When the Blues play their next game in the playoffs, they’ll be without one of their spark plugs
EDMONTON, AB — The Blues knew at some point Ivan Barbashev would be leaving.
At least they got their young Russian forechecking forward for a couple of games, but now onto a life-changing moment for Barbashev, who left the Western Conference bubble city of Edmonton and returned to St. Louis to be on hand for the birth of his and wife Ksenia’s first child.
The Blues, who will face the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday (5:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM) in their second round-robin game on the heels of a demoralizing 2-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche last Sunday when the Avalanche scored with 0.1 seconds remaining, knew Barbashev, part of the energy fourth line with Oskar Sundqvist and Alexander Steen, would have to depart at some point.
In a perfect world of the NHL schedule, Barbashev’s child would be arriving during the dog days of August when players are vacationing or doing whatever they can to reinvigorate the bodies knowing training camp would be roughly a month away.
But in the imperfect world of 2020 and COVID-19 when the NHL is playing out its 2019-20 season in hub cities Edmonton and Toronto, Barbashev wanted to be with the team for however long he could before having to leave with the hopes of returning again at some point.
“We felt it was important for Ivan to be with us for the first two games of the restart and we were prepared for him leaving to go back to St. Louis to be with Ksenia,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said in a statement. “We wish them both the best and look forward to seeing Ivan back in Edmonton during the first round of the playoffs.”
Once Barbashev, who played in the exhibition loss against the Chicago Blackhawks on July 30 and against the Avalanche, returns to Edmonton, he will have to quarantine for four days and produce four negative test results in order to return to the ice.
“It was time for him to leave. We knew that,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “We expect him back, but I can’t sit here and give you the exact date because we’ve got to make sure everything goes well and everything’s good there at home with him and his family.
“(We’ll miss) his physicality and his penalty killing, his grinding. That line in general, they’ve got real good chemistry and they did a great job for us last year and this year at times when I put them together. Some lines just have that chemistry and the just get the job done at both ends of the ice. Barby’s one of our most physical players. He’s a good penalty killer and we use him in that role.”
Some on the outside may look at the Blues and think they’re simply missing a fourth-line player and is easily replaced. But those that watched the Blues in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, realize that this fourth line will go up against the opposition’s top line and Berube was known to start them off in games.
“If you’ve seen anything throughout the year or with Vladi (Tarasenko) going down, or even last year in the playoffs, one guy’s out, the next guy comes in and fills a hole,” center Brayden Schenn said. “With Barby, obviously losing him here for the next couple of weeks or maybe more. What he brings to our team, obviously he’s physical. Him and Sunny work really well together. With Steener too, what that line brings. It complements each other real well and plays on both ends of the ice and plays against other teams’ top lines. Another guy will step in and I’m sure he’ll get the job done.”
That next guy happens to be Mackenzie MacEachern, who worked with Sundqvist and Steen for much of the two-week training camp in St. Louis in preparation for when Barbashev left.
“Mac is a big guy who can really get up and down the ice with his feet, bangs bodies and plays a pretty simple game,” Berube said. “He’s an effective guy. We’ve used him this year and he’s done a real good job for us.”
As a father himself, of triplets no less, Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo had some simple, yet rewarding, advice for Barbashev:
“I’m sure a lot of guys gave him advice. I said, ‘Try and be in there because it’s a cool experience,'” Pietrangelo said. “I don’t know, mine was a little bit different, but I told him it’s going to change his world but always for the better.”
Top line needing to step up
Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz played their first meaningful game in nine months together against Colorado, and much like the exhibition loss against the Blackhawks, there weren’t many impactful moments.
Tarasenko finished with 14:10 of ice time with three shot attempts (two on goal) and was a minus-1; Schwartz was at 14:04 with two shot attempts (one on goal) and was also minus-1 and Schenn finished with 13:32, one assist on David Perron’s power-play goal, two shot attempts and was just 1 of 8 in the face-off circle. Compare that to Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, who had a whopping 10 shot attempts (five on goal) by himself in 23:08.
Granted, Tarasenko has played two games in nine months, so it will take time for things to jell, but judging by the ice time,
“I didn’t think their minutes were that low, but they need to have the puck a lot more than they had,” Berube said. “They never had the puck enough in that game. They never possessed it enough in the offensive zone and did enough things with it. They know that and they’ll be better.
“(Colorado) checked them hard for sure, but it’s playoff hockey and that’s going to happen, so you’ve got to find a way to do it. You’ve got to find a way to compete, you’ve got to get numbers on the puck because if you don’t, they’re going to have numbers on it and that’s what they did, they outnumbered them most of the time and got the puck back.”
Dunn fine in debut
Blues defenseman Vince Dunn was a bit of a surprise entry in the round-robin opener against the Avalanche.
Dunn, who missed all but two practice days during training camp with what is believed to be a positive COVID-19 test result but skated in just five practices once the team got to Edmonton, felt good enough to go and finished with 14:49 of ice time, three shot attempts (one on goal) and two hits.
“He said he wanted to play,” Berube said of Dunn. “We’ve got to get him up to speed as quickly as possible and the best way you can do that is play games. Dunner played a pretty good game, I thought. He was fine. He just needs to keep getting better and better.”