By LOU KORAC
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The only thing preventing rookies Ivan Barbashev and Jordan Schmaltz from channeling their emotions on the ice soon for the Blues, who open the Western Conference First Round against the Minnesota Wild tonight (8:30 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), is the fact that the puck won't actually drop until 8:45.
"I can't wait for the game to start," Barbashev said. "It's going to be fun and I'm really looking forward to it. I just can't wait to be honest."
The Blues and Wild, who finished as the Nos. 3 and 2 seeds, respectively, in the Central Division, begin their quest for the Stanley Cup tonight. Both Barbashev and Schmaltz, with a combined 39 games of NHL regular-season experience (30 for Barbashev), will be making their playoff debuts.
"I think I’m excited," Schmaltz said. "Nerves will probably kick in a little bit before the game when the place is amping and pretty loud but right now just kind of approach it like another game, even though it’s not, and get ready to play."
Barbashev will be centering the Blues' top line (how about that?) between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. With Paul Stastny (foot) out of the lineup, it's a big chance for Barbashev to cement his already impressive rookie year.
"I'm going to play in my first playoff game and it's going to be really interesting and I'm going to be excited," Barbashev said. "I don't know, I'm just going to play hard and probably keep it the same way we played last two months.
"Everybody (is) saying it's a lot of emotions. I've never been to the NHL playoffs. I'm guessing it's just going to be fun. I mean for sure, it's going to be tough every single game. I'm going to do my best out there."
Blues coach Mike Yeo, facing his former club for the second time (he coached the Blues' 2-1 regular-season win here on March 7), has the utmost confidence in the 21-year-old Barbashev.
"First off, he earned the opportunity, and now we get into the playoffs, we all know there's a different level of play and different level of intensity, so we're anxious to see how he can respond to that," Yeo said of Barbashev. "He's a kid that played in the world juniors twice, so it's not like he hasn't been on the big stage before, but this will be a new test for him. For us, we want to see if he can do it, and if he can, we feel it gives us some strength in other areas of our lineup."
For Schmaltz, it's been a smaller sample size of nine NHL games, but with Robert Bortuzzo (upper-body injury) missing the past five games, Schmaltz has his chance to shine.
But playing with a veteran partner like Carl Gunnarsson, it'll be up to him to help keep Schmaltz's nerves in check, especially early.
"I think he'll be fine," Gunnarsson said. "He's a calm guy. He's cool on the ice, he's cool off the ice. He's going to be a little nervous; everyone is. First playoff game ever and a bunch of guys that have played playoff games before are going to be nervous tonight, too. Get a couple shifts under the belt and then after that, I think you just get a good feel for the game and how it's going to be.
"... We talk about plays out there coming in and sitting on the bench. That's what we do, nothing crazy. Not going to change anything now. That would be just stupid. We've got to keep going like we've been doing. If anything happens, I'll be there for him, but I think he's going to do great tonight."
In 2013-14 and 14-15, Barbashev represented Russia at the World Junior Championships, so playing on the big show certainly won't give him stage fright.
"I played twice in the World Juniors. It's pretty much the same thing," Barbashev said. "It's a huge thing. It was fun, that's for sure. I played in the final and we played against Canada and it was a really tough game for us.
"I'm pretty sure it's going to be the same thing, but it's going to be like every single game. It's going to be tough and I know it's going to be fun."
Who else to get some advice from than a linemate who's been through it before.
"I talked to Vladi (Tarasenko) a lot," Barbashev said. "He told me some stories about the playoffs. Seems to be fun, to be honest. I don't know, just looking forward to it."
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On the injury front, Bortuzzo skated with the Blues this afternoon (yes, afternoon, since their "morning" skate started at 12:30).
Yeo said Bortuzzo, who's missed five games and won't play tonight, is getting closer.
"That is definitely progress," Yeo said. "When you see them with our group, that's a good sign they're getting closer."
As for Stastny, who's been out since March 21, he wasn't on the ice and until he does, will continue to be -- as per playoff protocol with all coaches -- day-to-day.
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The 8:45 puck drops affects not only coaches but players, too, even those that have been through them before.
The Blues have gone through this before being in the central time zone and facing central teams. But the routine does get altered.
"I thought I woke up too early. It's a long day for us," joked Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. "I think we flipped that switch a couple of days ago. I think yesterday we had a really good discussion, a good meeting, you just kind of get that feel this morning that with all the discussions that we had that everybody is excited and and we really narrowed our focus."
But believe it or not, they are ready.
"Yeah. We have to wait till 8:30, but we're really excited to get going, that's for sure," Yeo said. "There's a lot of work involved in preparation and doing what we can to make sure the guys have a firm understanding of what to expect but right now, we're through all that and right now the focus is on ourselves, and we're just excited to get going."
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Word spread fast this morning that former Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is back in the NHL.
Well, it won't become official until Thursday, but the Dallas Stars are expected to announce they're bringing Hitchcock back fro a second stint at a press conference.
Hitchcock was fired by the Blues on Feb. 1 and replaced by his coach-in-waiting (Yeo) and went 22-8-2 down the stretch.
“I think it's a good hire for them," Pietrangelo said. "I think obviously we know the experience Hitch brings and the mindset that he has. I think all of us in here are happy for him that he found somewhere. I guess I'll be the first one to say I didn't believe him when he said it was his last year. He loves the game, so it's good to see him get a job somewhere."
Yeo reached out to Hitchcock this morning.
"I couldn’t be happier for him," Yeo said. "I think it’s awesome. You wish he was in another division, but it’s a great story. I’m happy he’s going there, with his history with that team.
"I texted him this morning and reiterated I’m real grateful for my time with him and so I’m real pleased that he’s there."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Ivan Barbashev-Vladimir Tarasenko
Vladimir Sobotka-Jori Lehtera-Alexander Steen
Magnus Paajarvi-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Carl Gunnarsson-Jordan Schmaltz
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Zach Sanford, Dmitrij Jaskin and Luke Opilka. Paul Stastny (lower body), Robby Fabbri (knee), Robert Bortuzzo (upper body) and Nail Yakupov (undisclosed) are out with injuries.
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The Wild's projected lineup:
Nino Niederreiter-Eric Staal-Zach Parise
Erik Haula-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund
Jason Zucker-Martin Hanzal-Charlie Coyle
Chris Stewart-Joel Eriksson Ek-Jason Pominville
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella-Matt Dumba
Jonas Brodin-Christian Folin
Devan Dubnyk will start in goal; Darcy Kuemper will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Jordan Schroeder, Ryan White and Nate Prosser. Victor Bartley (arm) is on injured-reserve.