosting Buffalo, Detroit will welcome the NHL's worst, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Most likely Detroit will be skating off with a win. The Blues must beat Buffalo to stay right behind their hated rivals.
The Blues travel to Detroit on Monday. If the Blues can get a regulation win, they'll see first place again.
In addition, how St. Louis performs on Saturday against the Sabres could be telling of what to expect Monday. Detroit beat Buffalo 5-0 on January 16th.
It is likely that Brian Elliot will be in net against Buffalo. After three straight starts and posting two shutouts, Jaroslav Halak is worthy of a night off, especially if the hot goalie is getting the nod Monday against Detroit.
For Elliott, the start against Buffalo would be a chance at redemption.
Elliott has been troubled recently in the net. Winning just once in his last four starts, the All-Star has been mediocre. His great start was January 7th against Colorado, posting a shutout in the 4-0 victory. However, he faced just 16 shots.
No. 1 would also be making his first start since signing a two-year contract extension. Playing well would be a good start at showing he is worth the deal.
While the Blues should be excited about their defensive play and the dominance of Halak, the offense is nowhere to be found as of late.
In their last three games, the Blues have had just four goals on a whopping 233 shots (on goal, missed or blocked). That will not be good enough against playoff-caliber teams. They must find the back of the net.
Easy solution? Give Alex Pietrangelo more chances.
The 22-year-old has a point in his last eight games after scoring the game-winning goal on Thursday against Edmonton. (A category which he now leads with four.)
In Order To Win
If the Blues do want to win this game, they're going to need to do a lot of things right. Buffalo can't be happy about being embarrassed this past week. Expect them to come out with a vengeance.
Primarily, St. Louis must control the Sabres' offensive production, which really comes in the form of two guys: Thomas Vanek and All-Star Jason Pominville. They each have over 40 points. No one else on the team has more than 25.
The Blues also must make Marc-Andre Gragnani check out early or keep him off the ice. The D-man has a plus-11 rating. By far, that is the team's best. Only two other players are on the ice for more goals than goals against.
Again, offense will be key. If U.S. Olympic goaltender Ryan Miller is in net, goals will be hard to come by. The Blues must break out of this offensive slump and light the lamp.
This game is a huge one for St. Louis. After losing to Detroit in their last meeting 3-0, the Blues need to use Buffalo to head into the Motor City with hot sticks and confidence. Losing to a falling team like Buffalo could be a crucial blow in this Central Division race.
Steven Conklin is a contributing writer for the Bleacher Report and a student at the University of Central Missouri. He joined B/R in October 2011 and will be a B/R intern starting January 23rd. Any comments, questions or suggestions are more than welcome.