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Pietrangelo hoping he passes 9-game test

by Dan Rosen /
His skates were on the ice and he was gliding around, but for a moment Alex Pietrangelo felt that gravity had eluded him.
During his first NHL shift last Friday night, Pietrangelo felt like he was floating.

"It's almost an unreal feeling," Pietrangelo, the St. Louis Blues' 18-year-old defenseman, told "It's tough to put into words."

The dream came true for Pietrangelo in front of 19,150 fans at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Blues coach Andy Murray penciled Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman in the starting lineup for the season-opener against the Nashville Predators. Their shift lasted all of 45 seconds, but Pietrangelo will never forget each one of them.

"You grow up playing and dreaming of that first shift," he said, "and when it happens, you take it all in at once and try to enjoy the moment."

That it happened for Pietrangelo at all this season, let alone in the first minute of the first game of the regular season, is amazing itself.

Pietrangelo entered training camp thinking he could make the Blues' opening night roster, but in reality he was probably eighth or ninth on the depth chart, meaning a return to the OHL and a chance to play for Canada's National Junior Team at the 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa was in his immediate future.

Then, dominos started falling all around him.

Erik Johnson suffered a season-ending knee injury. Andy Wozniewski was assigned to Peoria of the AHL. Jeff Woywitka went on injured reserve with a broken right foot.

All the while, Pietrangelo stayed steady. He was moving the puck. He was playing with speed. He was jumping into the offense. He was playing with poise. Basically, Pietrangelo was doing all the things that made him worthy of the fourth pick this past June.

"I look at him now," Blues President John Davidson told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch late last month, "he looks like he's 23 instead of 18."

Davidson, though, couched his enthusiasm by saying the only way Pietrangelo would make the big club for opening night is if he showed the physical and mental maturity to be rewarded with significant playing time.

"Where would he get the biggest gain?" Davidson rhetorically asked Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch. "Would it be playing with us for some of the games? Or would it be going back to junior, and playing a lot of hockey?"

Pietrangelo has apparently made that an easy decision for the Blues.

Three games into the season, he's averaging 22 shifts and roughly 16:30 of ice time per game. He's a minus-2 with three shots on goal, but he's learning on the fly and he's been one of the early bright spots on a team filled with them.

The Blues, off to a 2-1 start before tonight's game against Dallas, had four players among the League's top 20 in scoring, including leading goal scorer Keith Tkachuk (4), prior to Wednesday night's NHL action.

"My goal going into training camp was to make the team and that's what the coaching staff and everyone was saying should be my goal," Pietrangelo said. "I have accomplished it so far. Now my goal is to play is to play the whole season in St. Louis."

Pietrangelo hasn't settled into his new city just yet - he still lives in a hotel - because the Blues have the option of sending him back to the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL before he plays in his 10th game.

"One step at a time," he said when asked if he's looking for a place to live.

Even though he's on the 9-game tryout Canadian Hockey League players are afforded in the NHL before their contracts count against the salary cap, Pietrangelo said he's focusing on each game with the idea that he'll be around for all 82 of them.

"I think I'm going to play all year, that's the only way I can go about things here," he said. "It is a 9-game tryout. That's the reality of the situation. You can't think about it that way, though. You have to play like you're on the team."

Being lumped in with a group of youngsters, including three other rookies (Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie and Roman Polack) who are 22 or younger, has eased Pietrangelo's transition to the NHL.

Second-year forward David Perron is 20, as are injured defensemen Johnson and Jonas Junland, who is also a rookie.

"It's unbelievable to see the young guys that are here and the bond we created with each other," Pietrangelo said. "(Tuesday) night, six of us went out to dinner together and we we're all under the age of 23. To share that is special."

The Blues believe Pietrangelo is special and that he belongs in St. Louis, but just in case they helped him find his mentor. It's not just a coincidence that Murray paired Pietrangelo with Jackman and the two sit side-by-side in the Blues' dressing room.

Pietrangelo said Jackman, who won the Calder Trophy for 2002-03, has talked to him about carrying himself as an NHL player on a day-to-day basis.

"It's simple things, really," Pietrangelo said. "He's been through it before. He tells me stuff about how to live as an NHL player and how to deal with it."

Pietrangelo, though, doesn't worry that the job will change him. He's on such a high right now that the challenges of being an NHL player haven't hit him yet.

"No, I'm still myself," he said. "I still see myself as a kid, an 18-year-old. I'm just getting paid to do what I love now. Once I have to start paying for a house and my bills it will start to kick in more, but it's the best job in the world and I would trade it for anything."

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