By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Sitting for four games is never fun, especially for a younger player looking to gain confidence, but rookie Robert Thomas will get another opportunity when the Blues (2-4-3) take on the Chicago Blackhawks (6-2-2) for the third time this season today at 7 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM) at Enterprise Center.
Thomas, who has one assist in five games, will draw back into the lineup and center the fourth line presumably with Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist, but Thomas, who gets to play in nine games before the Blues can decide whether to keep their 2017 first-round pick here or send him back to the Ontario Hockey League.
"It's obviously tough when you sit for four straight," Thomas said. "That's a little bit tough, but for me, I think it's a good learning experience. You try and take the positives out of everything. For me, I was able to watch the good and the bad. We had a really good game in Toronto, first two periods in Winnipeg, I was able to watch 'Schenner', 'Bozie', 'O'Ry' and all the good things that they're doing and what's working. We've had a couple tough periods and I was able to see what those were like. From up there, you can clearly see all that stuff and it's a good learning experience and something that can help my game.
"It does help. It's tough going through the whole thing, but I think when you look at it now, I think it was a good learning experience for me."
Thomas was able to sit and watch games from the press box and get a coaching perspective from assistant Steve Ott.
"We had him sit with 'Otter' for a couple games," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "Sometimes it's just taking a step back, sometimes it's just realizing you have a little more time and space out there than what you might think. Things seem to happen quickly for younger players. More than anything else, I think it's the opportunity to, especially when you're keying in on certain players, players that would play a similar game to you and a good role model. and just how hard they work. At this level, to have success both offensively and defensively, there is a work ethic that has to be extremely high when you're going against the best night after night.
"He's had a good week of practice and seemed to be in a real good spot there yesterday talking to him. I thought he had a really good practice. I'm looking forward to him coming in and contributing."
Thomas said that in order to make plays he's comfortable making, he just has display the confidence to do so.
"We didn't pull him out because we didn't think that he wasn't good enough," Yeo said. "That's not the case. We do think there's another level to his game and we're going to keep pushing him and trying to pull him along, whatever we can do to help him get there. But we're talking about a very young player. It's difficult because you don't want to take away his confidence, but at the same time, you also want to make sure that he's getting the coaching he needs to so we've tried to walk that line. But him coming back in here tonight is a good opportunity and I think you're going to see an excited, rejuvenated player tonight."
Thomas is expected to go in for 2016 second-round pick Jordan Kyrou, who has one assist in nine games, although he and veteran Pat Maroon were on the ice late after the morning skate.
"I'm not going to say what our fourth line's going to be tonight," Yeo said. "I'll just say that Thomas is in tonight."
Thomas said he's been through this experience before despite being counted on heavily on most teams he's played for, including the Hamilton Bulldogs last season.
"I went through the same thing my first year in London," Thomas said, referring the OHL's Knights. "I look at the team we had there and how much skill and talent we had there. I kind of went through the same thing, sort of in and out of the lineup and and had to work your way up. I'd say it's at a totally different level here, but just that little extra experience from before and how it turned out, I can use it as a positive."
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Zach Sanford will get another game with veterans Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron tonight, and the opportunity is deserving.
Since being recalled from San Antonio of the American Hockey League, Sanford has three points two goals, one assist) in four games and seems to have fit in nicely playing with the aforementioned duo.
"The results aren't what we want right now, but personally, it's going pretty well," Sanford said. "I'm just trying to stay hard and play smart and trying to bring as much energy as I can. Hopefully we can all do that tonight and get back on board.
"You learn new stuff every shift, I think it's good for me to be able to play with them and spend some time with them, especially in practice. Just little drills here and there, stick skills and positioning and that. It's good for a younger player to play with older guys in any instance. I think playing with these guys, I've definitely got a lot out of it."
Sanford has been termed the grit and sandpaper guy on the line, but feels like all three play a similar game.
"They're both pretty gritty too," Sanford said. "I think we kind of work well as a three-man unit in that sense. 'O'Ry' is always down low grinding and getting pucks out of scrums and Perry is along the walls and down low with the pucks. I'm just trying to mimic what they're doing and bring some speed and some size."
Yeo said Sanford, acquired in the trade that sent Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington in 2017, showed himself well even before a shoulder injury in training camp last year that all but set him back all of last season.
"This goes back to training camp last year. I thought he had a chance to make our team," Yeo said. "Going back three years ago when we made the trade, he came in and I thought he did a very nice job for us. He showed that he can play up and down the lineup, he showed he can play with different players. He's a smart player. Last year was a real tough injury for him, it was a tough injury for our team to be honest with you because we thought he had a really good chance to be a contributing factor for us. Lost a little bit of time development-wise there and with what happened in training camp this year, it was a tough situation for him. With all this, he's just kept pushing forward. He's got the right attitude, he's got the right demeanor, he's a little bit older, which really helps a little bit. He's had to deal with some of that adversity and he's had to be down in the minors, which probably helps a little bit in the sense that he's able to deal with some of these things. More than anything for me, it's his hockey sense. To play with good players, you need a skill level and you need to be able to skate and keep up with the play but you need to be able to read off of them and you need to be responsible because quite often, you're on the ice against other teams' best players and he's done a nice job with all those things."
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O’Reilly has seven points (two goals, five assists) in a four-game point streak.
Jake Allen will get the start in goal, his ninth start in the first 10 games this season.
The Blues and Blackhawks have already played twice this season, with Chicago winning both in overtime, 5-4 on Oct. 6 here and 4-3 on Oct. 13 in Chicago. The teams will play again in Chicago on Nov. 14, meaning the Blues will have played 25 percent of their games of the first 16 against the Blackhawks.
Perron has five points (one goal, four assists) the past four games.
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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
Ivan Barbashev-Robert Thomas-Oskar Sundqvist
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Vince Dunn-Jordan Schmaltz
Jake Allen will start in goal; Chad Johnson will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Jordan Kyrou and Jakub Jerabek. Robert Bortuzzo (lower body) is out.
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The Blackhawks' projected lineup:
Alex DeBrincat-Jonathan Toews-Dominik Kahun
Brandon Saad-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Alexandre Fortin-Luke Johnson-Nick Schmaltz
Chris Kunitz-Marcus Kruger-John Hayden
Duncan Keith-Henri Jokiharju
Erik Gustafsson-Brent Seabrook
Brandon Manning-Jan Rutta
Corey Crawford will start in goal; Cam Ward will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Andreas Martinsen, David Kampf and Brandon Davidson. Connor Murphy (back) is out.
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