Look who's back and healthy for the Colorado Avalanche: Pretty much everyone. Ditto for St. Louis, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Blues and Avalanche were navigating through some key injuries before the season was halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The hiatus allowed time to heal and now the top two teams in the Western Conference return as Cup favorites.
The two teams get things rolling Sunday in Edmonton by facing each other to kick off a round-robin tournament to determine seeding in the West.
"We are just scratching the surface on what we can do,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “Having said that, we haven’t accomplished anything, we haven’t done anything, so we still have that chip on our shoulder, and we are still going into this thing to prove to people that we are ready for this. ... It should be a fun ride.”
Back on the ice for the Blues is forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who underwent shoulder surgery in late October. Missing from the lineup, though, will be defenseman Jay Bouwmeester after experiencing a frightening cardiac episode during a game against Anaheim on Feb. 11.
“Looking forward to the playoffs," said Tarasenko, whose team rode the sounds of Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” — played after wins — all the way to the Stanley Cup title more than a year ago. “I'm ready to play.”
Back in action for the Avalanche is a bunch of big names: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert and goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
In all, the Avalanche lost 223 man games to injury this season, including standouts such as Rantanen (28 games missed), rookie defenseman/Calder Trophy finalist Cale Makar (13), Landeskog (16) and Grubauer (20). MacKinnon missed what was Colorado's final game of the halted regular season with a lower-body injury and his status for the postseason, had it started in March, may have been murky.
“We had the injury bug, but everyone’s healthy now. Everyone looks great,” MacKinnon said. "We’re so deep. We have such amazing players. We have no weaknesses.”
Through all the bumps and bruises, MacKinnon helped keep the Avalanche afloat with a 93-point season. He's up for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and the Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding as voted by the players).
The road to the Cup naturally goes through the Blues, who are looking to win back-to-back titles. The last team to do so was Pittsburgh in ’15-16 and ’16-17.
“Obviously, last year gave us a lot of experience from top to bottom in the dressing room," said Jordan Binnington, the goaltender who came up clutch for the Blues last season as a rookie. “Hopefully we can use that going into this year.”
Colorado coach Jared Bednar has a predicament: Go with the experience of Grubauer in net or Pavel Francouz, who had the lower goals-against average.
“That’s a good problem to have,” Bednar said. “We have a lot of confidence and both guys have played real well for us throughout the course of the regular season.”
BABY ON THE WAY
Blues forward Ivan Barbashev is set to become a dad in August. The birth of a child is among the reasons an NHL player can leave the bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. The player will be quarantined upon their return and needs to pass a series of COVID-19 tests.
“I understand it’s really hard for her, to see me going away when the baby is due, but I promised her I’ll be back,” Barbashev said.
A few days ago on social media, Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole announced he and his wife were proud new parents.
“Welcome to the world my little Denver nugget,” he posted on Instagram.
Now, Cole has to leave his family.
“We always knew this could be a possibility. It’s not ideal,” Cole said. “We’re going to have a great opportunity to try and win a Stanley Cup. We’re going to try to take advantage of that. Hopefully, the family will still be there when I get home.”
In June, Blues forward Chris Thorburn announced his retirement after a career that included 801 NHL regular-season games and hoisting last season’s Stanley Cup. The physical forward also played for Buffalo, Pittsburgh and the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets.
Blues All-Star forward Ryan O’Reilly and MacKinnon are both finalists for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, which is awarded for sportsmanship combined with a high standard of playing ability. The other finalist is Auston Matthews of Toronto.
O’Reilly won the award in 2014 when he was a member of the Avalanche.