ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has maintained that the lineup for Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round series Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS, FS-N, ALT) is fluid.
Ramsay: Blues need to start fast
Ramsay played in more than 1,000 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres before going on to coach the Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers. In the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs, he led the Flyers to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final. Ramsay was most recently an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers.
ST. LOUIS -- If the St. Louis Blues are going to forget about their season-ending six-game losing streak and start strong against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS2, CSN-CH, FS-MW), Craig Ramsay said it has to start with the opening faceoff, literally.
Ramsay said the Blues need to get the puck early, get it deep, and get their cycle game going to gain confidence against Chicago.
"It's not just the centerman; it's the two wingers too," Ramsay told NHL.com. "Everyone [on St. Louis] is trying to win the first faceoff so they can get the puck and get it into the Chicago end. If they can do that, one of the things St. Louis is capable of doing very well is running cycles. They can get the puck in deep and they can keep it, and that's what they have to do against Chicago, make them go backwards and make them chase them around in the offensive zone.
"The fear for any team that lost six games in a row after they were supposed to finish first overall is that now you're second-guessing yourselves."
The Blues were outscored 22-5 in their final six games, including 6-0 in the last two, to fall out of the first place in the Central Division and into a first-round series against the defending Stanley Cup champions. They were banged up at the end of the regular season, but should have some lineup reinforcements for Game 1.
Ramsay said healthy bodies will help, but the key still is getting the Blackhawks on their heels early. He said the best thing that can happen to the Blues, other than scoring early, is running through their forward lines within the first few minutes of the game.
"That means 30-second shifts in the offensive zone," he said. "Get the puck, keep it, jam a couple of pucks into the goal crease, get some shots and make Chicago back up and play in their own zone. That's going to give the St. Louis Blues the confidence to say, 'Yes, we are the team that finished ahead. We are the stronger team. We are the more physical team. And we can just go and relax and play our game.'"
If the Blues can do that, Ramsay said it will take the pressure off goalie Ryan Miller, who was acquired in late February to be the final piece of a Stanley Cup championship puzzle, only to struggle down the stretch. Miller was 0-5-0 with an .856 save percentage (18 goals on 125 shots) in his final five starts.
What if the Blues can't get the puck early?
"You just get into your game, because they're a good, strong team without the puck and they're not going to get rattled," Ramsay said. "But the one thing you want to get from your coaching staff is a plan to win, not a plan to not lose. That's something St. Louis has to be careful of because of the finish in the regular season. You're going to go into that game and say, 'OK, our goalie wasn't great, so we're going to protect a little bit, we're going to play a little bit careful and try not to get scored on early.' My point has always been don't think that way; think about how do you get the puck and get it in that end so the Blackhawks play defense."
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After the morning skate Thursday, there is a clearer picture of who will be in to start the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who's missed 15 games after a hand injury sustained against the Nashville Predators on March 15, is in. Tarasenko, who was projected to be re-evaluated in six weeks following surgery March 19, will play with Vladimir Sobotka and Jaden Schwartz.
"There's no limitations," Hitchcock said of Tarasenko, who did not speak to reporters following the morning skate. "He deserves an awful lot of credit. He did the double extra duty to be physically conditioned and ready to play. … Originally, it was no-go for the first round and now you're seeing a guy play Game 1, which is really significant."
Forwards David Backes (foot) and Sobotka (lower body), and defensemen Barret Jackman (upper body) and Alex Pietrangelo (undisclosed), will be in the lineup against the Blackhawks. All four players missed the regular-season finale against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
Right wing T.J. Oshie (upper body) took part in the morning skate but has not received clearance for contact and will not play Thursday. Oshie was the recipient of an illegal hit to the head from Minnesota Wild forward Mike Rupp on April 10 and has not played since, missing the final two regular season games. Center Patrik Berglund (upper body), injured April 11 against the Dallas Stars, has not practiced the past two days and will not play Thursday.
Hitchcock said he had no update on either player.
As for Tarasenko, who scored 21 goals and had 43 points in 64 games, when he played earlier in the season with Sobotka and Schwartz it created a dynamic second scoring unit for the Blues. However, Hitchcock said not to expect too much too soon.
"It was a great line, but we've got to be realistic here," Hitchcock said. "One guy's coming back from long-term injury [Tarasenko], the other guy's coming back from significant injury [Sobotka] so we've got to be careful in balancing this thing. Let's let them get their feet wet, but this line does more off the rush for us than any line we have, and it's done more off the rush all year when it's played together, whether it's [Berglund] in the middle or whether Sobotka's been in the middle."
Here is the Blues' projected lineup: