Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sobotka scores in return, Blues top Avalanche 3-2

Forward returns to St. Louis after three 
seasons in KHL; St. Louis closes regular season 15-2-2

ST. LOUIS -- Of course he scored. Why wouldn't he?

Playing in the regular season finale and first game of his NHL season, Vladimir Sobotka officially marked his return to the Blues.

And not knowing what the crowd reaction was going to be like playing in his first NHL game since April 27, 2014 after bolting St. Louis for the Kontinental Hockey League, it was indicative of Blues fans: they were warm, receptive and in a sense, forgiving.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Vladimir Sobotka (71) works the puck along the boards as
Avalanche defenseman Mark Barberio pursues the play Sunday.

Sobotka gave the 18,971 in attendance everything they wanted with a third-period game-tying goal, and Vladimir Tarasenko scored the game-winner and nearly had another to finish with 40 -- he'll settle for 39 -- in a 3-2 victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday night.

Sobotka, who returned to the Blues after spending three seasons toting his skills playing in Russia for Avangard Omsk, triumphantly returned to the NHL after signing a three-year, $10.5 million extension Thursday. He didn't play in Carolina on Saturday but got a game in Sunday, starting on left wing with Jori Lehtera and Magnus Paajarvi before coach Mike Yeo moved him around, including centering Jaden Schwartz and Tarasenko.

Sobotka, wearing No. 71, received a warm welcome when he first stepped on the ice, took his first shift and especially when he scored.

"I was a little nervous before the first shift," Sobotka said. "... On the way here, I was kind of thinking about things when I played here. Everything came back and it was a really nice feeling."

The Blues, who finished the regular season at 46-29-7, good for 99 points, now turn the page to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where they'll open against the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round.

St. Louis closed the season on a 15-2-2 run, but this was a game in which Sobotka would get his feet wet and acclimated with the Blues' style and system despite a team that rested Alex Pietrangelo, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak.

"On the way here, I was kind of thinking about things when I played here," said Sobotka, who last scored in an NHL game on April 6, 2014 at Chicago. "Everything came back and it was a really nice feeling."

Zach Sanford scored, and Jake Allen made 32 saves.

Mikko Rantanen had a goal and assist, Francois Beauchemin scored and Calvin Pickard made 24 saves for the Avalanche (22-56-4).

Colorado finished the regular season with 12 consecutive road losses (0-11-1) and one win in its final 24 road games (1-21-2).

Down 2-1, Sobotka scored off a blind backhand feed from Lehtera at 3 minutes, 20 seconds of the third period that tied the game 2-2, and Tarasenko scored with a wicked wrister from the left circle 1:19 later and nearly got his 40th to end the season but missed an empty net with under a minute remaining.

"It happened," Tarasenko said. "The season is over now. We all focus on Minnesota."

Sobotka played 16:41 and was 50 percent (6-for-12) on the faceoff dot.

"Pretty impressive for me," Yeo said of Sobotka's play. "The goal aside, obviously we bounced him around a couple different lines, seemed to adjust to that fine. But for him coming in, I don't want to say that I set the bar low, but undertanding that he hasn't been on the ice for 11 days prior and understanding the travel from Europe and what that can do for you, understanding that he hasn't played in North America for a couple years, I thought it was a real strong game for him. You can see his hockey sense, you can see his competitiveness and obviously he's got a skillset to go along with that.

"We're playing a deep team, so we're playing a team with four lines, six defensemen, we're going to be challenged every time we're on the ice. It's going to make us stronger from top to bottom. Wherever we put him in the lineup, it's going to give us flexibility, it's going to give us options and obviously we all know special teams is a huge factor in the playoffs and he's going to factor in a big way there as well."

Sanford put the Blues ahead 1-0 at 19:37 of the first period.

Beauchemin tied the game 1-1 at 4:03 of the second period, then Rantanen put the Avalanche ahead 2-1 at 15:02.

But the Blues turned the gears on in the third. And when Sobotka scored, it was the biggest roar of the game from the crowd.

"That was loud, too. I actually never felt that before. I don't know how many people were here cheering for the goal. That was really nice.

"Jori made really nice pass to me. I had open net and just needed to shoot it on net.

"... I always felt good in St. Louis. All the fans were supportive. I don't think I expected something bad from them or something like that. They were always nice to me and I really enjoyed it."

And adding Sobotka for the playoff run adds to the Blues' depth.

"I think it's important for him. For us, I'm really happy for him," Tarasenko said. "We were missing Vladi these last couple years. He's a great guy and a great player. He will help us a lot in the playoffs.

"He's always positive. If you talk about hockey, he's really skilled and competitive player. He never leave you in a bad spot. We used to play with each other a lot. ... I'm really to get him back."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) tried to win the puck from Colorado's J.T. Compher
in the Blues' 3-2 victory Sunday in the regular season finale.

Said right wing David Perron: "He had a tough week here, a lot of travel. I'm sure the energy was a little bit lower, so it's good that he gets the first goal. What a nice play by Jori. I think a lot of people could have put that one in. It's great to see him score. I think starting Wednesday or whenever Game 1 is, I think we're going to start to see his identity a little bit more, physical and things like that. He's just going to keep getting better every day."

Sobotka said a familiarity with the franchise, with the system and with a good majority of the players made this a seamless transition.

"Guys and coaches, they help a lot," Sobotka said. "I kind of new before some things had changed, some things didn't change. I knew how guys played and they helped me a lot on the ice, too.

"It really helped. 'Steener,' 'Vladi,' 'Schwartzy,' all these guys. They helped me a lot. (But) it was real nice. I'd like to thank all the fans. It's really nice and supportive."

The Blues wore their Winter Classic jerseys again and closed the regular season 6-0-1 wearing them.

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