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In a season where lots went wrong, COVID issues hit Blues late

In a season where lots went wrong, COVID issues hit Blues late

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Blues swept from playoffs with 5-2 loss to Colorado

St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington works against the Colorado Avalanche in the second period as the Blues were swept from the playoffs, losing 5-2 on Sunday, May 23, 2021 at Enterprise Center. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

When Jake Walman, Nathan Walker and David Perron all tested positive for COVID during the week of May 9-15, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong thought they’d be false positives.

“Because no one (in the NHL) was getting COVID,” Armstrong said.

At least not at that time. Alas, all three proved to have COVID.

The following week, when Jordan Binnington and Vladimir Tarasenko came up positive, Armstrong expected the worst.

“These two I thought were gonna be positive because that just seemed to be the way our team was going at that point,” Armstrong said.

Wrong again, but this time Armstrong was glad to be wrong because Binnington and Tarasenko got to continue playing in the team’s first-round playoff series against Colorado because of erroneous test results.

Even so, it made for a strange day for Binnington, Tarasenko and the entire Blues team leading into Game 2 on May 19 against the Avalanche.

Over the course of the season, Armstrong said he got daily updates at 4:30-5 a.m. on the previous day’s tests results. On May 19, after getting the news that Binnington and Tarasenko had showed up positive, Armstrong said he talked to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

“And he said that there could be a tainted lab issue,” Armstrong recalled. “Obviously, Vegas I think, had a number of people (show up positive) in management and players. And then the NBA had people, too. So that gave us a glimmer of hope. I talked to the players. We ran a test. We took it right to a lab there in Denver and they were cleared by 1 o’clock.”

But as Armstrong said, it made for a hectic morning and early afternoon. Neither Binnington nor Tarasenko could take part in the morning skate, and the Blues lost 6-3 that night in Game 2 in what was really a one-goal game because the Avs scored a pair of late empty-netters.

“I felt bad for the players because no one wants to wake up and then turn your phone on, and it’s the GM or the trainer: ‘Give me a call ASAP,’” Armstrong said.

“And then their minds start working on, ‘OK, how did I get this? What’s going on?’ And then you try to calm them down. Or not calming them down, but you try and tell them that there could be another false positive and you just work through it. But it was a hectic six hours.”

Perron, Walman and Walker from the week before weren’t as lucky. Even though all three were vaccinated, they all tested positive, an occurrence which is highly unlikely. But not unprecedented.

“The New York Yankees,” Armstrong said.

The Yankees Major League Baseball team had nine vaccinated players test positive.

“It’s not something that quite honestly, I thought was gonna happen (to the Blues),” Armstrong said. “I thought that like everybody else, you follow the news and you see the vaccinated people, and society’s opening up and masks aren’t necessary and people are going to restaurants, and we got hit with it.”

The Blues were a little shocked when Walman showed up positive despite being vaccinated. That took place on the day of the team’s regular-season road finale May 10 in Los Angeles. Imagine how they felt when leading scorer Perron showed up on the COVID list May 15, the day the team left for Denver for Games 1 and 2 of the Colorado series.

“I think it’s the psychological (impact) of losing a player like Perron,” Armstrong said. “And then there’s also that psychological fact of how and why did Walker and Walman get it as vaccinated people? So it plays with our mind a little bit. It plays with our mind a little bit when Vladi and Binner had the tests in Colorado.

“But it is what it is. I guess if I wanted to sit here and find excuses why we didn’t perform to our level, we could. But nobody really cares. You are what you are. You are what your record says you are, and we’re 0-4 (against Colorado).”

So after a season in which they had largely avoided COVID in their ranks, the Blues got hit late. Until then, they had experienced only false positives by Sammy Blais and Zach Sanford that forced each player to miss only one game — Feb. 20 (San Jose) and March 20 (San Jose), respectively — before the false positives were cleared up.

As the season wound down, Armstrong said he thought the Blues reached the 85 percent vaccination rate among their travel party, which was required in order to participate in relaxed COVID protocols for NHL playoff teams. Then again, they weren’t in the playoffs long enough to put them to much use.

During his season-ending Zoom call Tuesday, Perron said he was hoping the league would postpone the start of the Blues-Avalanche series for a few days to give him (and Walman) more time to clear COVID protocols.

Walman cleared protocol in time to play in Game 4 against Colorado. Walker was a “Black Ace” — or roster extra — and wouldn’t have played unless there were a rash of injuries or more COVID cases.

For his part, Armstrong harbored no illusions of the series getting moved back by the NHL.

“They have a business to run,” Armstrong said. “They want this to end on schedule. And we were told if you get a COVID case and it’s not something that runs through your whole organization (there would be no postponements).

“But I think the reality is, you just have to deal with it. I never expected them to push the season back or the playoffs back. So no, I wasn’t surprised or did I expect it.”

As for next season, if there’s one GM hoping for a return to normalcy, it’s Armstrong. Starting with the Edmonton bubble in the 2019-20 playoffs, his team struggled mightily with pandemic pucks.

“This is getting old for everybody right now,” Armstrong said. “Just even watching the Canadian division in the playoffs, knowing what the Bell Centre (in Montreal) would sound like. Or knowing what the old Toronto Gardens, whatever name they’re using now.

“Just not having fans, it’s different. When you see 9,000, 6,000, 12,000 — the energy that it brings. You forget what 18,000 and 20,000 looks like.

“I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I hope that everybody gets vaccinated. I think it’s a smart thing to do. I think it makes our society better. I think we can move on quicker. And once we do that, we’re gonna get back to the things that are normal. This is abnormal and I hope it always stays abnormal. I want to get back to normal.”

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