February 15, 2015

Brian Elliott's stellar month-long stretch has kept the St. Louis Blues competitive during a time when their offense often hasn't been.

The Blues hope Jaden Schwartz's long-awaited return provides a boost against one of the NHL's more efficient scoring teams in Friday night's with the Florida Panthers.

While injuries and inconsistency have plagued the offense all season, St. Louis (30-17-9) has remained in contention in the top-heavy Central Division largely behind its steady defense. Elliott and fellow goaltender Jake Allen have each played key roles by combining for a 2.13 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

Though Allen has been sidelined by a knee injury since Jan. 8, Elliott hasn't faltered under the increased workload. The 2015 All-Star has a 1.67 GAA in his 12 consecutive starts and has yielded one goal or less in five of the last seven.

"You can't complain about our goaltending, that's for dang sure," captain David Backes said following Elliott's 32-save effort in Tuesday's 2-1 shootout loss to Winnipeg.

The Blues have still lost four of six in spite of Elliott's exploits, scoring no more than one goal in each game except for Sunday's 4-1 victory over reeling Minnesota. They were outshot 33-22 by the Jets, the Central's last-place team, to draw sharp criticism from coach Ken Hitchcock afterward.

"You have to work, you have to compete when you have the puck and not be discouraged because you're getting checked," he said. "There's a reason why we're scoring just one goal."

Having Schwartz in the lineup for the first time since Oct. 20 may help. The talented wing, third on the team with 28 goals and 63 points last season, has missed 49 games after fracturing his left ankle in practice.

"When he's up to speed, he brings instant, quick offense that's hard to find," Hitchcock said. "He's a hungry scorer."

Florida (32-16-6) figures to give Elliott a stern challenge having generated 34 goals over a 6-1-1 stretch. Temporarily shut down in Monday's 3-0 loss to Detroit that halted a four-game home win streak, the Panthers' offense got back on track with three first-period goals en route to Tuesday's 7-4 victory at Buffalo.

"We needed to have a bounce-back game," said center Jussi Jokinen, who recorded a goal and two assists and has 12 points over his last eight. "We didn't create enough (against Detroit), and we wanted to change that."

The Panthers still weren't overly sharp on defense, surrendering two power-play goals in four chances. They've killed just 14 of 20 short-handed situations over their last four games, while the St. Louis power play is 4 of 9 in the last two after an 0-for-19 stretch over the previous eight.

Roberto Luongo had 30 saves against Buffalo and has faced 34 or more shots in four of his last five starts while allowing three goals or more in three straight.

Luongo delivered a sharp 29-save effort and Derek MacKenzie scored twice in a 3-1 victory at St. Louis on Dec. 1 which stopped a six-game series skid.

Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (knee) and Florida forward Aleksander Barkov (upper body) will each miss a second straight game.

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