Gameday: Blues/Blackhawks, Round Robins

Blues forward Sammy Blais (9) works his way past Blackhawks forward Alex Nylader (92). (Photo courtesy: Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

7/9: Blues/Blackhawks, 5:30pm CT, Rogers Place – NBCSN, ESPN 101.1

EDMONTON – It’s been 140 days since we’ve been able to say this, but the St. Louis Blues will play hockey tonight. An exhibition game between the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks kicks off the Blues’ postseason, serving as preliminary action for the round-robin qualifiers for the top seeds of the playoffs. After months of deliberation, negotiation, quarantine, and patiently waiting, the NHL season has resumed in Edmonton and Toronto, with a specific selection of Blues’ players and staff remaining in the bubble for potentially as late as October 2nd.

However, that will not stop any Blues players from wanting to defend their Stanley Cup title as they face their rival Chicago for a 5th and (possibly) final time this season. The Blues made even more history against the Hawks this season, sweeping them in an exhilarating 4-game series. Jake Allen posted two shutouts against the Hawks, making a collective 67 saves to get two of the wins.

The second game of the series was nothing short of magical, as the Blues fell 0-3 in the third period to roar back with 4 unanswered third period goals. Finally, with Jordan Binnington in the net again, the Blues came on top 6-5 in a raucous scoring gallery, thanks to back-and-forth goals from Zach Sanford, Robert Thomas, Brayden Schenn, and even Justin Faulk. Binnington made a combined 44 saves, allowing 8 goals.

The Blues and Hawks play hockey tonight in Edmonton, the hub city for Western Conference opponents in the playoffs. The puck drops at 5:30pm CT in Rogers Place as St. Louis hockey officially returns.

Clipping the Hawks Wings

Adding insult to injury to the Blues’ deepest rivalry would be eve sweeter for St. Louis, and every player and coach are focused on bringing their A-game to this grudge match and make it 5-0 against Chicago. “(This is) our only exhibition game before the real thing starts,” head coach Craig Berube said. “We need to get our structure down and get after it. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

“They’re always intense games, they’re always fun,” Colton Parayko told NHL.com. “I think just in general with where we’re at here, it’s going to be a good game no matter who we’re going to play. It’s going to be important for us to just learn from it.”

Despite the confidence, defenseman Vince Dunn was only able to attend one practice prior to tonight’s game, which likely means he’ll sit and allow someone like Robert Bortuzzo or Marco Scandella to fit in a pairing. Oskar Sundqvist and Vladimir Tarasenko, both sidelined with injuries at the time of the season pause, look to get back into action tonight. Tarasenko, who exited the season just 10 games in with shoulder surgery, looks to get back to his scoring ways, coming off last year with 33 goals and 68 points. “We don’t go there like for a resort, where we’re expecting unbelievable food service, like five-star summer resort,” Tarasenko said to St. Louis reporters a couple weeks ago. “We’ve going for playing hockey … I don’t need much to live. I just need a bed and food.”

Round-Robin – Dallas, Colorado, Vegas

In an unprecedented playoff structure, the St. Louis qualified in the top four teams in the Western Conference, joining the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Las Vegas Golden Knights as teams safe from the best-of-5 play-in round. To determine seeding, all four aforementioned teams will play each other in a round-robin series, starting with the Blues and Avalanche on Sunday at 5:30. After that, the Blues take on the Knights on August 6th and the Stars on August 9th.

The intensity in each of these games will be higher than any regular season game, to say the least. Not only is this the first competitive hockey the Blues have seen since mid-March, it’s against their toughest opponents throughout the regular season. The Blues split the season series with the Avs, going 2-2-0. Both losses, however, weren’t just blemishes on their record: Colorado trounced the Blues, outscoring them 12-6 and forcing star goaltender Jordan Binnington out of the pipes in both contests.

Colorado’s roster is the most stacked it’s been in recent years, and with superstars like Nathan MacKinnon (35-58-93), Cale Makar (12-38-50), Mikko Rantanen (19-22-41), and captain Gabriel Landeskog (21-23-44) fully healthy, the Blues will have their hands full with one of the toughest opponents in the NHL.

The Stars have always been a thorn in the Blues’ side, but since the second round of last year’s playoffs the Blues have managed Dallas’ roster admirably. Even with a Vezina finalist in Ben Bishop (.920%, 2.50 GAA), a second-best defense in the league and impressive young players in Miro Heiskanen (8-27-35) and Roope Hintz (19-14-33), the Stars offense has been one of the worst (28th in the NHL). Only one player has 50 points in the regular season (Tyler Seguin), and that’s been a key to the Blues’ 4-0-1 record against them.

Finally, the three-game series against Vegas has been tight (1-0-2), but St. Louis’ efforts were incredibly lackluster in critical moments. Despite a legendary 4-goal game courtesy of Zach Sanford, the Blues continued to fall apart, eventually losing one of two games in OT. Just in their junior season in the NHL, the Knights have proven to be a regular playoff contender with the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury in net, with acquisitions like Max Pacioretty (32-34-66), Mark Stone (21-42-63) and Jonathan Marchessault (22-25-47) paying off tremendous dividends.

Even former Blues Paul Stastny and Ryan Reaves have adapted well to life in Sin City, taking 1st in the Pacific Division this season with ease. With former rival coach Pete DeBoer now at the helm, the Blues’ consistency will be heavily challenged to go toe-to-toe with the most exciting expansion franchise in NHL history.

Trophies, Trophies, Trophies

Ryan O’Reilly continues to prove his dominant presence on the ice for St. Louis this season. After receiving another nomination for the Selke trophy (which he won last year), O’Reilly has also been nominated for the King Clancy trophy, awarded “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community”, as well as the Lady Byng trophy, awarded to a player who has “adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

O’Reilly wasn’t the only player nominated for an award: veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester was the St. Louis player selected for the Bill Masterton trophy, awarded annually to the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.” Bouwmeester has not played since February 11th after suffering a cardiac episode on the ice and was immediately escorted to a hospital.

“I’m at a point right now where I feel pretty good,” Bouwmeester said. “… It’s a scary thing but everything’s going pretty good lately and we’ll continue to evaluate things as they go.” While every NHL team nominates a player for the Masterton, Jay Bouwmeester’s story and recovery process will certainly be a front-runner.

Lineups in the Bubble

With only 50 players/staff allowed from each NHL franchise into the bubble, a 31-man roster was announced for the players traveling with the St. Louis Blues to Edmonton, where they’ll stay until the completion of the playoffs:

FORWARDS

49 – Ivan Barbashev

9 – Sammy Blais

21 – Tyler Bozak

36 – Troy Brouwer

61 – Jacob de la Rose

37 – Klim Kostin

33 – Jordan Kyrou

28 – Mackenzie MacEachern

90 – Ryan O’Reilly

57 – David Perron

53 – Austin Poganski

12 – Zach Sanford

10 – Brayden Schenn

17 – Jaden Schwartz

20 – Alexander Steen

70 – Oskar Sundqvist

91 – Vladimir Tarasenko

18 – Robert Thomas

DEFENSE

41 – Robert Bortuzzo

29 – Vince Dunn

72 – Justin Faulk

4 – Carl Gunnarsson

77 – Niko Mikkola

55 – Colton Parayko

27 – Alex Pietrangelo

51 – Derrick Pouliot

6 – Marco Scandella

46 – Jake Walman

GOALIES

34 – Jake Allen

50 – Jordan Binnington

35 – Ville Husso

So far, no players in the NHL qualifiers have tested positive for COVID-19. Ivan Barbashev is the only Blue to leave the bubble since they arrived to Edmonton, in anticipation of the birth of his son.

For more local Blues stories, recaps, insights and more, visit bluesrants.com!

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