EDMONTON, AB — The Blues have been in the Edmonton bubble for 17 days and have yet to face a playoff opponent.
Well, technically they have, three of them to be exact, but not in a series format. One was an exhibition to go with three round-robin games. But when the Blues and Vancouver Canucks drop the puck for Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series on Wednesday (9:30 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM), it will be for keeps from here on out as the Blues get set to defend their Stanley Cup.
No more one-and-done games. Now the focus is on one singular opponent, and while it appeared it didn't affect some of the round-robin teams, and for some it didn't, it seemed to affect the Blues, who now know it's for real.
"David (Perron) was just saying before we came down, I think we're past the hard part," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "It feels like it's been forever. It's not easy mentally, but once the games get going, we'll be a little bit better. Minds will be really dialed in here. We've had a lot of down time in this qualifying time here. They gave us probably a little bit too much time to sit around. I think we're excited to finally get this going and get on schedule."
"It was weird that those games were basically ... the stats and all that stuff was counting towards playoff games," Perron said. "After the games, we obviously didn't play the way we'd like in most of them. I always felt like I wanted to play these guys again the next day basically and that's how it's going to go with Vancouver, so yeah, it's nice to know who we're going to play. I think for us as a team, it's all about us. It doesn't really matter who we were going to play in the first round. Right now, we're going to focus on them.
"I just want to see what our game is like and I think playing against the same opponent, we're going to be able to come back after each and every game, make adjustments, talk about what we can do better and from there, we're going to keep getting better every game. I think any team in this league, it's going to be tough to win four games against us."
No more game, then practice for three or four days, live the bubble life and then play again. This becomes game, off day, game, perhaps a back-to-back, and off day. But players better be ready to buckle up and raise their level of play from what's been on display in the previous four games, all losses.
"I'm hoping. I think our level should be high," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I think our guys understand that this is what it's all about here now. But at the same time, there's things I saw in the round-robin that I was not happy with. Our execution's got to be a lot better. You can't just turn that on whenever you feel like it. There could be some things that we have to work out here going forward, but I think our guys understand how you play in the playoffs, what you have to do to win, so that's a good sign, I think, for us, but it's going to be an intense hockey game. Vancouver's a good team and they're going to come at us with everything, so we're going to have to be ready."
* Blues banking on experinced D -- The Canucks have some very skilled, and young forwards, that like to push the envelope when it comes to offense.
Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser to name a couple. They like to play in the offensive zone off the rush, and they can do it quite well.
But this is new territory for some of these young Canucks, including Calder Trophy candidate, defenseman Quinn Hughes, and the Blues have a been-there, done-that defensive group that know what the war of attrition means in winning playoff series.
Aside from Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella, this is the same group that won the battles for two months and ultimately led to a Stanley Cup.
And it should be an area where the Blues have to believe their experience will be a big factor.
"Yeah, we definitely don't want to underestimate them. They're a great team, but from our experience, I think that definitely helps, the different situations we've been in. A lot of Game 7's," defenseman Vince Dunn said. "Even throughout last season, a lot of times where we went on losing streaks, adversity like that we've been through can really help us moving into the playoffs and can help us adapt to any situation that we may come by. I think just the experience we all have, the leadership that we have in our group from players to coaches, I think that can definitely help us moving into the playoffs."
Faulk and Scandella replace Joel Edmundson and Jay Bouwmeester from last year's Cup-winning group, but as Pietrangelo points out, these aren't two skaters making their playoff debuts.
"I know 'Faulker' and 'Scanny' weren't here last year, but they've played long enough and they've played meaningful playoff games, so they know what it's all about," Pietrangelo said. "If you look at the success we've had on the back end this year during the regular season, that's a prime example of it. Not too worried about our guys in the back end. We've been around long enough that we know how to play in these situations."
And that's what Berube will be counting on, what he calls the backbone of his squad.
"That's the strong part of our team for sure is our back end," Berube said. "It's very experienced with veteran players and guys have been around for a while and played in playoff games. All of them have. We rely on those guys a lot. That's kind of the backbone of our team, I believe, is our defense on I'd say both sides of the puck. Our defense score, our defense create offense, but they defend. We need them to be solid for sure. We need them to do the right things in our end, breaking pucks out, playing good defense, but also we need them to get the puck up the ice and get opportunities in the offensive zone."
* Blais status uncertain -- Forward Sammy Blais is uncertain and probably unlikely to play in Game 1 on Wednesday.
Blais was injured in the second period of Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Dallas Stars when he checked Andrej Sekera along the boards by the Blues bench and fell over a bit awkwardly, injuring his right knee or ankle.
"He tried. He went out on his own early for a little bit (before practice). Still not ready," Berube said. "Tomorrow, he's going to try again and that's kind of where he's at. He's day-to-day right now I would say. Hopefully tomorrow he feels even better. He had a lot of improvement coming into today, so he wanted to try it, but he's still not ready so we'll see tomorrow."
Barbashev a father
The Blues announced Tuesday that forward Ivan Barbashev, who left the bubble last week, and wife Ksenia, welcomed the couple's first child, a boy.
Daniil Barbashev was born Monday evening and all appears well with mother and child.
Berube said the initial plan is for Barbashev to rejoin the team on Friday, but he will have to quarantine for four days and take four straight negative COVID-19 tests before rejoining his teammates on the ice.
"I think that the plan is he's coming back on the 14th, I believe, but I'm not going to sit here and say that's for sure," Berube said. "He just had a child with his wife. We'll see what happens, but that's the plan right now."
If Barbashev begins testing on the 14th, he would eligible to rejoin the players on ice on the 18th, and the Blues and Canucks will have played four games of this series by then.
Scouting the Canucks
Vancouver, which came into the Qualifiers as the No. 7 seed, dismissed the 10th-seeded Minnesota Wild in four games and have won all three previous playoff matchups against the Blues in the series history.
But they haven't met since the 2009 first round when the Canucks swept the Blues. The previous two series (1995 and 2003) went seven games.
"I think we know that after playing a series like they did and winning that, they're going to be coming in very excited and feeling good," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "For us, we've got to bring the attention to our game and our details. We have to establish our physicality right away, we've got to show them that this is going to be a hard series and they're going to have to earn everything. It's just focusing on all those little details and playing to our identity.
"You see that series how hard both teams played. You saw how physical they were, you saw their speed. I think that helps us obviously be able to see their tendencies and prepare for them. It's definitely an advantage being in the situation to be able to see that, but we're putting in the time and doing the right things. ... They're a very good team. They don't have much of a weakness in any area. We know it's going to be an extremely difficult series to win. Throughout the regular season, they played us very well. It's good to know nothing's going to come easy. We have to earn this and it's going to be extremely difficult."
J.T. Miller led the Canucks in points (72) and was tied with Pettersson with 27 goals and tied with Hughes in assists with 45. Pettersson had 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) on the season, Horvat (22 goals, 21 assists), Tanner Pearson (21 goals, 24 assists), Boeser (16 goals, 29 assists) and Hughes (eight goals, 45 assists) are dangerous.
"I think they're just very deep top to bottom," Dunn said. "They're a very offensively skilled team. They have 'D' that are very mobile and very active in the play. They have great goaltending too, so from top to bottom, they're elite both defensively and offensively. At any point and time, we can't take our foot off the gas. For me, just playing them very tight, having a defensive mind out there. We know that they have guys that can score goals and guys that they're hoping can shut our guys down. I think just keeping ourselves at the top of our game at all times, that will give ourselves the best chance."
And Tyler Toffoli, a Feb. 17 trade acquisition for Vancouver who had 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 10 games for the Canucks, will not play Game 1 and is unfit to play with a lower-body injury.
"(They have) speed for sure," Berube said of the Canucks. "Pettersson and Horvat and Boeser, they've got a bunch of guys, more than that. They've got great speed on their team and with Hughes on the back end, he's a real dynamic player advancing that puck up the ice, getting it up the ice and doing some real special things in the offensive zone, at the blue line. He's one of the best in the league back there doing some stuff on the offensive blue line and their goaltending's been real strong. We've had both goalies play against us and both played extremely well. They're a pretty well-balanced team."
The Blues were 1-1-1 against the Canucks this season, but that was months ago
The Blues are simply looking to flip the switch after going winless in the exhibition and round-robin.
"Our group in general has been pretty good about forgetting things and moving on. I think if you look last year during the season and last year during the playoffs, we bounced back fairly well. It would have been nice to win all three games and play better, but I've said it before, this team, we're gamers and when the game's on the line in big situations, we all want to be out there. I think we're all just excited to get this thing going. We knew that we were going to be in the playoffs. To sit around and wait, obviously we wanted to build and play better, but I think to be able to flip that switch, I think if there's a group that can do it, I think it's going to be us."