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BenFred: Blues have the depth and desire to push through injury adversity

BenFred: Blues have the depth and desire to push through injury adversity

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Blues Islanders Hockey

New York Islanders' Ryan Pulock (6) defends St. Louis Blues' Sammy Blais (9) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

The Blues can do this.

It definitely won’t be easy. There is no way it will always be as pretty as Thursday night’s 5-0 thumping of Calgary. But it is possible.

The defending Stanley Cup champions have earned some belief by now. When it comes to any manner that falls beneath the umbrella of want-to, Craig Berube’s Blues check the box. Why would that change now?

They are up against it, though. Already. No denying that. There is no reason to sugarcoat an injury wave that would capsize a weaker team’s season.

Vladimir Tarasenko played 10 games before his shoulder popped, ending his regular season. Alexander Steen played 17 before a high ankle sprain earned him a diagnosis of four weeks off the ice. And then the check of Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak snapped the right wrist of Sammy Blais, who will miss 10 weeks after playing in just 20 games. Add it up, and three of the Blues’ top-12 forwards are going to miss a combined 34-ish weeks this season. And the team is just 23 games into the season.

Steen won’t be back until the first week of December, at the earliest. Blais won’t be back until after you hang up that new calendar a family member is getting you for Christmas. Tarasenko, unless something changes, won’t be back unless the Blues make the postseason, and even that might be too optimistic.

Can the battered Blues play long enough to find out? Of course they can.

That’s what the rest of this calendar year became all about the moment Blais went down. Before the Blues can advance, they are going to have to survive until healthy players begin to return. This will be their biggest challenge since . . . well . . . since last November.

If there was one final homage to the Blues’ championship before all attention focused on the defense of it, it was Pat Maroon’s ring ceremony before the Blues hosted the hometown hero’s new team Tuesday night. The injury to Blais later in that game stirred memories of a different chapter from that team’s story.

Back before the 2018-19 Blues rose like a phoenix, they were dropping like flies. Do you remember? During this same month one year ago, Maroon missed four games due to an upper body injury. Jaden Schwartz missed 11 games with an injured wrist and finger. Brayden Schenn missed four games. Steen missed six. Robert Bortuzzo missed 16. Carl Gunnarsson missed 19.

A season that turned out to be, on the whole, a rather healthy one for the team looked like it could derail entirely during that November. The Blues did not play well then. They lost eight of their 14 games. But they did survive. Barely. They played .500 hockey the following month. They bloomed in January. You know how it ended.

We promised not to overreact in November ever again. And here some of us go again.

To be fair to the dramatic, this season’s injuries are more alarming than last season’s injuries. Tarasenko’s goal scoring can’t be replaced. Steen’s veteran leadership has value beyond his plus-minus. Losing Blais was a knee-buckler.

Blais’ 70 hits led the team, by 20. Did you realize only seven players in the NHL had more hits so far this season? Not bad for a guy who was averaging 13 1/2 minutes per game. His five goals were third most among the team’s forwards, and all of those came at even strength, where the Blues have been hurting for goals — at least when they are not playing Calgary. On top of it all, Blais blended. He made teammates better, no matter the line. Now another straw must stir the drink.

Things could be better. They could be way worse. Example: Calgary.

The Blues entered Thursday’s game against the fading, injury-ravaged Flames leading their division. They are a top-10 team in power play percentage (23.6 percent, seventh); face-off win percentage (52.2 percent, fifth), shots on goal allowed per game (29.7, sixth); and average goals allowed per game (2.73, seventh). They are at least tied for the league lead in grit, as evidenced by their 9-0-5 record in one-goal games.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo is playing his best hockey in a Blues uniform. Schenn and David Perron are both double-digit goal-scorers. Jordan Binnington has the league’s fourth-best save percentage among any goalie with more than 15 starts. Robert Thomas at center has cheat-code potential with better no-look passes than Patrick Mahomes.

The Blues have healthy and experienced players who can do more. Ryan O’Reilly has not yet scored a goal in a home game. New addition Justin Faulk is still settling in. Colton Parayko has scored just once. Thursday reminded what Oskar Sundqvist and Zach Sanford can do.

Around the edges, opportunity abounds. How the Blues hold their ground could hinge on the fringe. Veteran Troy Brouwer, 34, is going to get a chance to carve out a niche. Klim Kostin, 20, is getting his chance. Jordan Kyrou, 21, is doing everything he can to decrease his time in San Antonio. If Tarasenko does miss the rest of the regular season, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has some salary cap wiggle room to work with. He wants to see what comes from this pool first. The strength of the Blues last season was their depth. Nothing creates it like being thrown into the deep end.

A team that sharpened that depth into a champion’s most dangerous weapon last season is being forced to forge some more of it now.

We should know enough by now to assume what Berube’s Blues can’t do.

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