ST. LOUIS — The Blues hit the ice for practice on Monday at the Centene Community Ice Cetnter before jaunting off for a three-game trip through New York, New Jersey and Chicago.
Why is this an eye-catching headline, one might wonder?
It's only a practice. Big deal, right? Well, under normal circumstances it would be, but consider that the Blues practiced in full -- yes, in full -- for the first time in three weeks, running the gamut of drills and systems work.
It hasn't been that way in it seems like forever. In fact, three weeks does seem like forever, but the Blues, 39-17-10 and winners of seven straight -- and who hold the slimmest of margins on the equally hot Colorado Avalanche after the Avs won 2-1 at Detroit on Monday to pull within one point of the Blues -- have played either every other day and on two occasions, played on back-to-back nights in the past 21 days, 11 games in all. That includes the postponed game at Anaheim on Feb. 11 that will be made up March 11 and really hamper next week's schedule (more on that later).
What the Blues are doing is smart, because having played the most amount of games since Jan. 1, 2019 (137 games), load management, as it's called in the circuits, for hockey players doesn't come in the form of games off. It comes in the form of properly managing your days in between games.
That means plenty of rest, properly eating, maintaining an energy level that will continue to drive the bost through a difficult schedule with 16 games remaining in the regular season and vying for the Western Conference top spot before taking a crack at repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
"We've taken necessary days off in between games," said captain Alex Pietrangelo, who leads the Blues in average ice time at 24:08. "Obviously we've got these mandatory days off, but days like today, we practice, but we're short and to the point. We go hard in practice, but we're not overextending ourselves. We know when there's a time to really push and kind of take a break and that comes with Chief understanding having played the game for so long and communicating with me and the other guys maybe who have a better feel of the energy level in the locker room.
"These are all days that we've learned having played so much last year and in the playoffs and having a good routine here finding a way to regroup our energy."
And what the Blues, even on optional skates and morning skates, have done is limited but crisp work. Get on the ice, get the blood flowing, touch the puck, raise the heart rate a bit, rest and go play.
It's a simple strategy, but one that's been effective thus far.
"A lot of it comes from our coaching staff the way they've managed us," said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, who leads forwards in ice time at 20:40 and has played in each of the Blues' games (174) since he arrived last season. "I think they do a good job of sensing when we kind of need to stay away from the rink or not do video or come in and just get a quick skate and that's it. I think they've really done a good job of that, which helps us stay fresh and not overdo it. It starts with them and they do a great job. For myself, it's an exciting time of year. This is kind of what we've been wanting to get down into. We're getting close to the playoffs, so mentally it's exciting."
Really, aside from a five-game winless streak from Feb. 6-15, the Blues haven't had that dip in their schedule like previous defending Cup champs have. In fact, they've reeled off three streaks of seven wins or more in one season as a defending champ for just the second time in league history (1977-78 Montreal Canadiens) and for the first time in Blues history.
"Oh third. Wow, I didn't know that," Blues forward Zach Sanford said. "We've got a good road trip here, let's keep it going.
"I'm sure you've really noticed, we don't practice that much, which is pretty good I think for us, especially this time of year. We're playing almost every other day. I think that's been huge for a lot of us. At home, you've just got to take care of yourself a little better, eat a little healthier and get your rest when you can and stay ready especially with all the travel and stuff and sickness going around now."
Being a former player himself, Blues coach Craig Berube is in constant communication, not with just his coaching staff and management, but the leaders of the team. They'll go over how the players are feeling, what they want/don't want to do, what they feel they can/can't do, what they feel they should/shouldn't do, and it's all gone hand-in-hand.
"The leaders come to me," Berube said. "They come and talk to me if there's some, 'Hey listen, we need some more rest' or whatever, they'll come and talk to me about it.
"I think (the energy's been) pretty good. I thought it was good energy out there today. I think that day off yesterday really helped. Guys are feeling good, I thought the energy was good there today. I think overall, the energy's been pretty good. I don't find that when I talk to guys or when I'm watching, our team looks like they're drained. We find a way to muster up some energy when we need it and I think it's been pretty good."
Of the Blues' 137 games played since the turn to 2019, the Boston Bruins are next closest at 132 games, and that's typically the plight of a defending champion, so the greatest challenge that stares you down is how to properly push and pull back throughout the following grueling 82-game schedule after having already gone through training camp and preseason games three months after the previous season ended.
"Yeah, we have to manage the ice a little bit better, probably early on in the season than most teams," Berube said. "I'd say most teams probably practiced a little more than we did and did different things through the first few months of the season, but this time of year, there's not a lot of practice for anybody. I think most teams, whether they skate on the day of the game or a little bit of ice before, but not a lot of practice going on.
"... I don't think that we overused our players very much this year. I guess there's times where I probably overused Ryan O'Reilly in certain situations where I would have liked not to, but he's an all-situational guy for us with face-offs and penalty kill and stuff, so it's tough. The d-minutes have been spread out and I think the forwards' minutes have been spread out, which is nice."
The Blues have rolled out nearly the same group from last season, minus Joel Edmundson, Pat Maroon and without Vladimir Tarasenko (dislocated left shoulder) throughout all but 10 games this season. It's helped them establish their identity early on and being able to utilize their roster deeply has enabled guys to stay fresh.
Including goalies, the Blues have played 33 different players this season.
"When you keep the same group together, systems are almost second nature to you after a while," Pietrangelo said. "You're not always having to harp on the systems stuff. It's more just the minor details to kind of get your brain firing again, but for the most part, all of us know how to play the game within Chief's systems since we've been here for so long. It makes it a little easier.
"When you have a deep lineup, you can use the people in different situations. Not over-extending guys throughout games and in certain situations, it's nice to have that because come crunch time and in the playoffs when you need certain guys in certain situations, you're going to feel a little more fresh."
One of those fresh, or fresher, faces is defenseman Marco Scandella, who the Blues acquired on Feb. 18 for a pair of draft picks (one conditional) in light of losing defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (cardiac episode) for the rest of the season. Scandella said after getting in his first full practice in nearly the two weeks since he arrived that the Blues are managing them accordingly and with that knowledge, it's no wonder they won it all a season ago.
"I think it's been managed really great by the coaching staff and the organization," Scandella said. "There's been enough time off where guys are still fresh mentally too. I feel that's the most important part. Sometimes it's not physical, it's the mental side of the of the game. Just an example, day off yesterday, practice today. I just feel like this group's a composed, veteran group that has won, understands what it takes to win, so I think everyone's just kind of gearing into that mode for playoffs.
"This time of year, if you can show in the games that you're ready and you're on from the first minute of the game and be sharp, I feel like practices can be more spaced out. But they are especially important. Sometimes I feel like you've got to work on things, get a good sweat. You work on a lot more after practice sometimes than you do during practice doing little stuff. Those all go a long way and I just feel like it's being managed really well here. I feel like everyone's excited to be at the rink. Like today, a day off (Sunday), boom, guys are excited, happy to see each other, go out there with good energy and that was the product, and we had a great practice."
The Blues will have three sets of consecutive days without a game in March, which is good for the stretch run. They were supposed to have four, but next week's schedule, which was supposed to be a game in Chicago Sunday, home against Florida on Tuesday and San Jose on Friday, not will be Florida moved up a day to Monday and include in a back-to-back with Chicago, fly to Anaheim Tuesday, play the Ducks Wednesday, fly back home Thursday and host San Jose Friday.
It's not an easy situation for anyone, but when you're winning as the Blues are, things could be a lot worse.
"It's tough. I've been in situations that have been a lot worse than what we've been through this year," O'Reilly said. "For me, I think that's helped a lot to see how bad things can be and how tough it is to win in this league and actually be a team that's winning. There's so much confidence that mentally, it is a lot easier. But the toughest thing I think is when we lost 'JayBo' there. I think that kind of took a mental toll on everyone and we lost obviously a huge piece to this team as well. That was a few games where I felt it was really weird and it was tough to comprehend everything that happened. That kind of sticks oit in my mind and still very recent.
"I think last year obviously once we got into this time, then I think we started winning and doing well, but I think in general throughout this year, we've had a lot of days off. Practices have always been short, not overdoing it. I think coming off last year, I think that has been a big factor too. And I think just as a group, we've matured in a sense. We know how to flip the switch and it's time to play hockey. It's time to play our game. That comes with winning, that comes with knowing what it takes and how sharp you have to be. There's a lot of trust from the coaching staff in us to be able to do that and that's a good reason why we're successful."
The Blues will play the New York Rangers, who they defeated 5-2 at Enterprise Center on Jan. 11, tonight, then be off Wednesday before practicing Thursday and facing the New Jersey Devils, who the Blues downed 3-0 Feb. 18 to begin this seven-game winning streak, on Friday. They have ice in Chicago Saturday but with back-to-back games Sunday and Monday, rest will likely be on the menu.
"This next month and next stretch is going to be quite a road trip and then we have another one again," O'Reilly said. "It's just being smart, making sure you're eating well and getting the rest you need."
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko did not skate due to illness, but Berube said he should be good to go tonight against the Rangers.
Also, forward Jordan Kyrou, who was out of the lineup in Saturday's 4-3 shootout win over Dallas because of illness, was back on the ice and skating regularly. Berube said he would check with the trainers to see how he is but indicated he's getting back on track to regular duty. In the meantime, Jacob de la Rose, who replaced Kyrou Saturday after being a healthy scratch the previous nine games, played well and skated again with Tyler Bozak and Alexander Steen, indicating he will stick in the lineup.
The Blues signed prospect Tyler Tucker to a three-year, two-way, entry-level contract on Monday.
Tucker, 20, was a seventh-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He split this season between the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts and Flint Firebirds and posted 55 points (17 goals, 38 assists) in 52 games.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound defenseman was named the OHL's player of the week for Feb. 17-23 when he had 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in four games for the Firebirds.
Tucker has spent the past four seasons in the OHL and has 151 points (35 goals, 116 assists) 241 regular-season games. He will continue to play with Flint for the remainder of their 2019-20 season.