By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The long-awaited return has finally arrived.
Robby Fabbri will finally make his 2018-19 regular-season debut for the Blues (3-4-3) today when they play the third of a seven-game homestand against the Vegas Golden Knights (5-6-1) at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).
Fabbri last played an NHL regular-season game on Feb. 4, 2017 when he tore his left ACL against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fabbri tore the same ACL during training camp last season and missed the entire year. He missed the first month of this season dealing with a sore hip, sore back and Grade 1 groin strain.
"I'm excited for him personally. I'm excited for our team," Blues coach Mike Yeo said of Fabbri. "I think it might take him a little bit of time, I think he's going to have some games that look that way and may have some games that don't look that way. I don't know how long it's going to take him to get back on top of things. I know that players that are relentless and tenacious and driven as he is usually find a way to get there quicker, but I'm really excited for Robby. He's been through a lot and as a coach, it's hard to see a player go through all that disappointment, the work that he's put in, he comes back last year and he has to go through it all over again, it's not just the physical part of it, it's the mental part. He's been through an awful lot and so I'm really hopeful that things go well for him."
Fabbri will start the game on the fourth line with Robert Thomas and Oskar Sundqvist. That means Ivan Barbashev, who has a goal and two assists in 10 games and was in his first NHL fight last Saturday against Brent Seabrook when the Blues beat Chicago 7-3, will be a healthy scratch.
"I think he'd probably say he'd like to have a little more," Yeo said of Fabbri. "But players usually do. It's an opportunity right now. It's more than he had last year, it's more than what he had two weeks ago, it's more than what he had two years ago. Any shift he gets now is a blessing and I think you're going to see that. I think that's going to show up in his play, that he knows that, and he's going to go out with the idea of earning more and trying to make something happen."
Yeo wants to keep Thomas in the lineup and he liked Sundqvist's game against the Blackhawks.
"First off, I thought Robby Thomas played the best game he's played for us all year," Yeo said. "I said before last game that I felt he was in a place where he was ready to start really coming around. I thought his head was in a better place and it really seems to be. He's moving his feet, he's playing with more confidence, he's playing with more urgency, he seems to understand the game, the NHL game, better. I didn't want to take him out after playing his best game of the season. 'Sunny' had an assist last game, he's doing a really good job on the penalty kill, he's taking a step in his game right now, he's playing with a lot more confidence, he's playing with a lot more pace than he did last year. It's just the decision we made tonight. Obviously we have a lot of options. We still haven't gotten 'Sosh' [Nikita Soshnikov] in a game, we want to get him in and don't want 'Barby' sitting out for a long time. It was a tough decision but one that we went with."
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Besides Fabbri making his long-awaited debut, defenseman Carl Gunnarsson also makes his season debut tonight in place of Jordan Schmaltz.
Gunnarsson also makes his play for the first time since March 23, 2018 when he tore his left ACL. Gunnarsson also had offseason surgery on his right hip. He will play alongside Vince Dunn.
"A lot of ups and downs; it's been a long road," Gunnarsson said. "It hasn't been easy all the time and seeing the boys just buzzing out there, even in training camp not being part of it.
"It's been tough, but I always had that first game in mind and now we're here. It's been tough watching them a little bit, not just because of the losses, but just being on the sideline and not being able to help. Hopefully I can contribute tonight and keep it going from last game with the boys doing a great job of it."
Yeo knows he's getting a veteran, stable presence back on the blue line.
"Hopefully stability. When he's on top of his game, that's what he's giving you," Yeo said. "His intention when he goes on the ice is to not get scored on and he's going to be reliable, he's going to be sound defensively. He's going to do some things, he's going to make some plays, the but the bottom line is he wants to help our team get to its game in a simple form and he wants to make sure when he's on the ice the puck doesn't end up in our net."
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Jake Allen will get the start for the 10th time in 11 games after leaving the win against the Blackhawks with 1:01 left in the second period following a heavy collision with teammate Zach Sanford.
Allen went through concussion protocol, took Sunday off, rode the bike Monday, skated with goalie coach David Alexander on Tuesday and got in a full day's work on Wednesday.
"He had a really good practice yesterday, so we were confident he'd be ready to go," Yeo said. "... It was scary. It was a heck of a save too (on Brandon Saad). It was obviously that was a pretty key moment in the game. It was scary when he went down like that, but I got pretty good word after the game that we were pretty encouraged and so, hopeful."
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It will be a reunion of sorts for two players on the ice tonight. One for David Perron, who spent last season with the Golden Knights and made a run to the Stanley Cup Final with Vegas, and for former Blue Ryan Reaves, who spent seven seasons with the Blues (2010-17) before being traded at the 2017 NHL Draft to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins shipped Reaves to Vegas late last season.
"Yeah, it's going to be good. It's going to be special," said Perron, who went to dinner with 19 of his former teammates last night. "There's places or guys that you can see for many years and there's guys you see for a short period of time. It was only a year, but we accomplished a lot in a short period, so it was special.
"(I got lose with) a lot of guys. ... I miss them a lot obviously. When you go what we went through last year, it's basically a group of guys that I'll always remember. That year is an extremely special one, something you want to play hockey for. Every year, you want to get to that point. It will be good to see them."
Perron had a career-high 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists) with the Golden Knights, who lost to the Washington Capitals in five games in the Stanley Cup Final last season.
"I don't know how it works, but if they ever do a night in Vegas and you see those guys if it's even 20-30 years down the road, it's going to be really cool and really special," Perron said of a potential reunion for the inaugural season in Vegas. "I think one of the main reasons why we went this far is how close the team was. ... It's a bond I really haven't seen anywhere else. That was the reason why we went this far.
"The truth is once you go this far, you kind of would love to see one more crack at it and what it does if you get another one. It's similar to 'Hitch' maybe a couple years ago when this team went to the conference final and he wanted one more year at it and he got it basically out of respect. It was a similar feeling for me, but I'm happy to be here."
Perron signed a four-year, $16 million free agent contract to return to the Blues for a third stint.
"Once the season finished, it was like June 15th-20th pretty much and it's tough because you have to turn the page quickly onto a new thing and they had to do a different decision," Perron, who has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 10 gmes this season. "It changed different things for them there. You bring in a guy like [Paul] Stastny, you can never have too many centermen and [Max] Pacioretty's a guy who established himself with so many goals in all the years that he played. Yeah, they probably were looking at Pacioretty for the goal scoring that Neal brought and Stastny's a pretty good playmaker. I had 50 assists last year, so I'm sure they were looking at replacing that."
So what's the recipe to Vegas' success and how do the Blues beat them?
"They try and play with speed and their power play is very effective in creating something out of nothing in my opinion," Perron said. "Sometimes it's a full shift and it's almost like nothing's happening and all of the sudden they go down on a 2-on-1 and they score. We have to be aware of that and just like any team. For us at this point in the season, we've got to make sure we're bringing our 'A' game every night. We haven't done that just yet, so it's more about us than anybody else right now. I think the focus is going to be mostly on us. Of course, there's little tendencies on any guys there or their system, but at the end of the day, it's on us."
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Reaves also signed a two-year, $5.55 million free agent contract to remain in Vegas. The boisterous popular former Blue spent last night with five, six former teammates last night.
"We went to dinner. Had a good time, couple laughs, caught up a little bit," Reaves said.
Reaves has three goals in 12 games and with injuries to former Blue Stastny (lower-body) and Pacioretty (upper body), Reaves has filled multiple roles, even on the power play.
"You weren't drunk, that's for sure," Reaves joked. "We got some banged up bodies right now. I'm getting an opportunity to play in different situations and I'm trying to take advantage while I can because we've got some good players that will be coming back soon. It's tough to put me in front of those guys, so I want to take advantage while the opportunity is there.
"I don't think I was coming out of this summer expecting to play power play, but I work hard every day in the summer and during the season so I c an be ready for any situation. This is the first time this kind of opportunity has risen. I'm trying to run with it."
Reaves, like many players who joined up in Vegas, said it's great living in Nevada and it was a no-brainer to stay on board there.
"Seems to be working me," Reaves said. "I'm getting a lot of opportunities there and that's all anybody can ask for.
"It's crazy. Honestly, the thing I always notice is when you drive around, it's impossible to not see cars with Golden Knights stickers and decals, flags flying and it's everywhere. It's not like every couple cars, it's almost every car. It's crazy to see. You go down to The Strip, the Statue of Liberty has a Golden Knights jersey, last year in the playoffs, MGM Line had a Golden Knights jersey. We're plastered everywhere. People go to practice and the whole practice rink is sold out. People are chanting "Go Knights, Go!" The people have embraced the team, the community really loves us and we love the fans there.
"There's always something to do. Always something to do. We live 25 minutes from The Strip, so it's far enough that you don't have to go to The Strip. There's lots of stuff to do out where we live, but close enough that if you want to go catch a show or go down and get dinner, you can get down there. Playing in the fortress is one of my favorite things. All the fans are crazy there, it's a big party every night. I just love living there.
"At the end of the year, I told them I wanted to be back. I like the culture that they have there. I like the team that they're building. I love the city, I love the fans. I told them I wanted to be back and when it came down to it, they had a goof offer on the table and one that was really hard to refuse but also where I wanted to be so it was an easy decision for me."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko
Zach Sanford-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron
Pat Maroon-Tyler Bozak-Alexander Steen
Robby Fabbri-Robert Thomas-Oskar Sundqvist
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Carl Gunnarsson
Jake Allen will start in goal; Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Ivan Barbashev, Nikita Soshnikov and Jordan Schmaltz. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) remains out.
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The Golden Knights' projected lineup:
Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith
Alex Tuch-Erik Haula-Tomas Hyka
Tomas Nosek-Cody Eakin-Ryan Carpenter
William Carrier-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Ryan Reaves
Shea Theodore-Deryk Engelland
Brayden McNabb-Colin Miller
Nick Holden-Brad Hunt
Marc-Andre Fleury will start in goal; Malcolm Subban will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Oscar Lindberg and Jon Merrill. Paul Stastny (lower body) and Max Pacioretty (upper body) are out.