By LOU KORAC
Time to take a stand for the Blues has arrived.
Time to take a stand for the Blues has arrived.
It's been two months since they've seen the Arizona Coyotes, but that April 15 game was the last of seven straight against the Coyotes.
When the eighth and final matchup commences at 5 p.m. today (BSMW, ESPN 101.1-FM), fourth place and the final playoff spot in the Western Division will be on the line.
The Blues (19-17-6) lead the Coyotes (19-20-5) by a point for fourth, and a win today could boost their lead, with a regulation win, by three points with two games in hand.
The Blues are 3-3-1 against the Coyotes this season, but these are two different teams than those that played two months ago.
"That was a helluva series to be honest with you," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "They were playing well and I thought they gave us a tough time. That (Conor) Garland, (Nick) Schmaltz, (Clayton) Keller line (eight goals, 11 assists) was really good against us in that series, they did a good job I thought. Their goaltender was solid. It was tough, it was good games. All of them were close games, I thought, could have went either way in that seven-game set."
Despite a 4-3 loss to Colorado on Thursday, a game in which the Blues were better for 40 of the 60 minutes, they have won three of their past four while Arizona
"We've had some good battles against these guys," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "They've played us very well and we know it's going to be a very hard game and obviously with what's at stake too. It's the team we're fighting with for that playoff spot and it's going to be an intense game. It's an important game and it's going to have that kind of playoff feel.
"It's huge. At this time of year, every point matters and when you get to playing the team you're fighting with, it's huge. It creates separation. That's why it will be so intense and both of us are fighting for our lives. It's huge, it's huge points, but we need to keep separating ourselves and keep moving up in the standings.
"We saw them a little earlier in the year and I think we were still trying to kind of find our game a bit more. I expect we'll be a lot better. I think in the last game, and even the last game we played, we had a good two periods. Obviously our second period killed us, but I think we know what our game looks like. Focus on ourselves and being intense and doing the little details, being physical, taking care of the puck. I think if we do that, we build our game from there and not worry so much about what they're going to do."
With Arizona losing five straight, they've been outscored 21-11, so it's important for the Blues, who felt the same fate when they were going through their 0-6-1 stretch, to try and gain an edge early and get the Coyotes to doubt themselves.
"Oh absolutely. Yeah, you want to put doubt in their mind," O'Reilly said. "You do that with not giving them anything. You're disciplined with the puck, winning the right battles, winning the blue lines. You take care of those things, that frustrates teams, that wears them down and that'll force them to get into their heads. Just that commitment to those details and go from there."
The Blues' starts have been better of late, and will be a focal point today.
"For sure. I think getting a good start, I think our starts have been good," Berube said. "I think we've got to continue to get that good first period in there. It's nice to come of there with a lead, scoring first is obviously important, I think."
The Blues, barring a scheduling change from the NHL, will have just this one game in a seven-day window after their game with the Colorado Avalanche, which was supposed to be the first of three straight against them at home, has been postponed on Tuesday due to Colorado being hit with players winding up on the COVID-19 list.
"Basically, we've got to go into this game and you're going to leave everything out on the ice," Berube said. "You've got to empty the tank against them."
Which is why it's a huge game for both sides.
"It's huge," center Ivan Barbashev said. "I think the team is behind us by a point, so it's a really big game. We've got to be prepared. It's an early game and it's going to be a real interesting one.
"It's just a fight for a playoff spot right now. We don't have a lot of games left. Every single game is real important right now I guess for both teams. It's going to be a really hard game for both teams."
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The Blues made a forward tweak in practice on Friday at Centene Community Ice Center that will take affect for the game today, flipping Jordan Kyrou and Zach Sanford.
Kyrou will play with Tyler Bozak and Mike Hoffman and Sanford will play with Kyle Clifford and Barbashev.
"A little more offense and just a heavier line down there with Barbashev and Clifford," Berube said. "I thought they did a good job in the third period (Wednesday) too. Went out and had some good, physical shifts and heavy forecheck shifts."
Berube has liked Sanford's ability to defend.
"Yeah, he's a heads up player defensively," Berube said. 'He has a good stick and has good awareness out there."
The defensive pairs are expected to stick, with Jake Walman remaining in the lineup despite struggling in the game at times, especially early, against the Avalanche last Wednesday.
"I thought he played really well in the third period," Berube said. "He was more aggressive and used his feet more. I think the first period maybe backed off a little bit too much. Colorado's a good team, they're fast, got a lot of firepower, so you can understand that out of a young guy. But I think he's improving and getting better and better and the more he plays, the more he's going to feel more comfortable and the more he'll start to handle how quick the game is and how quick you've got to find the open guy and how quick you've got to move the puck and things like that."
Barbashev said he welcomes the addition.
"I think it's big because he's a really good player," he said. "He plays physical and I think with our line tomorrow. I think we're going to bring a lot of physicality. We've got to do our job out there. It's going to be really important and I'm looking forward to it."
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The Blues will be looking to the line of Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko to get on track offensively.
That trio has had its moments but not enough to generate end results.
"They had some good looks. Schenn had some Grade A chances," Berube said, referring to the last game. "Schwartzy had a couple. Vladi shot the puck. It wasn't inside the dots where he needs to be, but he had a real good look on the power play and it hit the knob. I get it, it's a results business and we need results from them. I think the work ethic's there. I think they're close to breaking out, I really do. I think if they keep getting chances like they are, They're going to go in eventually."
Schenn is in a funk, without a goal in 16 straight games. He does have five assists.
"Sometimes you aim it too much and you don't just get it off quicker," Berube said. "It's one of the things I talked to Vladi about today was just getting the puck off quicker. Don't give the goalie time, don't try to aim it and puck corners so much. Have that shot mentality and get it off quicker. It makes it tougher on the defending team and for the goalie."
As for Sammy Blais, his play with O'Reilly and David Perron will keep him there, and Berube likes what he's seen.
"I do," he said. "I thought he had another strong game. He was aggressive and physical and he did some real good things with the puck, had a couple good looks, made some nice plays too with it."
Blais has not only helped with the forecheck and physicality on that line but is creating scoring chances.
"I think he's doing a great job," O'Reilly said. "I think s a line, we have to forecheck well and we're connected on that. I think he's doing a great job getting in there and being physical at the right times and reloading hard. You could just see we're starting to build something. We had a lot of good opportunities last game and the games before, you could just tell we're connected, we're working together. It's nice to see. He's a great player that's making good plays and working."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Sammy Blais-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron
Jaden Schwartz-Brayden Schenn-Vladimir Tarasenko
Zach Sanford-Tyler Bozak-Mike Hoffman
Kyle Clifford-Ivan Barbashev-Nathan Walker
Torey Krug-Justin Faulk
Marco Scandella-Vince Dunn
Jake Walman-Colton Parayko
Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Ville Husso will be the backup.
Robert Bortuzzo, Niko Mikkola and Jordan Kyrou are the healthy scratches. Robert Thomas (shoulder) and Mackenzie MacEachern (upper body) are out. Carl Gunnarsson (knee) and Oskar Sundqvist (knee) are out for the season.
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The Coyotes' projected lineup:
Clayton Keller-Nick Schmaltz-Conor Garland
Dryden Hunt-Johan Larsson-Phil Kessel
Lawson Crouse-Christian Dvorak-Tyler Pitlick
Michael Bunting-Lane Peterson-Christian Fischer
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Ilya Lyubushkin
Jakob Chychrun-Alex Goligoski
Niklas Hjalmarsson-Jason Demers
Darcy Kuemper will start in goal; Antti Raanta will be the backup. Healthy scratches include Adin Hill, Jordan Oesterle, John Hayden and Derick Brassard. Jordan Gross (lower body) is out.