Ryan O'Reilly skated with the St. Louis Blues for the first time in Phase 2 of the NHL Return to Play Plan at their practice facility Monday.
The center said the Blues will have to play to their identity quickly if they hope to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The Blues (42-10-10, .662 points percentage) will play a round-robin against the Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8, .657), Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, .606) and Dallas Stars (37-24-8, .594) to determine Western Conference seeding in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The start date and hub city have not been determined.
"It's going to be unique, for sure," O'Reilly said. "Last year, with our success, we know what a good game for us looks like. We know we have to play our style and be physical and be hard to play against. That's got to be the staple of our game going through this.
"Every team is starting from scratch. Every team that's involved in this right now is looking that they have an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup, so it's going to be one of the toughest stretches of hockey that any of us will ever [play] and the toughest tournament that any of us … it's like nothing else. It's going to be extremely difficult; I think as a group we know that. We know it's going to be completely different from last year. We're not coming in finishing a season playing very well and having momentum. We're all starting at the same point."
Video: O'Reilly speaks to Kerber after Phase 2 skate
The Blues were in last place in the NHL standings on Jan. 3, 2019, before reaching the playoffs and winning their first Stanley Cup championship. O'Reilly won the Conn Smythe Trophy, voted MVP of the 2019 playoffs, after he scored 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 26 games. This season, he led the Blues with 61 points (12 goals, 49 assists) in 71 games before the NHL paused it March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
NHL teams began voluntary workouts on and off the ice at their facilities June 8 as part of Phase 2 of the Return to Play Plan, but the Blues didn't open theirs until June 22, and only a small group of players, including defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and forward Vladimir Tarasenko, skated during the first week.
Pietrangelo said he thinks the time off will benefit St. Louis after its run to the Cup in 2019.
"It's not easy to play as much hockey [as we did last year], especially a guy like (forward) David Perron who played two years in a row going to the Finals (also in 2018 with the Golden Knights)," Pietrangelo told the Blues website in comments published June 24. "I think mentally is just as important because you take a break, recharge the mind, recharge the body and get that excitement to get back again."
The pause has allowed Tarasenko to fully recover from Oct. 29 surgery on his left shoulder.
"I was really close to coming back and playing when the season was delayed, so I got some extra time to recover," Tarasenko said June 22. "Not even recover, extra time practicing and making it more strong. Everything is good."
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Provided health and safety conditions allow and the NHL and NHL Players' Association reach an agreement on Phases 3 and 4, training camps will open July 10.
O'Reilly, whose wife gave birth to their second child in May, said he hopes the Blues get the opportunity to repeat as champions despite the pandemic.
"There's so many things, being away from our families, being confined in small spaces, but I think it's important for our game, the growth of it, to be able to salvage this season and have a winner, not let the whole thing go to waste," O'Reilly said. "But the priority is the safety and the safety of our families, the guys, whether they have kids or young kids, that's definitely the priority. But I think the NHL's doing a good job putting in good practices to help us make sure nothing happens. But there's still a lot of uncertainty."
Video Courtesy of Blue Note Productions