ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Blues are getting closer to the lineup that set a franchise record for victories and challenged for first place overall, instead of the patchwork roster that lost six in a row to finish the regular season.
Just in time, too. Game 1 of their NHL playoff series against Chicago is Thursday night.
“The cavalry’s coming,” said forward Brenden Morrow, who participated in an optional skate Tuesday along with top-line forward T.J. Oshie. “This old body needs to get warmed up, so I couldn’t just jump in and get into a game after the time off I’ve had.”
Oshie skated for the first time since taking a shoulder to the face from Minnesota’s Brian Rupp on Thursday night, a hit that resulted in a four-game suspension for Rupp and prompted initial fear of a concussion.
“I’m just moving forward as quickly as I can, without hurting myself in the long run or hurting my team in the long run,” Oshie said. “It’s the doctor’s decision first. I think they already know what my decision is.”
It also looks as if the Blackhawks’ two biggest stars also will be ready to go after injuries. Forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews practiced on Tuesday in an encouraging sign for the defending the Stanley Cup champions.
Kane hurt his left knee in a collision with Morrow in mid-March, and then Toews went down with an upper-body injury late last month.
“Every time I’m on the ice. I feel like it gets better and better,” Kane said. “I think it’s just something you have to get used to a little bit, and at the same time you feel what your limitations are and what you can do.
“Right now I don’t feel too many, so it’s exciting.”
Three other Blues regulars were out on Tuesday—captain David Backes (foot), and forwards Patrik Berglund (upper body) and Vladimir Sobotka (lower body). Vladimir Tarasenko, who has game-changing skills and speed, practiced but hasn’t been cleared from a broken right thumb that sidelined him the final 15 games.
Tarasenko is scheduled to meet with doctors Wednesday and figures to be ready from a conditioning standpoint whenever he gets cleared.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said the true test is a full-go practice on Wednesday, a day ahead of the playoff opener. He remained confident they’ll be at full strength at some point during the series.
Hitchcock hedged on Backes’ chances of practicing Wednesday, saying “maybe” and “we’ll see,” and wasn’t ruling anybody out for Game 1.
“Our roster’s really fluid right now,” Hitchcock added. “We’re not as set, say, as Chicago is. They’ve been sitting on this thing for a month now.
“They’ve been gliding around for a month now, sitting out guys, resting guys.”
All the Blackhawks practiced Tuesday, and they’re preparing for a full St. Louis roster.
“I think we’re in the right place,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think we’ve waited a long time to begin. Right now, it’s about us.”
Of course, everyone wants to play.
“I think just the excitement is going to bring more energy from both teams,” said Chicago forward Bryan Bickell, who missed time during the end of the regular season. “I’m sure those first couple of shifts or first couple periods you don’t feel pain because you’re just so excited to be out there.”
Hitchcock wants more than an adrenaline rush. He values Morrow’s veteran leadership, but only if he can keep up.
“All the voices in the world, if you can’t back it up with your play, either through health or just age, don’t do you a bit of good,” Hitchcock said.
Though he felt healthier, Morrow admitted he needed to pick it up.
“It looked like I had a few days off, which I did,” Morrow said. “I’ve got to knock the rust off and hopefully be ready on Thursday.”
The Blues were contending for the Presidents’ Trophy before the late-season swoon and finished second in the Central Division. The Blackhawks were third in the Central, and lost six of their last 11—the last two by a combined score of 11-5.
The Blues won the regular-season series 3-2. This is the first time the longtime rivals have met in the playoffs since 2002.
Quenneville expects a physical test from St. Louis, a team that relies on high intensity. Hitchcock said there’s no way the Blues can intimidate the Stanley Cup champs.
“Everybody else can pretend they know what it takes, but they know,” Hitchcock said. “You’re going to get their ‘A’ game.”