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."

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