Friday, December 31, 2021


MINNEAPOLIS -- The Blues took the walk from the visiting dugout onto the ice surface at Target Field and couldn't help but be in awe.

And doing so at 6 p.m., 24 hours before the Blues (18-9-5) take on the Minnesota Wild (19-9-2) in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic, the Blues got all the simulations out of the way for depth perception, what it will feel like playing outdoors and most importantly, brave the temperatures, which are expected to be a record for an NHL outdoor game below zero.

"I don't know if that's why we did it, but definitely not feeling as cold as it will be but similar just trying out different gear under our equipment just to see how it's going to feel basically for game time I guess," Blues forward David Perron said. "The benches are heated a little bit, so that might help when guys are sitting just kind of break it off for a couple minutes there. I think it's going to be good. For Binner, it's going to be interesting for him too first (outdoor) game trying a few things. It's going to be super cold, maybe his hands, feet, all that stuff so you try a couple things as well."

There's a significance of taking that walk up to the ice and performing under frigid conditions, something many of these guys have done before.

"It was kind of our childhood growing up after school," Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said. "Every day, we had a rink by our elementary school and it was after school, everybody met up there, you throw your sticks in the middle, two sides and the game is on. A lot of fun days, cold days. You just don't even realize what the temperature is. Just having fun. I think that's what the beauty of it is. Just overall, I think Minnesota has done a very good job and the NHL. Obviously we're excited."

Goalie Jordan Binnington, playing in his first outdoor game, wanted to reserve judgment until he actually witnessed and felt the elements. He took a simple approach. 

"Yeah, I tried not to overthink it," Binnington said. "You just kind of got started, next thing you know you’re in the heat of practice and I think once you got warmed up pretty good, the climate, I didn’t feel it as much and you weren’t really thinking about it. It was definitely cool and definitely different being out there with the guys and I think we had a good time and a good skate, too. We’re all looking forward to tomorrow night."

The Blues put in a practice and lined up as follows:

Brandon Saad-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Jordan Kyrou-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko

Logan Brown-Tyler Bozak-Pavel Buchnevich

Klim Kostin-Ivan Barbashev-Oskar Sundqvist

Niko Mikkola-Colton Parayko

Torey Krug-Justin Faulk

Marco Scandella-Scott Perunovich

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Charlie Lindgren will be the backup.

The extra skaters included forwards Brayden Schenn, James Neal, Nathan Walker, Alexei Toropchenko, Jake Walman and taxi squader Calle Rosen.

It would have seemed to indicate that Schenn, after all his work of getting himself prepped to perhaps play in the game, would not being on the extra line, Blues coach Craig Berube said Schenn could play.

"Still a decision to make maybe with Schenn," Berube said. "He could be available. That’s something we've got to think about, make sure that he feels he’s comfortable playing. And we feel like we’re putting him in a good spot.

"It comes from him more than us. He’s got to be honest, which he is. And understand, yeah, we don’t want to lose him again over one game. We just got to make a decision on it like I said. We’ll talk about it here some more, again, talk with 'Schenner' and see where he’s at."

The Blues will get Pavel Buchnevich, Ivan Barbashev and Oskar Sundqvist back into the lineup.

Buchnevich missed Wednesday's 4-2 win over Edmonton with a non-COVID related illness; Barbashev came off COVID-19 protocol with the league modifying the quarantine period from 10 days to five days, and Sundqvist comes back after missing two games in COVID protocol.

"We’re fortunate to have these guys," Berube said. "Barbashev will be back, Buchnevich, Sundqvist. So those guys will be back."

Perron added, "It's great. Any time we can have our full team, you look at our lineup and how deep we are and some of the guys that won't haver the chance to play games, they're NHL players, they're players that have done a great job in the last month or two to really come in and bring some positive energy, really excited to come to the rink and do a really positive thing out there on the ice. It's a credit to them. It was great to watch them play to be honest. I think they brought a lot of passion and our team needed it. We got a lot of points there that we needed."

As for the lineup, with Buchnevich and Barbashev back, Berube and the coaching staff chose to, for now, stick with the Kyrou-Thomas-Tarasenko line.

That line combined for seven points (three goals, four assists) in the win over Edmonton and Berube wants to see it moving forward after liking what he saw.

"Yeah, I did. I do," Berube said. "They had a heck of a game together. Like I said, they’ve played together before and they seem to have pretty good chemistry. We’ll see though. It’s a quick adjustment if we need to make it."

* Van Ryn will miss Winter Classic -- Blues assistant coach Mike Van Ryn was placed in COVID protocol Saturday and will have to miss the game on Saturday.

Van Ryn is in charge of the defensive unit and the Blues will move assistant Jim Montgomery into Van Ryn's role, at least for one game.

"It’s unfortunate," Berube said. "I feel for him and the team and his family. It’s a tough situation. But Jimmy Montgomery will run the defense."

Parayko said although the Blues will miss their coach, they should be fine.

"It's nice to have Van Ryn back there and obviously he's very knowledgeable and just throughout the game, pick different spots when different teams have different forechecks, etc. etc," Parayko said. "He's good helping us out on the bench that way. Obviously Montgomery's been around for a long time, he sees it all really well also. A little different. Never had him back there, but just another game we should be OK."

Doesn't mean Van Ryn won't be missed.

"Yeah, it’s obviously a tough break," Blues defenseman Justin Faulk said. "I don’t think anyone wants to end up there at any point, especially right now. Everyone’s feeling for him. We wish he was able to take part and everything, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We have six D in the lineup who all want to be coach tomorrow. So, we’re going to see how will do that. Maybe one guy can get the first, second or third, whatever. But he’s obviously super helpful. He understands the game, he played it, he’s done a great job with all of us and you know, whatever coach is back there, obviously has a ton of experience, too. It is what it is, we’ll get through it."

Thursday, December 30, 2021

No Buchnevich, no problem for Blues in 4-2 win over Oilers

After teams gets Perron, Thomas Kyrou back, Buchnevich sidelined 
with illness, thrusts new line of Thomas, Kyrou, Tarasenko together

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues should be used to this by now, right?

Just when they get the fanbase excited about the return of some key players -- on Wednesday it was forwards David Perron, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou -- the cavalry took a hit again.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jordan Kyrou (left) and Robert Thomas returned to the lineup for the Blues
in a 4-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday.

This time, it was Pavel Buchnevich, who missed Wednesday's 4-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers with a -- take a deep sigh of relief -- non-COVID related illness.

Buchnevich was one of the Blues' most consistent producers of late with 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in his past 21 games. And he was part of one of the more dynamic lines of late with the all-Russian feel with Vladimir Tarasenko and Ivan Barbashev.

It didn't matter.

Even with Barbashev sidelined due to COVID-19 protocol and Buchnevich out against the explosive Oilers, Tarasenko was left to fend for himself.

But it's nice to have that luxury of adding Thomas and Kyrou to a line, two of the more up-and-coming young skaters in the NHL. And that trip didn't disappoint, combining for three goals and four assists.

"That line was pretty dynamic, making plays," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "They’ve played together before this year and they looked good back then, too. It maybe didn’t get the results that they got tonight. But they were dynamic tonight. I thought they made plays, attacked the net well. They obviously got rewarded tonight."

The Blues are also playing without Brayden Schenn, another key missing piece. But it doesn't seem to matter.


"I think we miss a lot of guys this year," Tarasenko said. "I think it's coming from coaching staff and from the team. At this point, anything can happen and you need to be ready for whatever is happening. When you miss guys, it's always sad when the guys don't play, but the key is to just to keep working harder and work more together, work collectively and I think teamwork give us success this year."

Going into the game, the Blues (18-9-5) already knew they'd be without Barbashev, on pace for career numbers with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 31 games. Thomas, who missed seven games with a lower-body injury, was getting dropped between the two Russians. But then Buchnevich was out, and now what?

Well, Berube always balances his lines out and has the luxury of adding more of an offensive-minded player there. Insert Kyrou, and presto, a formidable line still exists.

"Yeah, we’ve got depth here in the organization, obviously up at the NHL (level) too," Berube said. "But guys, they get called up and they do a good job for us. It’s a nice luxury with Kyrou on that line. I can pop him up there when somebody goes down. We mix and match quite a bit game in and game out, move guys around and they do the job."

That line certainly did the job Wednesday. It was creative, it was engaging, it was making plays, it was hounding pucks, and it was dangerous each and every time it stepped onto the ice.

"We play together before," Tarasenko said. "We try to play similar style like we play before, work hard and create chances for each other. Be unselfish and just enjoy the game. This is the most important part. Sometimes it's hard to control and you get angry during the games. Just try to have fun there while working hard."

Tarasenko and Kyrou each had a goal and two assists, and Thomas scored upon his return.

"Vladi’s a great player, Tommer’s a great player, both can score, both can make plays, we can read off each other well and we’re playing really well out there," Kyrou said after missing four games with an upper-body injury. "Obviously  when you're sitting out, it's kind of tough just watching from up top because you want to be down there playing with the guys, helping them win. So it's definitely nice that I'm back, actually a lot of us are back this game, so it was a good team win tonight."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Robert Thomas (18) celebrates after scoring against the Edmonton
Oilers and Mike Smith (41) on Wednesday at Enterprise Center.

Regardless of who's in and who's out, the Blues seem to figure it out, don't feel sorry for themselves and just attack that challenge at hand no matter the circumstances.

It could have been easy for them to see there was some discombobulation with the lineup and it was easy for them to look ahead now at playing in the 2022 Discover Winter Classic against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday at Target Field in Minneapolis. But they didn't. These were two huge points that thrust the Blues into first place in the ultra-competitive Central Division.

"You’re never sure I guess before," Berube said. "But I really liked our first period. I knew we were dialed in, and our team was ready to compete and do the right things, so it was good to see."

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

(12-29-21) Oilers-Blues Gameday Lineup

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues will get back on the ice in competitive action for the first time in 10 days and will get an infusion of talent to go with it.

Forwards David Perron, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou will al return for the Blues (17-9-5) when they face the Edmonton Oilers (18-11-0) at 7:30 p.m. (BSMW, ESPN 101.1-FM).

Perron has missed 11 games with an upper-body injury, Thomas has missed seven with a lower-body injury and Kyrou has missed  the past four games with an upper-body injury.

"They're all good to go," coach Craig Berube said. "... We're bringing back a lot of skill back in our lineup, power play, all the situational stuff from an offensive standpoint. You're bringing back a lot of goals and points back in your lineup. Looking at it from that standpoint, that's a real good thing. We can't lose our focus on the work ethic and the type of game we need to play.

"They've got to do what they do obviously from their skill standpoint. There's three guys coming into the lineup that are highly-skilled guys that do a lot of good things with the puck. We want them to do that, that's important. But on the other side of things, the other play that we played the game, we were more north. We played a north style of game, we were physical and heavy on the puck. There's no reason these guys can't do the same thing coming in. It's important we all play the same way to a certain extent. I get there's more guys that have more skill and can do more with the puck and things like that, but the style of play we want to play, everybody needs to play the style we need to play."

Thomas will jump back in and center Vladimir Tarasenko and Jordan Kyrou; not Pavel Buchnevich, who was a late scratch with a non-COVID related illness. Jake Walman will jump in and give the Blues 11 forwards and seven defensemen.

"It's always tough missing games, but happy to be back and try and contribute," Thomas said. "The team's been playing well lately so just keep on building off that.

"I liked the way I was playing before. Now it's just about picking up where I left off and not missing a step. That's the goal tonight. but it was good to get back to game shape and back to 100 percent. The postponed games and Christmas break was definitely huge for me."

On the down side, forward Oskar Sundqvist, removed from COVID-19 protocol on Tuesday, will not play tonight.

Sundqvist practiced between Klim Kostin, who will also return after missing 12 games with an upper-body injury, and Nathan Walker but was a long participant on the ice for an optional skate this morning.

"We will have somebody come up, but the decision will be game time," Berube said. 

[* UPDATE -- The Blues recalled forward Alexei Toropchenko from Springfield].

It will be good to get some of the Blues' top scorers back tonight, however. 

Kyrou (nine goals, 16 assists) was leading the Blues with 25 points in 27 games when he left the lineup and is now fourth in scoring; Thomas is fifth with 22 points (two goals, 20 assists) in 24 games and Perron is sixth with 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 20 games.

"A lot of these guys are big parts of our team and the guys that filled in and were called up that filled in did an admirable job," defenseman Torey Krug said. "Obviously they're big parts of our team in order for us to win. But it's exciting getting these guys back. There's obviously a jump in their step and they're excited to get playing again. We obviously welcome them with open arms."

There was a surprise skater on the ice when veteran James Neal, placed on the COVID-19 protocol list on Sunday, took part in the skate Wednesday.

Neal joined Ivan Barbashev (backdated to Dec. 23), Dakota Joshua and Robert Bortuzzo on the protocol list.

With the NHL and NHLPA about to implement, per CDC guidelines, the possibility of vaccinated individuals leaving isolation five days after a positive COVID test if they have no symptoms or symptoms are resolving,", Neal could be one of those players, and/or he had false positive or tested negative on consecutive days.

"I don't know what that is," Berube said when asked. "Call the league about that. I really don't know what it's called. All I know is he's back on the ice."

- - -

It's been 10 days for the Blues and 11 for the Oilers, who last played in Seattle on Dec. 18, and judging by the return of games on Tuesday when 33 goals were scored in the three games, including an 8-7 win by the San Jose Sharks over the Arizona Coyotes, timing and execution could be a challenge for the teams getting going again.

"I think the timing and execution might be off early on," Berube said. "You can't really simulate games. Situationally you can, but the intensity and just from playing a game, you can't really simulate that in practice as much. Early on, I think it's important to keep the game simple and manage things properly so you get involved in the game and it's important for us not to go out and check out the temperature of the game here early. We've got to be aggressive right away and really get after it."

Players however, are anxious to get back to playing.

"Obviously we want to get back into playing games and find our game as quick as we can," Krug said. "Obviously there's going to be some rust and see how we feel out there, but it's just about getting back to what you do, be simple, play hard. It is weird having a break that long at Christmas time. It's something we're not used to, but most of the guys that have been in our room have been through it before. We look forward to getting back and playing games."
And not just playing games, but playing the way the Blues were playing before the break when they were 7-2-3.

"The more simple we play, the more direct we are," Krug said. "It forces our forwards to play a little bit quicker and get in on the forecheck. If we have tighter gaps, they're able to back-check quicker and turn the puck over and all of the sudden we go. As a defenseman, you definitely can dictate some things out there and pace is one of them and playing north is a big part of it.

"It's a mindset, for sure. I don't know if getting back to it's going to be tough, per say, but you just want to make sure it doesn't take as long as it did to get there in the first place. I think what you saw over the past few weeks was guys understanding their roles and knowing what it takes to win games. You've got to play a hard 60 minutes and it hurts to win. Guys did a great job stepping up being physical and playing in-your-face hockey, and that's what we did. It's a style of play that's often hard to do over 82 games of the season, but the team that does it more often puts themselves in a chance to win more hockey games and they're ready for playoffs. It's something we want to get back to quickly."

- - -

* The Blues have a nine-game home point streak (8-0-1) coming into the game tonight. Since Nov. 18, they have a plus-19 home goal differential during that span, which is tied with Minnesota for the league lead.

* Buchnevich has 26 points over his last 21 games (nine goals, 17 assists).

* With one more coaching win, Berube will have 200 in his NHL career and become the seventh in NHL history with 200 coaching wins and 1,000 or more games played. 

The others are Randy Carlyle (475/1,055), Bob Pulford (360/1,079), Craig MacTavish (301/1,093), Red Kelly (278/1,316), Brent Sutter (215/1,111) and Larry Robinson (209/1,384).

- - -

The Blues announced a minor trade on Wednesday with their Winter Classic opponent, the Wild, when they acquired forward Will Bitten for forward Nolan Stevens.

Bitten, 23, was originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the third round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft; he has spent the past four seasons with the AHL’s Iowa Wild and had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 23 games this season.

Bitten will report to the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Brandon Saad-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Jordan Kyrou-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko

Logan Brown-Tyler Bozak-Klim Kostin

Nathan Walker-Alexei Toropchenko

Niko Mikkola-Colton Parayko

Torey Krug-Justin Faulk 

Marco Scandella-Scott Perunovich

Jake Walman

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Charlie Lindgren will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Oskar Sundqvist, James Neal and Jake Walman. Brayden Schenn (upper body) and Ville Husso (lower body) are out. Ivan Barbashev, Robert Bortuzzo and Dakota Joshua remain in COVID-19 protocol.

- - -

The Oilers' projected lineup:

Warren Foegele-Connor McDavid-Zach Hyman

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Leon Draisaitl-Kailer Yamamoto

Devin Shore-Derek Ryan-Colton Sceviour

Tyler Benson-Ryan McLeod-Kyle Turris

Duncan Keith-Cody Ceci

Slater Koekkoek-Tyson Barrie

Dmitri Samorukov-Evan Bouchard

Mike Smith will start in goal; Mikko Koskinen will be the backup.  

The healthy scratch will be Brendan Perlini. Kris Russell (upper body), Markus Niemelainen (undisclosed) and Dylan Holloway (wrist) are out. Zack Kassian, Jesse Puljujarvi, Darnell Nurse and William Lagesson are in COVID-19 protocol.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Blues finding quickly that Mikkola-Parayko pair establishing itself as quite a shutdown duo

Team going to tall, bulky, long-stick tandem to shut down opposition 
much like Blues used in Cup run when it had Bouwmeester-Parayko

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- One of the constants for the Blues during their inspirational run towards their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2019 was the ever-present and consistent game of defensive pair Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defensemen Colton Parayko (left) and Niko Mikkola celebrate a
Parayko goal in a recent 4-1 win in Dallas against the Stars.

When called upon, that dynamic duo was on the ice instantaneously when the Blues needed to blanket the opponent, and when it came to shadowing, hounding and for all intents and purposes, shut down the dynamic trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the Cup Final that year, unless it was on the power play, that trio was completely shut down.

The Bouwmeester-Parayko duo did not allow a 5-on-5 goal the entire series, and it was one of several key factors as to why the Blues won.

Maybe it's not quite at that level, yet, if it gets there at all, but maybe the Blues have found some footing again, this time with Parayko and 25-year-old Finn Niko Mikkola.

It's a pair that coach Craig Berube began using on a regular basis Nov. 26 at Chicago and one that's been called upon quite often recently for the Blues (17-9-5) in their string of points in 10 of 12 games (7-2-3).

It didn't start that way. The duo had their moments, some tough moments, but as they've built up the chemistry together, it's become quite the dynamic duo.

"It's been fun to play with 'Pary,'" Mikkola said. "I think we are getting better every game. It feels pretty good."

Mikkola, a 2015 fifth-round pick, had to earn his way not only into the top pair but into the lineup, period. He didn't play his first game this season until Oct. 30 against Chicago and had to work his way in as the seventh defenseman and just continue to work until given a shot.

"He's gaining confidence as a player," Berube said. "He's improved a lot over the last year in my opinion and I think he's still improving. He's shown us that he can handle the minutes and that he's doing a good job so we'll just continue to keep working with him. He's got to keep improving and we've got to keep working with him. There's still a higher window there for him."

Mikkola, who has two goals and two assists in 16 games this season, started the year behind Parayko, Torey Krug, Justin Faulk, Marco Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo. 

"It was tough," Mikkola said. "It was not easy to only watch the games and not playing. It just made me try to focus and work hard, be ready when you get your chance. That's what I've been doing."

And doing it well.

"Niko’s a really good player," Parayko said. "He’s really strong. Big guy just like me. When you get forwards coming down on us if we’re tight on our gaps it’s tough for them to gain the blueline and hopefully we can be tight on them and make it difficult on them in the D-zone. And we can try to be quick and on them quick as well.

"Smart player, moves his feet extremely well. So he’s fairly easy to play with and just look forward to continue to progress with him and get better."

Parayko, 28, started off the season well after a tough and arduous season dealing with a lingering back issue that made it quite obvious the 6-foot-6, 228-pound St. Albert, Alberta native wasn't himself.

"Skating is one thing that I try to use for sure. Obviously my size and my stick reach and stuff like that is good defensively," Parayko said. "It helps me out a lot. But when I’m skating I think, especially on first touch coming out of our zone, if I can try to bring one of their guys towards me, it’s obviously gonna open up one of our guys. I feel like I can escape, and make sure I’m in spots to help our guys, too. Like give them an option when they need help. So maybe bring a defender my way to open up a space for them. So I think skating is definitely one of my better attributes that if I’m using it is good.

"I guess just being down low and obviously I’ve got caught down low in the O-zone a couple times. The puck has come to me and been lucky in the right spot at the right time to get a couple goals there. I guess that’s why maybe it’s a little more noticeable."

Parayko went through a stretch of four games Nov. 9-14 where he was a minus-8. He and Scandella were partnered up together and just couldn't quite form enough of that shutdown pair the Blues had to have; he's still 19th in the NHL in average ice time at 24:15.

"There were some times where maybe not necessarily the way things you want to go for me," Parayko said. "But I always make sure that I’m playing my best out there and trying to do my best. The game happens fast, and sometimes things don’t go your way. It’s an 82-game season and it’s a long season, for it always to go your way and the way you want them to go. It’s going to be tough. So it’s on me, and I guess everybody, to make sure that they can stay with it consistently. Keep coming to the rink, head down and just working hard and making sure that you’re ready for the next one."

Berube pushed the Scandella-Parayko pairing but it was obviously not working, so the Blues coach went to old reliable, a pairing he was familiar with in 2019. With Parayko at 6-6 and Mikkola at 6-4, with their long sticks on the ice at all times, it's been a challenge to penetrate that duo.

"I think they've learned to really feed off each other defensively," Berube said. "Right now, they're both playing aggressive and closing plays out and killing plays in our own zone and breaking plays up and getting the puck out of our zone. Colton does it differently than Mikkola. Colton a lot of times skates pucks out of our end with his ability to move his feet and get up the ice. Mikkola's doing a good job defending in our own zone and then you see him score a shorthanded goal the other night, he's up in the play quite a bit. I don't know if you notice that, but he's learned to jump up in the play. He's got a good offensive mind that way. He may not have all the offensive abilities, but his mind works that way and he's done a good job of it."

Mikkola started the season averaging 14:15 in his first nine games, but with the coaching staff's trust, he's averaged 19:58 his past six games.

"I've been feeling pretty good with my game and just trying to do my things and play hard," Mikkola said. "I think I'm also gaining more confidence on the ice. Maybe that's why.

"Maybe understanding the plays I need to make."

It's good making comparisons between Bouwmeester-Parayko and Mikkola-Parayko. The end result with the front pair ended well.

Both pairs had the ability to jump into the rush when called upon but know when to to check back and play the defensive side of the puck.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko has found himself a capable partner in a
shutdown role with Niko Mikkola.

"He's a little bit different than 'Bouw,'" Berube said of Mikkola. "'Bouw' is a more calm player, I would say. Nothing changed throughout the game for 'Bouw'. You're talking about a world-class player in 'Bouw'. He's an Olympic gold medalist twice, I think. He was a helluva player for a long time. Mikkola does it a little bit differently, but again, we've had these guys together for quite some time now and they're really starting to form a really good chemistry between them like 'Bouw' and Parayko did. That's good for us. We need a pair like that. Just like Krug and Faulk, they really got good last year as a pair and really it's not changed throughout this year."

What Parayko has seen is, "They’re both similar in the way that they make the simple," he said. "They both skate really well and they’re both easy to play with. I think we have a few little things that we can continue to work on and get better. Just sorting different things out in the D-zone and faceoffs, etc., like that. But those just come with time, those go with reps in the games. That’s just the nature of getting paired with the new guy. Like I said, I’m excited. He’s eager to learn. He’s eager to get better. Comes to the rink with an open mind every day. When you have a D-partner like that it’s exciting. We’re definitely looking forward to getting better."

Either way, if the latter can come anywhere close to the ones that paved the way in the Cup season, the Blues are in a good position to continue to trend upwards on the back line.


MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- The Blues were hoping to not have anyone among the 40-plus, and growing, number of players affected by testing for COVID-19 when skaters returned to their respective facilities on Sunday to resume practice activities.

The key word there being "hoping" and unfortunately, they were hit with the positive bugaboo again with forwards Ivan Barbashev, James Neal and Dakota Joshua and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo the latest victims to positive tests.

Barbashev was backdated to Dec. 23 when he received his positive test, but the other three were upon testing on Sunday when the Blues (17-9-5) resumed practicing for the resumption of their season, which is slated to get going for them again Wednesday when they host the Edmonton Oilers before traveling to Minnesota to face the Wild in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis.

"It’s certainly not surprising, coming off the number of positive tests as we paused the season," said Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, who also indicated none of the four players had symptoms. "Going into the holidays, I’m certainly not surprised by our positive returns, and the multitude around the league."

There were at least 40-plus positive tests around the league on Sunday, and with the Blues' aforementioned four, and forward Oskar Sundqvist already on it, this gives the Blues 14 players that have tested positive at one point or another this season. They join Brandon Saad, Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, Niko Mikkola, Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Ville Husso, Jordan Binnington and since-traded Kyle Clifford.

"We were all uncertain for sure," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Everybody's scattered all over with family and all kinds of things going on. You come back and you test and it's everywhere."

The unfortunate news for Bortuzzo, Barbashev, Joshua and Neal is that they will miss the Winter Classic.

Barbashev was in the middle of a career year with 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 31 games and was well on pace to break his single-season high in all three categories, which is 14 goals in 2018-19, 15 assists in 2019-20 and 26 points in 18-19 and 19-20.

"Yeah, obviously seeing around the league too, all the guys and everything. It's unfortunate, but it's going around the league," O'Reilly said. "There's nothing we can do. It's sit and wait and be safe. Hopefully we don't get too many games postponed. It would be nice to get back to playing. We'll see."

* Relief on the way -- With the ever-rising positive cases going on, the NHL finally implemented a host of new rules in place for relief to teams that are dealing with the possibility of losing players for protocol reasons.

Teams will have a temporary taxi squad in place that began Sunday and goes away after each team's final game prior to the All-Star break, with six players per team per squad capped out as the maximum with no minimum. No player shall be on the taxi squad for more than 20 cumulative days.

There is also a roster emergency exception that allows teams to recall a player if their cap hit is $1 million or less and the team does not now need to play shorthanded -- like the Blues did three times -- prior to using the emergency relief recall.

"That definitely helps for sure," Berube said. "Then you don't have to play shorthanded. We'll see what happens, but it's helpful for sure."

It's something the Blues were wanting and hoping for, for a long time and are finally getting now.

"Obviously I was in favor of it maybe six or eight weeks ago," Armstrong said. "I think it’s the right thing to do. I think COVID is its own animal. It’s not related to hockey in any stretch. I think taxiing a small number of players might not prevent COVID but it might add to injuries. So I think the rules that are in place now we’re going to guarantee 18 skaters, or try anved guarantee 18 skaters and two goalies a night. And I think that’s a positive for the league and for the fans.

"Once we found out that the vaccines didn’t work to prevent COVID, they just mitigated the severity of it, I thought it was appropriate to make the decision earlier. But I think just with the number of cases over the last little while, teams weren’t going to be able to put competitive (teams)."

* Injured reinforcements on the way -- The good news of all this is that the Blues had several injured skaters on the ice once again, including David Perron (upper body), Robert Thomas (lower body), Jordan Kyrou (upper body), Jake Walman (upper body), Ville Husso (lower body) and Brayden Schenn (upper body).

All were full participants in practice on Sunday and most, if not all, could be available for Wednesday's scheduled home game against the Edmonton Oilers.

"It was nice to see all the guys back skating, looked good," O'Reilly said. "I know it's just practice, but the energy looked good. Looked like they were moving well. It's nice. It's nice to have that break and a couple days when we are banged up that we can get some guys healthy and back. It's one positive thing out of these games being postponed."

Perron has missed the past 11 games, Kyrou has missed five, Thomas has missed seven, Husso has missed six, Walman has also missed six and Schenn has missed three.

"The 29th is the next day we have circled and we’re hoping to get players back as we move on from that – in all areas of the ice, not just down the middle of the ice," Armstrong said. "... Since we’re going to have a couple more (practices), I’m hoping they’re going to knock on the coach’s door and say they’re ready to play in our next game, whenever that is. Again, that’s not for a couple of days at the earliest so I’m not too concerned about that."

Sundqvist is eligible to come off the COVID protocol list Tuesday.

"Sunny's back in a couple days, 'Tommer' looks good out there, Kyrou," Berube said. "Walman looks good too and then Schenn practiced for most of the practice with us. He's feeling pretty good. Perron too."

Schenn's practice was his first with the team since he left a 3-2 overtime loss on Dec. 12 against the Anaheim Ducks.

"He looked really good," O'Reilly said. "It was nice again for another body to see back was very nice. I thought he looked really good too. I don't think he did a ton of practice. He was just kind of easing back into it, but you could tell out there he was starting to move well, he's getting close. It's good to see."

"I think he's right on track with what he thought and what we thought," Berube said of Schenn. "I don't think it's a surprise that he was out there today."

* Blues represented at World Juniors -- The IIHF World Junior Championship is underway and started competition on Sunday in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta, and the Blues are represented by a trio of players, including forward Jake Neighbours (Canada), center Tanner Dickinson (USA) and defenseman Leo Loof (Sweden).

Armstrong normally likes to get to the tournament to get acquainted with Blues prospects but was unable to do so this year.

"I usually try and get there," Armstrong said. "This year is a little bit different. There’s no interaction with the players or the staff. They’re sequestered. You usually like to go and maybe introduce yourself to some parents, talk to some player agents there, meet the players, talk to them.

"It’s very sequestered now. So I’m not going. But it’s a great event. I talked to Jake the other day. He’s excited about it. We’re watching now and it’s going to be a great event. It’s usually a great time around the locker room in the NHL. Everyone’s side bets are going on now, and national pride starts to bubble up."

* Disappointment for no Olympics -- Armstrong was the architect for Team Canada in preparation for the 2022 Beijing Games and O'Reilly (Canada) was among some of the Blues hopefuls of representing their respective countries that will obviously now not happen due to the NHL needing that down time in February to reschedule games.

Armstrong was Canada's GM and has since stepped down from that post.

"It’s something we were hoping to go," Armstrong said. "More importantly, hoping as a fan that the NHL players would go. Seeing best on best in the past has been rewarding for the game. The thought of seeing some of these younger players that we didn’t see in ’18 in the Olympics, gelling with some of the guys we saw in ’14 was gonna be fantastic. But I certainly support the league’s and the union’s decision to sit this one out for obvious reasons. We gotta get 82 games in, or we’d love to get 82 games in on the NHL this year. That’s the most important thing. You know, 2026 is not far away for a lot of these guys. So it’ll keep the carrot in front of that group.

"It’s certainly disappointing, but certainly understandable."

O'Reilly added, "I think it's disappointing. For myself, it's the first time I've ever really been considered for it and had a chance. I think it was something that I was hopeful that it was something I might be able to participate in, but the most important thing is the NHL and the season and getting the season done. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is. It's the way COVID ... through everything we've been through the last few years, you could see it coming start coming on there that you knew that it probably wouldn't happen. Just try to focus on the season and go from there."

Tuesday, December 21, 2021


Blues get final practice in before extended break; Olympics all but out of 
the question for NHL players; team in good position heading into Christmas

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Instead of going through what would have been a normal day with a morning skate in Ottawa to prepare for a game Tuesday against the Senators, the Blues instead were home, home on the practice rink instead one final time before the Christmas pause, a longer pause than what was originally planned.

The Blues got in one final practice before dispersing for the break, some staying here and others perhaps like goalie Jordan Binnington, heading back North of the border to spend time with his family.

The NHL decided to instead play out the remaining games, except for one tonight in Vegas between the Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning, between now and Thursday, the pause in the season began for all teams on Wednesday through Saturday.

"It's definitely unexpected," forward Brandon Saad said. "There's obviously been a lot of talk and a lot of things going on around the league, so for us, it's just being prepared and having a good practice day going into break here. Obviously with games canceled, it kind of is what it is. I understand it. Just enjoy the holiday and get back and be prepared.

"There's pros and cons. Any time you can get some rest for some guys and get a healthy team, you feel good about that, but at the same time when you're rolling, you kind of want to stay on that role and stay hot. But like I said, it kind of is what it is and we're going to regroup here and be ready to go."

The Blues were supposed to face the Senators, then end their pre-Christmas schedule with an afternoon date against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday before dispersing to their final destinations for a couple days. They were expected to get reinforcements of injured players back, whether it was David Perron (upper body injury) Robert Thomas (lower body), Jordan Kyrou (upper body), Jake Walman (upper body) and/or Ville Husso (lower body) but it gives them all a few extra days to be ready for when the schedule resumes, and for the Blues, that's Monday at home against the New Jersey Devils.

"I guess you could look at it that way," coach Craig Berube said. "I thought that a lot of them would have returned for the trip, who knows. But yeah, we get a little more time for sure, that's one way of looking at it.

"... We would have liked to finish the road trip out in Ottawa and Toronto, but it is what it is. We want to play, but the league's got to try and get control of what's going on and that's their way of trying to do it."

When the Blues schedule does resume and impact players do return, some of the reinforcements from the Springfield Thunderbirds that have been called into action to keep the boat afloat, players can look back and realize just how much the likes of Logan Brown, Dakota Joshua, Nathan Walker, Matthew Peca, Alexei Toropchenko and Charlie Lindgren have meant to helping the Blues in what has been a 7-2-3 run the past 12 games.

"It's been unbelievable," Saad said. "The way they're playing, we really found a good team game playing the right way and they're a big part of that. We had a lot of success. Obviously getting our healthy guys back is exciting as well, but I think over that group of time, we really buckled down and got into playing a good team game.

"Any time you have a healthy team, we really haven't had one all year, I think we're really excited to get those guys back. We have some good players coming, we're excited to see what we can do with a full roster."

Peca and Toropchenko were assigned back to Springfield on Monday when the Blues recalled and activated Klim Kostin, who was in Springfield on a conditioning assignment, off long-term injured reserve, and when others return, Walker and Joshua could go back, but it will be a tough choice for Brown, who will have to clear waivers to get reassigned because he played in 10 games and/or spent 30 days on recall. But nonetheless, it won't be their last chance to play up here.

"They meant a lot and they're going to mean a lot going forward I think," Berube said. "You're always going to need people and we have quality guys down there. 

"I think the one thing with them coming up gave us a little bit more of an identity with how they play. They play a heavy game, they're physical, it was north hockey and I thought that inspired our team. They did a great job going forward. We're going to need guys. It's really good to know that we've got some real quality guys down there."

One player who wouldn't mind staying on the ice and keep playing is Binnington, who returned Sunday in a 4-2 loss at Winnipeg after missing seven games being in COVID-19 protocol.

"It's almost a full month with one game. I've skated nine out of the last 10 days so it's good in that regard," Binnington said. "Just do what you can, get some workouts in. We'll be fine. It's not a big deal. Just a little extra rest and do what you've got to do to feel good come return."
And as for that return, Binnington made 30 saves.

"I felt all right," Binnington said. "First period I was pretty good. I felt strong, solid. They were all stoppable pucks. They were good chances, some of them. So I'd like to obviously get a win every game but for the first game back, I felt pretty good. I'm still building that energy. ... I would like to obviously play some games, but it is what it is. And we'll adapt."

* No Olympics -- A formal announcement hasn't been made official (yet), but it's almost at the finish line that the NHL and NHLPA will make it a formality that NHL players will not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

There are a number of Blues that would have been in consideration to represent their respective countries, but in light of 50-plus postponements of NHL games and the uncertainty of overseas travel, plus the risk of testing positive in China and abiding by the restrictive protocols there, it's too much a risk.

"It sounds like there’s some tough decisions to be made there obviously," said defenseman Colton Parayko, the Blues player rep. "And some tough protocols that we’ll have to meet. Especially going down there (to Beijing) if suddenly it were to happen with you being sick.

"It’s just kind of where we are right now in the world with everything changing. We’re still learning a lot. Obviously playing in the Olympics is something special and something that every kid kind of dreams of playing in the Olympics growing up. It’s one of your dreams. It’s one of those things where it’s cool to get a chance to go if we were to go. At the same time, you've got to just kind of roll with what’s going on."

"It's tough," Saad said. "Any time you can get a chance to represent your country, I know a lot of guys would like to do that, but at the same time, I understand that side of it too. We have a lot of games to make up and for whatever reason they have, it's tough for players to go, but it's tough. Obviously you want to play for your country. It's a great opportunity, but at the same time, it kind of is what it is and it's kind of been that way for the past few times."

Binnington was one of a few Canadian goalies that was gaining serious consideration.

"Obviously, still unknown about the roster but I think it's always an incredible opportunity to represent your country," Binnington said. "Something that makes you proud, your family proud, playing for a country. So if that opportunity was this year, it's unfortunate. But obviously there's a lot of things going on the world. They're going to make the best decision for the situation, I think. If that's what it is, it's put your head down and work for four years from now."

It also means Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, also Team Canada's GM, won't have to juggle putting an NHL roster together for Canada and will focus on his duties with the Blues.

"I think it's disappointing, but it's reality," Berube said. "To go to the Olympics, the guys that are going, our general manager managing the team, it's disappointing for me to think about some of our guys not going or our general manager not being able to participate in the Olympics. It's a great honor to be able to go and to be involved in it. But the fact is, this COVID is everywhere and the NHL's got to do what they've got to do."

* Trio don't practice Tuesday -- Besides Brayden Schenn (upper body), James Neal (upper body) and Oskar Sundqvist (COVID protocol) not on the ice Tuesday, defensemen Torey Krug and Marco Scandella, along with forward Nathan Walker were absent from practice but for different reasons.

"Krug and Scandella are maintenance, and Walker, we just told him to go see his family," Berube said. "He hasn't seen his kids and he's got a little baby and one on the way and a wife, so we let him go home early."

Walker's wife and daughter have spent the time this season in Springfield but for much of last year, Walker didn't get to see them much with him here in St. Louis as a member of the taxi squad and his family in Australia. So the Blues have him a couple extra days to go be with his family in a nice gesture.

"Doug understands and does a great job with that," Berube said. "You feel for the guy a little bit. We weren't playing and it's an opportunity to get some extended time with his family."

* Blues in good position -- Despite the injuries and multiple players going in and out of COVID protocol, at 17-9-5, the Blues are in a good position in the Central Division and in the Western Conference.

They sit one point out of first place in the division behind Minnesota and in the conference behind the Wild, Vegas and Anaheim and are in position to get multiple players back once the season gets going again.

The Blues are fifth in scoring with 105 goals, or 3.35 goals per game, which is seventh in the NHL; they're 11th in goals-against at 2.68 per game; their power play is third at 29.6 percent; penalty kill is eighth at 82.9 percent; their Russian trip of Vladimir Tarasenko (29 points), Pavel Buchnevich (29) and Ivan Barbashev (25) lead the charge with 83 points in 31 games; Tarasenko leads four Blues in scoring with 12 goals (Buchnevich, Barbashev and Saad each with 11) and they have 12 players with 10 points or more sharing the wealth.

"I think the team has done a lot of good things so far this year," Berube said. "I think our special teams have been good, pretty consistent throughout the season so far. I think we're right in there with goal scoring and goals against in the league. What we've got to make sure in getting everyone healthy and we're back is that we continue to play the way we played in the month of December is the hard hockey, the leavy hockey, the north style, managing the puck better, understanding how we need to play to win games. That'll be what we need to understand here going forward here getting healthy.

"You're always talking about it. You're always trying to get that message through to everybody. That's just part of coaching. That's part of the job and our job as coaches is to get that message across through to everybody."

Saturday, December 18, 2021


MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- The Blues thought they were putting the positive COVID-19 cases behind them, more so than many of the teams around the league are dealing with an abundance of them right now.

Alas, that's not the case after Oskar Sundqvist was the latest to be isolated for at least the next 10 days after the forward was put on the COVID-19 protocol list on Saturday.

Sundqvist becomes the 10th member of the Blues to go on COVID protocol this season, joining Brandon Saad, Ryan O'Reilly, Torey Krug, Niko Mikkola, Jordan Binnington, Ville Husso, Justin Faulk, Tyler Bozak and Kyle Clifford (now with the Toronto Maple Leafs) to be saddled with a minimum 10-day quarantine period.

"Obviously a tough bounce for him," Bozak said. "Hopefully he feels well the whole time and comes out of it good, but he was definitely getting his groove back after coming back what was a tough year of rehab and getting back into game shape. Obviously sucks for him, but hopefully that's the only case we get."

The news is especially tough for Sundqvist, who has played in 16 games this season and finally was looking like his former self following surgeries on both hips and his left ACL, which has been a long, arduous and winding road in itself.

"The last three games, he's been really good for me," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Just back to his old ways of getting on top of people and forechecking hard, just being a heavy player. I feel terrible for him. He's worked so hard to get back after those surgeries and all that. This is unfortunate for him and us.

"All the trainers did a great job in the gym, medical, working with him on a daily basis and helping along. 'Sunny' put all the work in, or he worked extremely hard to do what he needed to to get back to playing."

There have been multiple teams ravaged with COVID cases, and some have been shut down through the Christmas break, including Nashville, Boston, Calgary, Florida and Colorado and others having games cancelled thus far but not complete shutdowns, including Toronto, Vancouver and Carolina.

And in light of teams being shut down, the league and NHLPA have gone back to safety protocols similar to last season that will be re-evaluated by medical experts on Jan. 7. That means players will be isolated once again on the road, and given the Blues embarked on a three-game Canadian trip that starts Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg and takes them to Ottawa on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday afternoon, the uncertainty is unsettling.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen ahead here," Berube said. "It's a lot of uncertainty here for everybody. The team, they've just got to keep pushing along, focus on what you can control, keep doing what you've been doing in the games. We're used to guys with injuries, COVID and all that. I think we're beyond that now. Just focus on what you can control."

"I think it's kind of all playing it by ear," Bozak said. "Every minute, things change. It's hard to predict what's going to happen. I'm not a doctor, so I don't really know the best way to handle it or what would be best to kind of slow it down or if it just will ever slow down. It's just one of those things you've got to power through, be ready to play and just hope everyone stays healthy, which isn't looking like now is the case around the league right now or even in other sports."

The players were enjoying looser protocols this season at the outset and having those things taken away again seems to be frustrating.

"It's trending in that direction, which is frustrating," defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. "... It seems a lot of these things keep popping up around the holidays. I don't know what they think ... they think people are gathering together and there's going to be massive spreads or what not, but it's frustrating. Guys want to see their families, guys don't want to be locked down and stuck in Canada and what not. It's a bit of a mess in that regard, but we're just told what we have to do.

"... It's felt like that for a little bit here with the cases, Olympics, a lot of stuff not making sense, not adding up in terms of protocols and if they think this is going to help. We've had spikes in the past, nothing like this, but it would have been nice having a little bit of a decision as players on some of this stuff. Whether they think this is going to help, we just want to get through this season as players and smoothly. If that's what they think is best, then we'll abide by that."

It gives Blues players cause for concern whether they'll be allowed back into the US, especially if anyone tests positive while in Canada. That's a no-no.

"Me personally, I'm kind of lucky I guess if you'd say now that I just had it because I'll be able to come home and spend Christmas with my family for sure, but you definitely feel for guys that ... what if we go to Canada today and somebody tests positive," Bozak said. "I don't know the border rules and what not. But not being able to come home for the holidays and be with family or whatever it may be, it's part of the business. It is what it is and just hopefully it goes our way out there and everyone stays healthy."

A pause in the entire schedule isn't out of the realm of possibility, and that would be extremely disappointing to the Blues considering their recent trend of games going 5-0-1 overall, 7-1-3 in their past 11 and 7-0-1 on home ice.

"We love where our game's at right now," Bozak said. "Obviously we're playing hard, we're tough to play against, we play good defensively. Everyone's kind of chipping in. Obviously you want to keep playing, but safety for not just us but our families and everyone involved is obviously top priority."

* Injured players skate, traveled -- The good news hitting the Blues, though, is that David Perron (upper-body injury), Robert Thomas (lower body), Jordan Kyrou (upper body), Jake Walman (upper body) and Ville Husso (lower body) all got in another practice on Saturday and will accompany the team on the road trip.

With Sundqvist sidelined for at least the next four games (he's elibible to return on Dec. 28), the Blues are once again down to 11 healthy forwards unless someone from the injured group can return Sunday. 

Perron isn't available to come off long-term injured reserve until Tuesday, and Thomas is on IR, which means he's out at least a week and puts him back on Monday. Kyrou is only listed as day to day so it could be him.

"They got a full practice in, which was good," Berube said. "I didn't see any issues. We'll see tomorrow. We'll give those guys another skate tomorrow morning and go from there. We'll see when they're players."

Forward Brayden Schenn (upper body), who is also on IR, has not returned to the ice; James Neal (upper body), who is on LTIR but eligible to return today, was not on the ice after Berube said Neal had a "setback" on Thursday.

* Why are the Blues trending upwards -- The record for the Blues (17-8-5) speaks for itself, but having as many as 12 regulars out of the lineup at one time has many around the league asking how they're doing it.

"It's pretty simple," Bortuzzo said. "I think it's work-based and guys are playing the system, committed to the other side of the puck. I think our game's included a level of intensity that we've been lacking for a little bit of time and special teams have been solid, goaltending's been solid. That's the recipe, but at the end of the day, you ask anyone in the room, it's work based and just playing for the guy beside them. You get a lot of that feel right now.

"I think we know all good teams in this league, that's a basis for success is taking care of that side of things. It's been a staple of this organization for a while and there's just a lot of buy-in right now. That's what you need to have success.

"It's just a commitment I think. Not everyone's going to run someone through the boards, but there needs to be an intensity and a physicality at the puck. I think that for us it's gone through the roof the last little while here, I think starting with the Tampa and Florida games. I don't know if it was a bit of us realizing who our opponents were and us wanting to raise the temperature of the game, and that's kind of carried over from the last little while. It's not about running around and being a team that needs to kill guys, but you can definitely sense our physicality level's raised and intensity at the puck, I think, has been fun to watch, especially at our forward group."

The Blues have no doubt been boosted by the players brought up from Springfield, including Dakota Joshua, Logan Brown, Nathan Walker, Matthew Peca, Alexei Toropchenko, Scott Perunovich and Charlie Lindgren, who is 5-0-0 in his first five appearances with a 1.22 goals-against average and .958 save percentage.

"Defensively we've been pretty solid, play without the puck, they're reloading, the hounding and not giving teams time," Berube said. "I think we've done a real good job of it. Obviously good around our net, that's important too. On the other side of it, just our forecheck game, physical game. We're really banging a lot of bodies, we're going to the net hard, we're forechecking really good. Those are keys for sure. And our special teams have been really solid. I think they come through almost nightly for us, whether it's penalty kill or scoring a power play goal.

"I think they realized when people were out, shorthanded and stuff, everybody's got to do a little bit more, right? I think that's what ramped up the intensity for sure."

In their first 25 games, the Blues allowed three or more goals 18 times. In the five games since, only once, and that was a 3-2 overtime loss against Anaheim. Playing a much tighter game these days.

"It's a big focus for our group," Bortuzzo said. "If you ask any team in the league, I'm sure it is, but forwards are so high-end in this league that if you give them that extra five feet around the blue lines and grabbing zones, they're going to take it and they're going to use it. Any time you have a chance to get in guys' ways early and force them to chip pucks, them we're filling. But it's a connectiveness that helps on our breakouts and forwards are making it easy with their tracking back. It's just part of being connected as a group that is a small part of it but leads to a lot of our breakouts and transition in the neutral zone. It's a big focus for us and something we'll just have to try and keep up."