By LOU KORAC
The Blues will finally christen the 2021-22 season tonight.
The Blues will finally christen the 2021-22 season tonight.
Seriously. It's happening.
After seeing a plethora of teams, starting this past Tuesday, begin their respective seasons, some of which will be playing second and third games before the Blues drop the puck on their first, it will finally be time for the Blues to get things going against the shorthanded Colorado Avalanche (1-0-0) at 8 p.m. (BSMW, ESPN 101.1-FM) to begin a three-game trip.
The Blues are going to catch a break in their first matchup with the Avalanche, who will be without some firepower, including Nathan MacKinnon (COVID-19 protocol), Gabriel Landeskog (two-game suspension), Valeri Nichushkin (upper-body injury) and Jack Johnson (COVID-19 protocol).
But considering the Blues want to get the season off on the right foot and the fact that it was the Avalanche that ended their season last year with a first-round four-game sweep, it doesn't change the approach one iota.
"No, none," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We've already talked about it this morning."
Colorado still boasts Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri (say what you will about him) among others that can cause problems in the lineup and the Blues know it.
"Our focus is on paying attention to the way we want to play and physical and doing things the right way, no matter what that lineup is over there," Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "Still, they're a very deep team. They've got a lot of skill and speed and they compete hard, so it's by no means going to be easier on us. We have to compete hard and pay attention to the details right from the start."
The Blues are simply ready to play. Period. Enough practice time, enough preseason games, all eight of them.
"I'm ready," winger Vladimir Tarasenko said. "I know today's the first game. We will see, but I feel like everybody have a good camp. Everybody ready, me included.
"It's nice to finally play a game, especially after the other teams start a little earlier. We have a chance to watch a couple games and after the way it was last season, they are big games for us against Colorado. I think everybody ready to play our best and I can't wait for tonight."
"We're all excited," O'Reilly said. "It's been a little weird watching the rest of the league start up and we're just sitting there watching them go, but you can tell we're excited. There's energy around the room today. Everyone wants to get going."
Goalie Jordan Binnington added: "It's time. We're excited. A lot of buildup and we've just been preparing for this first game of the year. We all know how it goes, one game at a time, just stay in the present moment and prepare the best way you can."
- - -
The Blues could be shorthanded themselves and nothing will be determined until game time on forward David Perron, who missed practice Friday but skated during an optional morning skate Saturday.
"He looked OK, yeah," Berube said. "I don't really have a lot to say about it, to be honest with you. He'll be a game time decision."
If Perron can't go, Klim Kostin is expected to jump in.
"You can tell he obviously wants to be out there and wants to play the games, but you have to be smart, you have to be safe," O'Reilly said of Perron. "It's a long season, and if it makes sense for him not to play tonight and get rest, that'll be the decision, but obviously when he's in the lineup, we're a much better team. It's still early, but we have to be safe in these situations and make sure you do the right thing."
- - -
Forward Jake Neighbours will make his NHL debut for the Blues today.
The 19-year-old first round pick, 26th overall, in the 2020 NHL Draft earned himself a spot on the 23-man roster out of training camp with his hard work and determination.
The Blues could keep him for up to nine NHL games played before deciding if he stays here or gets sent back to his junior team, the Edmonton Oil Kings, but for the time being, Neighbours is here.
"The biggest thing is just enjoying it," O'Reilly said. "I can remember my first game and what it was like and every little thing about it is exciting. I just hope he has that same experience and to enjoy it and to trust himself. With preseason games and the way he's been playing, it's been fun to watch. He pays attention to all the little details. He's very mature for his age. He's got to trust himself, enjoy it and it's going to be fun to watch."
Neighbours is slated to play on a line with Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev but that could change pending the availability of Perron.
"Jake's impressed us all obviously through camp," Berube said. "That's why he's here. He's been a real good player. It's always exciting for a 19-year-old kid to play his first game in the NHL."
Tarasenko offered the following advice for Neighbours to shake the nerves.
"Hit somebody," Tarasenko joked. "... It's a special moment to see somebody play the first game. It's always nice to see people get first goal, first points. Just wishing him good luck. Same game he used to play before, but little bit bigger crowd. He's going to be OK."
Berube remembered his first game, which was in 1986 for the Philadelphia Flyers.
"I think I took a lot of penalties and things like that," Berube said. "I think it was against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time. I went out and did what I'm good at, to be honest with you. It obviously worked out."
- - -
The Blues want to get back to being a stingy hockey club, especially on the back end. After finishing 19th in the league in goals allowed per game (2.98), they need their shutdown guys to be that just again.
Having a healthy Colton Parayko, who will begin the season paired with Marco Scandella, will be a key and imperative for those chances.
"It's a fun role," Parayko said. "It's an opportunity to play against obviously the top players in the world. You don't really have a chance to take any nights off so you make sure you come to every game focused and the right mindset. That's the good thing about it is you always know it's going to be a tough night, but it can be a very rewarding one too at the end of it."
The way Parayko and Scandella played as a pair when the Blues acquired Scandella from the Montreal Canadiens was almost as seamless as when Parayko played when paired with Jay Bouwmeester. Of course Scandella is no Bouwmeester, but to get that back to that level again would be paramount.
"I think it's just continue to focus and grow our game obviously," Parayko said. "We've both got to be healthy and think that when we're healthy, we're going to be really good. Just communicate and make sure we're going over different game play scenarios and just talking over different situations throughout the season and continue to study our film and study other players. I think if we do that, we're going to be just fine."
That's why Berube will pair them against the opposition's top players, and often.
"It's important, it's important for every team," Berube said. "They're going to log a lot of minutes against top lines. They're big guys that can skate and they've got long reaches. They make it difficult on the other team and the other players, the top players on the other teams. They've done a good job in the past and I would continue to think they're going to do a good job in the future here. They're very important for our hockey team for sure."
- - -
Along with Neighbours, veterans James Neal, Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich will make their Blues debuts.
For Neal, he will be paired with Tarasenko and Robert Thomas in what could be viewed as one of the top third lines around that should get great matchups on a daily basis if the line clicks.
"We play together one game, we have some chances," Tarasenko said. "We certainly play really well. Neal can score, everybody knows it, so we try to talk and find out ways to create a lot in the offensive zone, play good defensively. It's a hard question. Today is the first game. We will see."
- - -
The Blues' projected lineup:
Brandon Saad-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron
Jordan Kyrou-Brayden Schenn-Pavel Buchnevich
James Neal-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko
Jake Neighbours-Tyler Bozak-Ivan Barbashev
Marco Scandella-Colton Parayko
Torey Krug-Justin Faulk
Jake Walman-Robert Bortuzzo
Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Ville Husso will be the backup. Healthy scratches include Klim Kostin, Kyle Clifford and Niko Mikkola. Oskar Sundqvist (knee) is on LTIR.
- - -
The Avalanche's projected lineup (will be better updated in pregame warmup):
Andre Burakovsky-Nazem Kadri-Mikko Rantanen
Tyson Jost-J.T. Compher-Sampo Ranta
Darren Helm-Logan O'Connor-Jayson Megna
Stefan Matteau-Dylan Sikura
Samuel Girard-Cale Makar
Bowen Byram-Erik Johnson
Kurtis MacDermid-Ryan Murray
Darcy Kuemper will start in goal; Jonas Johansson will be the backup. Devon Toews (shoulder), Valeri Nichushkin (upper body) and Pavel Francouz (ankle) are out. Gabriel Landeskog serves the first of a two-game suspension and is out. Nathan MacKinnon and Jack Johnson are in COVID-19 protocol and are out.