St. Louis Blues: What to expect as Round-Robin games begin Sunday
EDMONTON, Alberta (KY3) - Is a Stanley Cup repeat in store for the St. Louis Blues? If so, it will look quite different from last year.
Playoffs are underway for the National Hockey League. The regular season was suspended on March 12 when professional sports came to a hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly five months later, the NHL has returned with an expanded playoff format. Most contenders will look to keep their season alive through a best-of-five play-in series.
The Blues, who led the Western Conference with 94 points prior to the season suspension, are little more fortunate. The defending champions will play in a round-robin tournament with the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars, the other top three finishers in the Western Conference.
The round-robin will determine playoff seeding for the top four finishers in the Western and Eastern Conferences. Essentially, these teams have a chance to ease into the traditional first round of playoffs and shake off any rust from the lengthy season delay. Sixteen other teams face the possibility of elimination almost immediately upon return.
All of the round-robin games will be played under regular-season overtime rules. The teams will be seeded based on how many points they earn in the tournament. In the case teams finish the round-robin tied in points, the NHL will use regular-season points as a tiebreaker for the first four seeds.
So far, the NHL playoffs have returned without any pandemic-related delays. On Wednesday, the NHL announced no positive tests from players or staff in the latest week of COVID-19 testing. Without any setbacks, all round-robin and play-in games are expected to wrap up by Sunday, August 9.
The NHL has allowed each contender to bring 31 players and limited team personnel to its two bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. Teams will be allowed to dress 20 players per game.
Here’s a closer look at the St. Louis Blues roster:
Among the projected starters, the Blues would use 17 players who saw Stanley Cup Final action last year. Though, for some key contributors, the stakes are a little different compared to last year's Stanley Cup run:
-Vladimir Tarasenko, who was nearing return when the season paused, makes his long-awaited return after missing most of the 2019-20 regular season with a shoulder injury. Tarasenko upgrades the 5-on-5 and power play units immediately, having averaged 35 goals in his previous three seasons. The round-robin games will be key for rebuilding his endurance and winning puck battles, but also figuring out his most suitable line mates moving forward.
-Ivan Barbashev, one of the Blues stronger defensive forwards, will leave the bubble during the round-robin with the birth of his child expected in August. He will be quarantined upon his return and needs to pass a series of COVID-19 tests before rejoining the lineup. MacKenzie MacEachern is the leading candidate for playing time in his absence.
-Ryan O’Reilly enters playoffs with some big-time accolades. Recognized as the top playoff performer last year with the Conn Smythe Trophy, O’Reilly was nominated for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive player, for the second straight year. O’Reilly set the bar high with 23 points in 26 playoff games last year. It might be difficult to repeat that offensive production, but the Blues could make another deep run if O’Reilly sets the tone with faceoffs, takeaways and heavy ice minutes.
-Alex Pietrangelo, the first and only captain to lead the Blues to a Stanley Cup title, is a free agent at the season’s end. The veteran defenseman enters the playoffs on a career year, highlighted by a personal-best 16 goals and team-leading average ice time of 24:11. Contract talks are unlikely during playoffs, but Pietrangelo’s play in the upcoming weeks could impact future discussions. Expect more ice time and higher-leverage situations for the captain as the Blues get deeper in the playoffs.
-Jordan Binnington finished the 2019-20 regular season campaign with 30 wins in 50 games, a pace close to his playoff winning percentage last year. His save percentage (.912) and goals against average (2.56) were not quite as stellar as his rookie marks, but still above league average with a heavier workload in his sophomore season. Binnington held opponents to two goals or less in 13 of 16 playoff wins last season, which could prove crucial as the Blues look to contain high-octane offenses in the round-robin and beyond.
Round-robin action for the St. Louis Blues features two Central Division rivals and one Pacific Division foe.
The round-robin games are scheduled on the following dates and times
Blues vs. Avalanche (August 2, 5:30 p.m.)
Blues vs. Golden Knights (August 6, Time TBD)
Blues vs. Stars (August 9, Time TBD)
Here's a brief look ahead to each of the three opponents:
Arguably the toughest competition in the West, the Avalanche have built a similar identity to the Blues in seasons past, and only finished one point behind for the division lead. Colorado’s playoff fortunes rely on speed, special teams and star power.
Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon leads the pack with 93 points, fifth-best in the league, before the pandemic-shortened season. Young stars Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar are also at full health after various injuries. Colorado’s goalie situation is fluid, but veteran Philipp Grubauer is expected to handle the lion’s share of starts.
The Avalanche and Blues split a four-game season series, one in which the home team won every game. The winner in all of those contests scored at least three goals and never lost a lead after the second period. If those trends continue, the Blues will need to set the tone early in the scoring department early for success in this round-robin opener.
POSSIBLE X-FACTOR: David Perron netted five goals in four regular season games against the Avalanche, including a hat trick on December 16.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Now three years into their existence, the Vegas Golden Knights have beaten every team in regulation besides one: The St. Louis Blues. However, the Knights made up for it with a pair of overtime victories against the Blues before the 2019-20 season paused.
Vegas carries a playoff-experienced roster, led by three-time Stanley Cup champion goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone guide the offense as the team’s respective goals and assists leaders, but neither were on the original team that went to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago. Shea Theodore had a breakout season on the blue line, scoring 42 points and leading the Knights in average ice time.
The Golden Knights wear down opponents through their ability to create scoring chances. Vegas led the NHL with a 54.8 shot attempts percentage in 5-on-5 play, producing 33 shots in each of their two victories against the Blues. Whichever opponent wins special teams and puck possession battles will likely emerge victorious.
POSSIBLE X-FACTOR: Zach Sanford delivered his first four-goal game against the Golden Knights on February 13.
In two of the last four seasons, the Blues have outlasted the Stars in a seven-game playoff series. Dallas finished with 82 points, the fewest among all round-robin teams, and won only once against the Blues in the regular season. But this isn’t a team to sleep on.
Ben Bishop, who impressed with 52-save performance in last year’s winner-take-all Game 7, battled some injuries, but turned in another strong campaign with 21 victories and a .920 save percentage. That’s huge for a Stars team that finished in the lower half of the league in goal scoring. Tyler Seguin was the only Stars player to collect at least 50 points prior to the season’s suspension.
If the Blues and Stars play to their defensive strengths, this has potential to be the lowest-scoring contest in the round-robin tournament. Dallas allowed 2.52 goals per game on average, the second-best rate in the league, but the Blues eclipsed that mark in all four of their head-to-head wins. The Blues are favorites on paper if their fundamentals, such as avoiding penalties and winning turnover battles, remain intact.
POSSIBLE X-FACTOR: Jake Allen won all three of his starts against the Stars, posting a .939 save percentage and 1.62 goals against average.
Round-robin play begins Sunday in the Eastern Conference, consisting of the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. These games will be played in the Toronto bubble.
As previously mentioned, the round-robin games and best-of-five play-in rounds are scheduled to end Sunday, August 9. If there aren't any pandemic-related delays by that point, the Blues will have a better idea of their first playoff opponent and their path to a possible repeat bid.
Happy Playoff Hockey Season!
Copyright 2020 KY3. All rights reserved.