Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Allen good to go in opener

Goalie will get start against Blackhawks; Blues to open 50th season 
against rival; Steen ready; Bortuzzo pushing into top six; high praise for Yakupov.

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Jake Allen skated onto the ice surface at the Ice Zone on Tuesday morning, it was the telltale sign for those curious whether he'd be healthy enough to play the season-opener Wednesday night in Chicago (7 p.m., NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM).

And when Allen, who departed the final preseason game last Saturday against the Blackhawks after the first period, went through his normal routine during a hard but brisk Blues practice before heading off to the Windy City, it was unanimous: Allen and the Blues dodged the injury bullet.

Allen, who is the unanimous No. 1 goalie heading into the 2016-17 season, did not practice Monday and there was some concern when Jordan Binnington was recalled from the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves on Sunday. But Allen knew all along that he'd be fine and ready to go.

"Essentially," Allen said. "You want to be 100 percent for the season. Tomorrow matters. Unfortunately, the last game didn't matter a whole lot and from a points perspective. I was fortunate enough that I'm able to go tomorrow and I'm looking forward to it. 

"... I knew in the back of my mind that I should be good to go on Wednesday. Just doing the proper steps to be ready."

Allen was hurt when teammate Carl Gunnarsson was tripped into him and Gunnarsson's elbow landed awkwardly on the back of Allen's skate causing discomfort. Allen came out for a whirl at the start of the second but left in favor of backup Carter Hutton.

"Yeah, gave it a little whirl. You don't have any ice in the dressing room, so it's tough to get out there," Allen said . Gave it a little whirl, knew it was probably the best thing for me to get out of the net at the time. I think it was the right decision in the end. ... Obviously didn't feel comfortable, didn't feel good at the time. A couple days off was nice to get it back to 100 percent and ready to go.

"It's one long season, and you don't want to ever start off on the wrong foot. That was our mindset going into that second period. I think we did the right thing."

Coach Ken Hitchcock got the answer he wanted early Tuesday morning.

"I saw everything when you guys were sleeping," Hitchcock said of Allen. "He was out early. He did his due diligence. We knew this when we pulled him out in the game that this was going to be OK and so we knew going ahead. We just needed to go through protocol. We went through protocol at 8:30 this morning, got it done, and we knew we had a player right away. Not a big deal. 

"Like I said, Carter's been the story of camp. Now it turns to regular season, but he's been the story of camp. He's been great every time he's played. If we would have had to go to Carter, we would have been fine with it, but Jake's our starter; he's the guy we want to get in between the pipes right away and we're really looking forward to giving him the ball right now."

But there was no decision on whether Allen would play both ends of back-to-back games. The Blues host the Minnesota Wild in the home-opener Thursday.

"Just get through the Chicago game and then we'll decide what we'll do from there," Hitchcock said. "He's the starter so let's get playing. A lot of those guys play 50, 60, 70 games. No reason Jake can't take on a big load here."

* Rivals to open regular season -- The history of the Blues and Blackhawks goes back to 1967 when the Blues started their NHL franchise, but Wednesday marks only the sixth time the teams will open a season against one another.

Chicago has won three of the previous five matchups, but the Blues won the most recent opener, 8-3 in Chicago in 1989.

The teams also opened the 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1976 seasons.

And this matchup will be a rematch of the terrific Stanley Cup Playoff First Round series of last season, one in which the Blues won in seven games.

"I think it's huge," Hitchcock said of opening against Chicago. "We're both a lot different than we were last year. Both teams are going to compare themselves. They dressed their 'A' lineup and really outplayed us badly in their building (on Oct. 1 in a preseason game). We want to come back and play a real good game in there, but I think we're both a lot different and I think we're both curious to see how we're build and see where both of our lineups take us to. Both teams look way quicker than they were last year, a lot of mobility, a lot of young players that everybody's excited by. Ours are home grown. They've been around for a year already, but there's a lot of those guys we're really excited for and they've got some home grown guys that are just starting out. I think both teams are going to be pretty excited to play."

The Blues, who went 4-3-1 in the preseason, are anxious and eager to implement a different style more conducive to the style of today's NHL game: younger and faster.

"Practices have been good, but now we're excited to get back up and running here," forward Alexander Steen said. "... It's obviously been different, but we've obviously been jelling here for the last three or so weeks, altered a little bit in the way we want to play, a little bit on the power plays and things like that. I feel like we're dialed in and ready to go.

"... Over the last few years here, we've created a culture here where we're not too worried about what's happening in February-March. We're getting ready for the first two games of the season here. We've got Chicago in Chicago and then we get to play in front of our fans against Minny. Those are two games we're focused on and then we'll move on from there. We adapt and adjust our game accordingly, but other than that, we don't look too far down the line."

Added left wing David Perron, signed to a two-year, $7.5 million free agent contract to return to St. Louis: "I think this camp was great. ... I've got a good opportunity right now with 'Vova' (Vladimir Tarasenko) and Jori (Lehtera) there. I want to take advantage of it. It's not just only about points, it's the way I can create chances off the forecheck, get some loose pucks for them. They're going to find each other; they're good players. It's going to be a battle every day for the rest of the year and we're all in this together. It's the first test tomorrow."

The Blues are younger and are placing more emphasis on younger players to play bigger roles and want to see how it all unfolds beginning Wednesday.

"I'll tell you that at 10 o'clock. We'll see," Hitchcock said. "It's not really a new style, it's taking advantage of what we have. It's trying to be a little more aggressive without the puck. There's really no changes with the puck. Just being more aggressive so we get it back in a different spot on the ice. That's all it is. Can we get it turned over higher in the zone. We'll see if it works. It's showing great flashes at times and at times, we've allowed ourselves to get bogged down. It's going to be a work in progress. At 20 games, we can give you a better evaluation, but we wouldn't be opposed to turn back on the clock and go back to what we used to have. It's a very minor adjustment, but I'd like to see if we can get this type of design of play, if we can get it working.

"We know there's going to be some rough water, but there's a ton of growth here. That's what you do. Get an evaluation after the first 20 games and then take off from there. We've just got to be patient with our younger guys. We know full well in 20 or 25 games, it's going to really pay off."

* Steen ready to go -- Steen has been in the lineup the past two preseason games, which bodes well for the Blues that he's 100 percent fit and healthy after having  off-season surgery to repair his left shoulder June 3.

"That's huge obviously," Steen said. "I was happy where I was at right before the World Cup there, so I knew I out myself in a good position there to get ready for the season. I feel ready."

Hitchcock praised one of his assistant captains.

"He deserves a lot of credit," Hitchcock said of Steen. "He went way over the top getting ready. He put in a lot of hours, long days. He really pushed and he deserves a lot of credit. He's healthy, he's ready to go. He looks like he's got a great set of wheels going right now. He's got great energy. I think it's really good. The two (preseason) games I think has really helped him. It's really brought him up to another level. That's good for us."

* Bortuzzo in the mix -- Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo looks to be the odds-on favorite to start in the lineup against the Blackhawks, meaning Joel Edmundson will be the seventh defenseman to begin the season.

Hitchcock has raved Bortuzzo's camp and will consider moving him in Wednesday.

"We want to talk about that tonight, but I think you've got to consider it because that's what training camps are for, to earn spots," Hitchcock said. "It's not just earning spots, it's earning ice time and it's earning acknowledgment. He's had a great camp. There has to be a reward for playing that well, so we're certainly giving it strong consideration."

* Yakupov praise -- Count Steen in as one of the teammates impressed with the two practices newly acquired Nail Yakupov has put in since coming to the Blues from the Edmonton Oilers on Friday.

Yakupov will start off the season playing on a line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin.

"He's got a lot of skill. He's electric, he's dynamic in his movements," Steen said. "He'll add a lot of pace and quickness to our game. It'll be up to us as a group here to bring him into our structure and how we want to play the game and have him adjust to that, but he's looked really good in practice."

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