It was a productive season opener Wednesday night for the St. Louis Blues, but they didn’t have long to celebrate a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues flew home and began preparations for their 50th anniversary home opener Thursday at Scottrade Center against the Minnesota Wild. The Blues entered the NHL as an expansion franchise in 1967.
Russian forward Nail Yakupov, the former first overall obtained a week ago in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers, made his Blues debut Wednesday night and made it even better by scoring his first goal in front of his new home crowd.
The 23-year-old Yakupov didn’t have a point Wednesday while skating on a line with Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin, but flashed some of his trademark speed and skill at times.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“I try to not feel any pressure,” said Yakupov, excited to be trying out Scottrade Center for the first time as a home rink. “It’s a great building, it’s a really big building and the fans love their hockey here. When I play against the Blues (before) it was really hard to play against them. The fans are awesome here and I think they’re really excited for the first game.
“It should be easier for us to play in our building with our fans, they’ve just got to get us going.”
In 253 NHL games, Yakupov has 50 goals and 111 points. Is it tough joining a new team just days before the regular season begins, having to absorb a different system under Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and work with different players and coaches?
“It’s not that hard like you guys maybe think,” he said. “Pretty much all 30 teams play kind of the same system. After you lose the puck you want to get it back, right, as quick as possible. It’s all about the little details that Hitch and his staff have been talking about with me.
“I probably won’t remember everything in one day, but I think I’m getting there. It’s not that hard. It’s a big deal, but I’m going to be focusing on it and I’m going to listen to coach for sure.”
Hitchcock had mostly praise for his newest forward.
“Much better defensively than I thought,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got great outside speed. What I liked more than anything was his conscience. His conscience was there. We’re not trying to overwhelm him by having him do a bunch of things. We’re just going to keep it five on five for the first week to 10 days and see how much he can absorb there.”
Yakupov’s speed and skill definitely caught Hitchcock’s attention.
“He created three chances,” Hitchcock said. “He’s dynamic with outside speed and I think if we can find a combination in that line we can have a good line there.”
Yakupov already had at least one friend in the Blues dressing room in star forward Vladimir Tarasenko.
“We’re good friends,” Yakupov said. “We’d always see each other when we played against each other, go for dinner and hang out for a bit. We’d always have a good conversation going. I remember him since when he played in the World Juniors and I know his agent really well.
“I think we can be really good friends. He’s a real good guy and absolutely he’s one of the great players in the league, so it’s good to be with him.”
Blues lineup changes
Veteran Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson was back in the lineup Thursday, a day after being a healthy scratch for the first time with St. Louis. Gunnarsson will replace Robert Bortuzzo on defense.
“It’s no fun to be up top (watching), but I’ll get the chance here tonight so it’s going to be fun, especially being at home,” said Gunnarsson, now in his third season with the Blues. “It was a good start. As boring as it is watching from up top, I’m happy for the guys. They had a good game and I think they executed. Good game, good start.”
Gunnarsson was not happy and a bit surprised to be out of the lineup.
“Yeah, the way it’s been going the last few weeks in practice and all that and how the lineup’s been, yeah, I was a little surprised,” he said, “but you’ve got to deal with that and I get my shot here.”
Hitchcock hopes to be settled on a six-man defensive rotation soon.
“We’ll make a decision on Saturday and we’ll stay pretty firm on that decision,” he said. “We’re going to give everybody a chance, make a couple, three changes today. We’ll give everybody a chance in the first three games, but when we settle in, we’re going to settle in.”
Hitchcock said a strong training camp got Bortuzzo the nod over Gunnarsson in the opener.
“Bortuzzo earned the right to start the season,” Hitchcock said. “He came in as the seventh (defenseman), earned the right through his play in exhibition. (We) wanted to give him a little reward and get him in Game 1.”
After playing in the season opener against Chicago, Jaskin was replaced by speedy forward Magnus Paajarvi.
Hitchcock gave most of his regulars the morning off as a handful of players skated during an optional workout. What’s the key to bouncing back for the home opener just a few hours after playing your season opener?
“Can you control your emotion and not waste it or spend it during the whole day,” Hitchcock said. “Maybe playing back-to-back is a good, because we only had half our hockey club here in the morning. The rest of the guys are resting at home. It’s come in and play the game and not get too wound up and waste any energy wasting the day away.
“I think that’s sometimes what happens. It’s a pretty exciting time for people, there’s a lot of energy in and around the city, the building, the atmosphere. Smetimes you can get whipped up and waste a lot of it before you get going again, so I think being able to stay away (is good). A lot of our key players weren’t here this morning, a lot of them stayed away and rested, so hopefully we play well again.”
The Blues held the Blackhawks to only 19 shots in the opener, the first time they had held the ‘Hawks below 20 shots at the United Center since Feb 25, 2007 (17 shots). Blues goalie Jake Allen stopped 17 of 19 shots.
Blues assistant coach and head coach in waiting Mike Yeo was facing his old team. Yeo coached the Wild for five-plus seasons before being dismissed last season.
Yeo guided the Wild to three consecutive playoff berths from 2013-15, including a first-round win over the Blues in 2015.