Two of the hottest teams in the NHL clash Wednesday when the St. Louis Blues visit the Pittsburgh Penguins, and both clubs could be set to welcome back personnel.
The Blues are 7-1-1 in their past nine games and are coming off a 6-4 victory Saturday at Minnesota in the frigid outdoor Winter Classic.
The surge has raised questions of just how good the Blues might be. The 2019 Stanley Cup champions are wondering as well.
“That’s a tough question,” St. Louis coach Craig Berube said. “We’ve got to just keep working on things and getting better. There’s a lot of hockey to be played. Going into the springtime, you want to be playing your best hockey. That’s still ahead of us.
“We have a lot of good players. We have real good camaraderie on our team. The team’s really doing a good job of putting the team first. That’s a big thing for us, putting the team first. I really like the chemistry of this team. But again, there’s a lot of hockey to be played.”
Forward Vladimir Tarasenko is a believer in the team’s potential.
“Honestly, this team can be pretty good,” he said.
What’s more, St. Louis could have its full roster available for the first time this season. Over the past two games, nine players have become available after being hurt or in COVID-19 protocol.
Forward Brayden Schenn (lower body) came off injured reserve Monday, while defenseman Robert Bortuzzo could be activated from the COVID-19 list in time for Wednesday’s game.
“It’s nice to have guys back,” Tarasenko said.
St. Louis totaled 10 goals in the two victories over Edmonton and Minnesota, with six of them coming from players just back in the lineup.
Pittsburgh, which has won eight consecutive games, isn’t expected be at full strength Wednesday.
Center Evgeni Malkin is close to making his season debut after June knee surgery but probably won’t play against the Blues. Forwards Jeff Carter and Drew O’Connor are in COVID-19 protocol, and winger Jason Zucker is week-to-week because of a lower-body injury.
But the Penguins could be about as close to full strength as they have been in some time.
Winger Kasperi Kapanen and No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry are out of COVID-19 protocol and practiced Tuesday. Jarry, who had “mild symptoms,” according to coach Mike Sullivan, has won each of his last five starts and is among the NHL leaders with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
Jarry’s return seems crucial, as backup Casey DeSmith wasn’t in top form Sunday when the Penguins beat San Jose 8-5. Pittsburgh raced to a 6-1 lead in the first period before the Sharks closed to within a goal in the third.
Like the Blues, Pittsburgh is on a run that could cast a positive light on the balance of the season, particularly with the way the team has handled the absence of several key players.
The team’s depth is especially apparent among the forwards.
“We roll four lines, and we have a next-man-up mentality,” said forward Evan Rodrigues, who is coming off a hat trick Sunday and is the Penguins’ most pleasant surprise this season with a career-high 13 goals.
“I think if everyone does their job and stays confident, we’ll be fine.”
–Field Level Media