Barbashev gets shot with Tarasenko, Schwartz; Sobotka addition gives
Blues options; Brodziak back in Minnesota; Schmaltz to debut in playoffs
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Never in his wildest dreams could Blues rookie Ivan Barbashev have felt like he'd be at the center of attention (no pun intended) when the Stanley Cup Playoffs rolled around.
But here he is, on the cusp of centering the Blues' top line with Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko when the Blues open their Western Conference First Round series against the Minnesota Wild with Game 1 slated for a puck drop of 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center.
The 21-year-old Barbashev, who posted five goals and seven assists in 30 regular-season games, continues to show the poise and talent that carried over from his strong play in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves this season under Craig Berube and his coaching staff.
Is Barbashev nervous? Probably, but it doesn't diminish the excitement he feels as the best-of-7 series gets underway.
"To be honest, really excited, especially with those guys in the playoffs," Barbashev said. "It's awesome. I don't know, just really happy about it and I'm looking (forward) to the first playoff game."
With Barbashev in the top spot as Paul Stastny recovers from what is believed to be a broken foot, the Blues' lines looked like this:
Jaden Schwartz-Ivan Barbashev-Vladimir Tarasenko
Vladimir Sobotka-Jori Lehtera-Alexander Steen
Magnus Paajarvi-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
It initially puts Zach Sanford and Dmitrij Jaskin on the bench, but it's been an opportunity for some of the younger talent on the roster pool to get the exposure and necessary experience playing in the NHL.
Wednesday will be another first.
"Yeah, he's been doing that since he was here and it's awesome to be honest," Barbashev said of Blues coach Mike Yeo. "He gave us a chance and we're just trying to improve."
It's still something Barbashev couldn't have envisioned even, say, three weeks ago.
"Not really," he said. "I was hoping to get called up and get at least a game or something. I think he saw something in me and I've just been trying to work hard and it's just great that he's given me a chance."
* Options with Sobotka on board -- A line of Sobotka, Lehtera and Steen gives the Blues a veteran presence, a wealth of experience and more balance throughout the lineup.
It gets Steen away from the center ice position and allows him to play to his strengths on the wing, for one.
"You know me, I'm up for anything. It's a good line," Steen said. "I think throughout this series, you'll probably see some different looks. It depends on whether we're on the road or at home. We'll start getting into details on possible matchups and stuff, but I'm excited. 'Sobe' looked good in his first game. Jori is an extremely smart centerman, very good on faceoffs, so hopefully we start with the puck more often than not and off we go."
Sobotka, signed to a three-year, $10.5 million extension last Thursday after mutually agreeing to terminate the remainder of his contract (which was set to expire April 30) with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, brings NHL experience that plays both ends of the ice, is strong on the dot, can kill penalties, play on the power play and plays a physical game for his smaller stature.
He got in his first full team practice on Tuesday before the team departed for Minnesota after skating Friday and Saturday morning, played his first and only regular-season game Sunday (scored a goal) and practice Tuesday.
"Guys and coaches, they help a lot," Sobotka said. "I kind of know before some things change, some things haven't changed. I kind of knew how guys play and they help me on the ice, too.
"First game's going to be different. It's going to be totally different game. ... I got the first (full) practice with the team, first hard one kind of. I felt really good out there and I'm excited to be on the team."
Sobotka was used on the first power-play unit along with Steen and Alex Pietrangelo on the points, and Tarasenko and Schwartz down low.
"I think the biggest thing for me, you look at the team we're playing, there's a lot of depth, I think now we're a deeper team," Yeo said. "That depth is going to come into play both defensively and offensively. He helps us at both ends of the ice. He's a guy that factors into our special teams, he's a guy that can help us on faceoffs and he's a guy that's an experienced player and has played at world championships, played at the highest level. It's a great asset to get him at this time of year.
"... I think he's ready. Him, like the rest of our group, our focus is, we want to put our best game out there in Game 1 and we'll continue to get better as the series moves along."
The Blues know they got a great benefit of adding a trade deadline-type of player for the playoffs, a luxury nobody else had.
"The trickle-down effect obviously is big," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "(Sobotka) slots in there. Any time you can add a guy that can play in every situation, power play, penalty kill, d-zone faceoffs, o-zone faceoffs, we know what to expect because we've played with him before. To add a guy like that is almost like a big trade deadline acquisition. This one's a little bit different because we all know him. We all know the person and the player so it makes it a lot easier.
"We watched one of his KHL playoff games and watched him last game and he's the same player as when he left. Actually, he's probably even better. As you get older, you mature as a player. It'll be interesting to see as he gets more comfortable here, a new ice surface for him and new teammates, I'm sure he's still trying to get adjusted to it."
* Brodziak back in familiar territory -- It's not only a return for former stomping grounds for Yeo, who coached the Wild for five seasons before being fired on Feb. 14, 2016, it's also a homecoming of sorts for Blues center Kyle Brodziak, who spent six seasons with the Wild (2008-2015) before signing with the Blues as an unrestricted free agent.
But Brodziak, who had eight goals and seven assists in 69 games, his second with the Blues, doesn't look at it that way.
"I don't really want to call it that," he said of a homecoming. "You know what, it's a lot bigger picture right now. Obviously I spent some time there with a lot of familiar faces, but at the same time, there's a goal that our group wants to accomplish and that's the same goal I have. We're going there as a group and we want to accomplish that goal together."
It still helps that the Blues have a coach in Yeo and Brodziak on the roster that know the ins and outs of the Wild and its personnel.
"There's probably only two or three guys that I'm not familiar with," Brodziak said. "I played with a lot of them for a long time. I'm pretty familiar with the group as a whole, a lot of the individuals. I'm sure we'll try and provide feedback as much as we can, but at the end of the day, we still want to focus on ourselves, our game, our team game and our individual game and that's where our primary focus is going to be."
Brodziak, who was part of the Wild team that eliminated the Blues in six games in the first round two years ago, his last one in Minnesota, said to expect a tight series this go-round because of so may similarities and strengths between the teams.
"I think you're bang-on there," Brodziak said. "Both teams are build from the back-end out, both teams are strong in net, have six solid defenders. We play two pretty structured games. We don't give a lot of easy ice out there and I think for both teams, it's going to be a difficult series. It should be fun and we're looking forward to it."
And matching up against the Wild's big crop of centers (Eric Staal, Mikko Koivu, Martin Hanzal and Joel Eriksson Ek), Brodziak will be part of a Blues group that must counter.
"They're a big team in the middle," Brodziak said. "Staal, Koivu, Hanzal, I'm not too familiar with Eriksson Ek. I haven't seen him too much, but I think he's a big guy as well. Obviously you have other guys. (Charlie) Coyle plays middle sometimes. He's a great guy, so yeah, that's going to be a challenge for us.
"I think we know and expect it's going to be a difficult series, scoring chances aren't going to come by easy. We're going to have to work for our chances in the offensive zone. We expect that and that's going to be one of the focuses for us being in the offensive zone knowing it's going to be difficult and finding ways to get pucks to the net and beat them there."
But one difference with Yeo is he's using Brodziak with Upshall and Reaves in more situations, and the line is thriving.
"We try to be on the same page," Brodziak said. "We talk quite a bit, we know what it feels like when our line's playing well and what we're doing well. We communicate with each other quite often and we know what it feels like when it's not going well, too. When we get that feeling, we try talking, correct it as soon as we can. I think it's just keeping it simple. We're all predictable to each other, so I think that helps."
* Schmaltz evolving, ready for first playoff game -- It's not only Barbashev that will make his NHL playoff debut Wednesday, defenseman Jordan Schmaltz will also make his initial appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Schmaltz, who was recalled on March 1, has two assists in the nine games he's played and partnered up with veteran Carl Gunnarsson to form the third defensive pair.
"I'm just trying to take it in stride here and kind of take everything in and prepare with the video," Schmaltz said. "The game notes, the practices and stuff like that, just put all the preparation in. When the puck drops at 8:30 or whatever time it is, I'm ready to go."
Robert Bortuzzo (upper-body injury) doesn't appear to be ready to play in Game 1, and that means Schmaltz continues what he calls a whirlwind.
"Yeah, a little bit. You kind of learn things happen quick in this business," he said. "I think like we've talked about in the past that you've just got to be ready. I think I've done a good job of preparing and I just got to keep going.
"You always think there's a chance, maybe (to play in the NHL playoffs). But at the same time, down there, it's just a day-by-day thing. You're not really thinking that far out. It's here now and it's the real deal so I'm ready to do it."
Schmaltz is another example of young players Yeo has inserted into the lineup with confidence.
"First off, what you get is hope," Yeo said of Schmaltz. "You get confidence in the game that he's playing. He plays with an element of poise in his execution and his defensive game. That said, the one thing about the word hope is, it's not a certainty. For me, with all of our young players, I think this is a great experience for them. I want them to take it in, I want them to go out with no fear in their game and play with confidence and play aggressive.
"... I think there's really nothing you can do to completely prepare them. Anyone who's been in a playoff building knows the atmosphere, the energy, the momentum swings. It's something they have to deal with first-hand and I hope they enjoy every minute of it."
Schmaltz will soak up every ounce of experience and hope to use it to his benefit.
"Kind of, but at the same time, you've got to be ready to play," Schmaltz said. "These guys are a good team, a really good team and they have been all year. It's going to be a competitive series.
"I've kind of been on both sides of it now, either playing or sitting out and kind of watching trying to take things to learn and things like that. It's been a whirlwind of a month here, just taking it day-by-day here and trying to get better. ... I've always watched growing up as a kid and stuff like that, but I've never been through it. It's going to be pretty sweet. Minnesota has a great crowd and things like that going in there. Hopefully we'll grab a couple wins."
* Noteworthy items -- Along with Bortuzzo, Stastny wasn't in the ice Tuesday practicing with teammates and both are likely out for Wednesday, but Yeo continues to call Stastny day-to-day.
Forward Nail Yakupov (undisclosed) also didn't practice.
* Wild respect Blues -- The Wild, which finished second in the Central Division, won four in a row to conclude the season after a dismal 4-10-2 run that ultimately cost it the division title and top seed in the Western Conference, know what they're up against.
The Wild know the Blues went 15-2-2 down the stretch to get in the position they did and have much respect for an opponent it knows will be tough.
"They box out well. They’ve got big, mobile D," Wild left wing Zach Parise said of the Blues. "Just like against any team, you always want to get to the front of the net and get rebounds. But these guys box out really well, and they block shots well, so that’s something we’re really going to have to pay attention to if we want to score goals in this series. You’ve got to get inside, get around the crease and inside the hash marks and find rebounds."
"They play hard, theyre physical," Coyle said. "They have a big team. Just looking at their roster, all big guys over there. It’s going to be a battle. We’ve got to win those battles, those one-on-one battles, bring that work ethic, that compete level and just outwork these guys."
"They shut us down really good the last time here," Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said of a 2-1 St. Louis win on March 7. "We got very few opportunities, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s a template for what they’re going to do tomorrow, or try to do tomorrow.”
"... Everybody thinks they’re not as heavy a team, but they still play similarly, and they’re really big on the back end. Now, (Kevin) Shattenkirk is the one guy they don’t have, but they’re bigger and stronger and they play a meaner game in front of the net and they’ve been very, very good at it."
* Opilka sighting -- Blues goalie prospect Luke Opilka made a surprise appearance at Blues practice on Tuesday, joining Jake Allen and Carter Hutton in the crease.
Opilka, a fifth round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, had recently completed his second season with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League.
After going 27-11-5 in 2015-16, Opilka completed an injury-plagued season by going 13-13-1 with a 3.58 goals-against average and .889 save percentage in the regular season and 1-4 in the postseason with a 4.96 GAA and .899 save percentage.
Opilka had offseason hip surgery last summer that carried a recovery timeline of 4-6 months.