Playoffs were slated to start; defending Cup champs were positioned well
to go back-to-back; team is first to come together in any sport since pandemic
ST. LOUIS -- The Blues were supposed to begin their quest of defending the Stanley Cup on Wednesday.
Instead, they were gathered around on their laptops, desktops or whatever devices they chose to use in one gathered setting as a team for the first time since the NHL put its season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic that has hit the globe.
The Blues, who were first in the Western Conference and Central Division with 94 points (42-19-10) before the league was suspended on March 12, had 11 games remaining in the regular-season and fighting tooth-and-nail with the Colorado Avalanche in the race for the top spot in the west.
The Avalanche were hot on the Blues' trail with 92 points and having played one fewer game at 70.
The Blues, who had won 10 of 12 before the halt in the season, would have started the playoffs against the second wild card, the Calgary Flames, if the rest of the regular season wasn't played and the NHL went by points percentage.
But instead of playing Game 1 of a first round series on Wednesday, or preparing to play Game 1 on Thursday at Enterprise Center, 25 players, general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Craig Berube were gathered on a Zoom teleconference conducted by the NHL and moderated by Jim Hughson of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and Kathryn Tappen of NBC Sports.
"It's been a few weeks. We miss these guys here in St. Louis," Armstrong said. "We're looking forward to getting everyone back here and hopefully playing hockey here real soon.
"I know our guys are training hard and getting ready for it."
One thing the pause in the season has enabled some guys to do is get their personal lives in order. Forward Tyler Bozak and wife Molly recently welcomed their third child, a son named Carter, as did defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and wife Josefin, who welcomed their second child, a son named Otis, and center Ryan O'Reilly and wife Dayna will welcome their second child sometime in the middle of May, so without a pause, O'Reilly would have possibly missed a playoff game had the Blues still been alive.
"If he's like me, he'll be smart and like all our D's, he'll be a defender," Gunnarsson joked. "It's been good, as special as it is having a kid. It's been kind of a blessing in disguise to be at home here and focusing on something else instead of just waiting around and wondering when the season is going to start. It's also been scary with what's going on in the world right now keeping everyone healthy and all that. It's been good for the most part. He's been great. His sister is doing great and mommy is doing great too. We're all happy and it's kind of in that baby bubble right now."
Forward Ivan Barbashev and wife Ksenia are expecting their first child, so he's spent time getting a new house in St. Louis prepared.
"Just trying to keep everything simple," Barbashev said. "We just moved to the new house and we're trying to build some stuff in the house, which is really frustrating but other than that, not really. Everything's simple."
Others included on the call include Mackenzie MacEachern, Justin Faulk, David Perron, Jordan Binnington, Robert Thomas, Sammy Blais, Vince Dunn, Jake Allen, Zach Sanford, Brayden Schenn, Colton Parayko, Alexander Steen, Troy Brouwer, Marco Scandella, Jacob de la Rose Oskar Sundqvist, Jaden Schwartz, Robert Bortuzzo Alex Pietrangelo, Jordan Kyrou and Vladimir Tarasenko, who has benefited the most from the extra time as he continues to gear up for a return from a dislocated left shoulder suffered Oct. 24 against the Los Angeles Kings that forced him to miss all but the first 10 games of the season.
Tarasenko was expected to rejoin the lineup during a four-game road trip -- March 21 at Florida was the target game -- that was supposed to start March 17 in Philadelphia, but the extra time will have him ready to go from the get-go should the league restart again.
"It's been pretty hard year not playing all year, but I was really excited to see what this team achieved during the season," Tarasenko said. "They played really well, played great hockey. I was lucky enough to travel a couple road trips before this all (started) with the guys to feel like a part of the team again more. Just looking to join guys on the ice, in practice normally and hopefully play some hockey. It's been a long year, but hockey will start someday so I'm just waiting for the day."
Most of the players have stayed in St. Louis working out on their own and isolating during the pandemic, while others, like Scandella, went back home to wait things out. Scandella, acquired before the trade deadline for a second-round pick in 2019 and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2021, has a cabin an hour outside Montreal that he's secluded himself to.
"I've been going for these nature walks and I'm bringing my ax and I've actually been chopping down dead trees and just getting some of the frustration out of dealing with this isolation," Scandella said.
It would be a shame to waste what the Blues have accomplished thus far on the heels of winning their first Stanley Cup in 2019 when they defeated the Boston Bruins in seven games.
The Blues positioned themselves well in trying to become the first team to win back-to-back Cups since the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins, who became the second team since 1998 do it.
"I think our guys did a great job of preparing themselves in the summer time," Berube said. "I know it was a short summer and you're celebrating because you won the Stanley Cup and you should be, but they did a great job of staying in shape and coming into camp in really good shape, and that was a really great start for us right there.
"I think we went through some scenarios at the beginning of the season. There were some things, Hockey Hall of Fame, ring ceremony, different obligations the team had, but I thought the guys stayed focused and we really took it game by game, day by day throughout the season. Really, the veteran leadership on our team is excellent and that's a big part of it. That's a big part of us not losing momentum this year and having a real good season. A lot of young guys really developing and becoming good players and better pros. It was really a team effort all around. ... When you lose a guy like Vladimir Tarasenko, our players did a great job of scoring by committee and playing for each other. That's the reason we really didn't lose momentum all year long and here we are, we're in first place in the West right now."
How long right now lasts? Nobody knows. So in the meantime, almost a year later, the Blues get toe reminisce about winning it all, and being brought back to the greatest times of their lives.
"The parade. Best day of my life," Schenn said. "I don't think you can top it. Running around, jumping around with fans having a good time. I think every player enjoyed themselves and I think it's going to be hard to beat that day."
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
(From left) Ryan O'Reilly, Sammy Blais, Zach Sanford, David Perron and
Justin Faulk are hopeful of resuming the 2019-20 season at some point.
Time will tell if they get the opportunity to duplicate it.
"Winning last year gave us a taste of what it felt like to be on top," MacEachern said. "I think it made us more hungry to start the year and to defend the title. I think we showed that we were ready to defend and make a playoff push, but unfortunately, the season is suspended but I think we're all excited to make that push once the season resumes."
"When we realized we almost had the same group as last year, everyone was ready to try it again and I think we've done a good job as of late," Blais said. "We're just excited if the season comes back that we're going to be ready to try again to win it."