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Blues, Avalanche get Western Conference round robin underway

"I think you put in a lot," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We have three games to be at the top of our game, that's the way I look at it"
Credit: AP
St. Louis Blues' Vince Dunn handles the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers Monday, March 9, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

EDMONTON, AB — The Blues get three more games to get their mojo in gear for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So when they open in the Western Conference round-robin against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday (5:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM), it doesn't matter what happens right?

Well, think again.

Even though the 2020 NHL playoffs are being played in bubble cities Edmonton (West) and Toronto (East), there seems to be something to be said for seeding, and the Blues, Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights and Dallas Stars will be jockeying for seeds 1-4 by each team playing a three-game round-robin against one another.

"I think you put in a lot," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We have three games to be at the top of our game, that's the way I look at it. I want our team to go out and get to our game right away and play as hard as we can. I think we should, my opinion, I think we're taking these games very seriously."

The Blues and Avalanche, who each split the four games they played during the regular-season with the Blues winning twice at Enterprise Center and the Avalanche returning the favor and winning twice at Pepsi Center, are quite familiar with each other, and taking games seriously is something the Blues will have to do when the puck drops Sunday.

The Blues and Colorado finished 1-2, respectively, in the conference standings during the regular season, with the Blues finishing with 94 points (42-19-10) and Colorado with 92 (42-20-8).

"That's a team with not a lot of holes in it, top to bottom," defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. "They have world class players in (Mikko) Rantanen and (Nathan) MacKinnon. You're going to want to take time and space away from them. They're a team that builds off the rush and can beat you so many different ways. If we're loose, it's going to be a long night, but I think as a group, we know what it takes to do a job, stymie an offense like theirs. It's going to be an exciting challenge. Their power play can zip the puck around pretty good so that'll be another challenge for our group. We're looking forward to it. It's nice to jump in with a team you've always had good, intense battles with and get this thing kicked off the right way."

The formula is pretty simple from a players' standpoint: shut down, or limit the opportunities of MacKinnon, a Hart Trophy finalist, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. The Blues held the trio to two goals and two assists in wins in St. Louis (3-1 Oct. 21 and 5-2 Dec. 16). They combined for six points (two goals, four assists) in a 7-3 win against the Blues Jan. 2 and four more points (two goals, two assists) in a 5-3 win Jan. 18.

"Early on in the season, we had success against them because 1) we stayed out of the penalty box and when we got a penalty, we killed it; 2) we did a good job against their top-end players, MacKinnon being the one guy that I really thought exposed us in the couple games up in Colorado later on in the season," Berube said. "I just think we were too loose on him and gave them opportunities that we didn't need to and he made us pay. Plus, their power play made us pay in those games."

The Blues will face Vegas on Thursday and Dallas on Aug. 9 and those games will determine where those four teams end up. Vegas and Dallas square off on Monday.

"It's more than just the games, it's games for seeding," said Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who played his first game in nine months since dislocating his left shoulder Oct. 24 against Los Angeles that required surgery five days later. "It's not like a friendly game we play with Chicago a couple days ago. If we play a game, we play for a win, whatever game you play. This is what our sport is about. Whoever gets (to their game) first is going to have a chance to win, so we keep it in mind, especially with a chance to repeat this thing. We're going to probably play our best and try to get a win in every game like always.

"... Everything's fine. It's a little weird when you don't play for that long, but we don't play the way we wanted to play. Obviously we lost, but I feel fine and hopefully it's going to be like this in the future."

Berube said the Blues will have their full cast of players (31) to choose from, including defenseman Vince Dunn, who skated again Saturday after missing all but the first two days of training camp before returning to the ice in Edmonton on Monday.

"Vince, he's fine," Berube said. "Obviously he's missed quite a bit of time. He's not where we need him to be or where he wants to be, but he's looked pretty good so far. I think he's getting better and better each day. He's good to do though if we need him and we'll see what happens."