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As Blues ramp up for playoffs, the first step is 'getting the legs moving'

Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Hockey

With the exception of perhaps Ryan O'Reilly, no one is happier about getting back on the ice this week than Blues coach Craig Berube.

He was quickly bored once the NHL's pandemic "pause" started way back in March, reduced to cooking breakfast for his family, riding a bicycle, and binge-watching "Ozark" at his home near Philadelphia.

Hard to imagine, isn't it? A couple more weeks without hockey and he might have taken up croquet. Or crochet.

Not a pretty picture.

But Berube is back in his element this week at Centene Community Ice Center, beginning the ramp-up to playoff hockey in August. Granted, hockey in August doesn't sound right but Berube doesn't care.

"It just feels good to be back out there," Berube said. "We've been all gearing up for this. We've been dealing with all the uncertainty for quite a while now, so it's just nice to get back out there knowing that we're going forward here with what we're trying to do."

In a normal training camp, you know, one that starts in September, players take a fitness test before they step on the ice for practice. This time around, the fitness test is taking place on the ice during the first week of Phase 3 (training camp) -- the re-start of the 2019-20 season.

Since the March 12 shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the Blues have been in hockey limbo. Kind of half in, half out as they waited to see if hockey would return this season. Sure, they did off-ice work, but some had access to more workout equipment than others. And until late June, when the Blues started trickling into Centene for the Phase 2 voluntary workouts, ice time was more rumor than reality.

But after consulting with his coaching staff and captain Alex Pietrangelo, Berube's plan on how to approach the return to play is now unfolding.

"We do have quite a bit of time until we start," Pietrangelo said. "We'll have like two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks until we play a game."

The Blues' one exhibition game takes place in two weeks -- at 5:30 p.m. July 29 against the Chicago Blackhawks in the hub city of Edmonton. They begin round-robin play in 2 1/2 weeks -- Aug. 2 against the Colorado Avalanche, in another 5:30 p.m. start.

Normally, teams are in training camp for maybe three days before they play an exhibition game. Not so this time around.

"So start slow and kind of ramp it up, and then get into our full-team drills," Pietrangelo said. "But for now, we're just kinda getting that conditioning back up, kind of getting the muscles and the hips and everything back to play in these situations."

With that in mind, Berube's message to the team has been pretty simple.

"He said we gotta get our legs going," forward Ivan Barbashev said.

There has been nothing resembling 5-on-5 work so far at Centene. No systems work. And very little in the way of situational drills.

"Right now, it's a lot of high-paced flow drills that we're doing out there," O'Reilly said. "We haven't had a ton of kinda scrimmage (work) or anything yet. So it's all kind of working on getting the feel and getting the conditioning back. Getting used to the high intensity and having a good pace."

Practices haven't been long, about 45 minutes. The squad has been split into two units, with one group working at 10 a.m. and the other coming out at noon. With only about 16 players on the ice at a time, that means everyone is getting plenty of work.

 

"The first two days we're pretty pleased with everything," Berube said. "I think our guys are working hard, moving pretty well. There's a lot of reps out there with smaller groups, so they get tired pretty quick. But we're keeping practices pretty short. I want up-tempo the whole time to get the conditioning up."

Overall, Berube said the Blues aren't in a bad spot conditioning-wise.

"But it's gotta get better for sure, and it will," he added.

The focus will change next week.

"Definitely we'll do some scrimmaging," Berube said. "I'm not sold on, you know, referees and things like that. But I think controlled scrimmages, situational scrimmages, power play, penalty kill scrimmages will be important here going forward. We're definitely gonna get into some of that."

For now, it's more like Hockey 101: Introduction to skating, shooting, passing. All designed to get the legs working, the hands working, and the timing back.

Because all of this is taking place in July, Barbashev called it a combination of weird and exciting. Weird because this is a time of the year when players normally are on vacation or back home with family and friends in Canada, Sweden, Russia or wherever.

Exciting, because with a tight-knit group like the Blues it's always good to see teammates, especially when gathering to try to win another Stanley Cup.

There was nothing weird, however, about seeing O'Reilly working late after Tuesday's first session. He was the last man off the ice, skating end-to-end sprints.

"Just a test I give myself to kind of gauge where I'm at," O'Reilly said. "Kinda just working on my technique, really trying to lengthen my stride. I'm not really known for my skating ability so I gotta try to work on that as best I can."

Always working.

After Monday's work, Pietrangelo said the team looked pretty good all things considered. But given the fourth-month layoff, is it enough time? Will the Blues' gradual workout have them ready when the time of reckoning comes in August?

"Well, they have to (be ready)," general manager Doug Armstrong said. "It's not something that they're gonna do a straw poll and say let's push this back a few days. I believe our guys are pros. I believe they take great care of themselves. I know that they want to play. I know we'll be ready."

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