ST. LOUIS — T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund will not play for the Blues in Game 1 of their playoff series against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday. But the good news — the really good news — is that forward Vladimir Tarasenko will.
"Originally, it was no-go for the first round, and now you’re seeing a guy playing Game 1, which is really significant," coach Ken Hitchcock said after the team’s morning skate.
Tarasenko’s breakout second season was cut short by a broken hand he suffered on March 15 in Nashville. He had surgery a few days later and was expected to be re-evaluated in six weeks.
At that time Hitchcock was optimistic that the Russian forward, because it was a hand injury, would be able to return in good shape and hit the ground running. Tarasenko, who practiced with the team on Tuesday and Wednesday, has exceeded those expectations.
"Between the training staff and his commitment to conditioning, knowing that the injury that he had would allow him to play right away, he himself deserves a lot of credit," Hitchcock said. "He has worked extra hard to be in the best shape of his life right now, which is going to allow him to keep up at this time of year. I think if he doesn’t put all the extra work in that he’s done — off ice, on ice, everywhere — then I don’t think we would have been able to play him."
The coach said there are no limitations on No. 91 for Game 1.
The Blues need Tarasenko’s scoring touch going into this series against the reigning Stanley Cup champions, especially with Oshie and Berglund out with upper-body injuries.
Tarasenko, who declined to speak with reporters Thursday, accounted for 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) and a plus-minus rating of plus-20 in 64 games this season.
The Blues were 44-13-7 with Tarasenko this season, including a stretch of 7-0-1 in the last eight games he played, and were 8-10-0 without the top-six forward.
In the final 15 games of the regular season, with Tarasenko out, the Blues went 6-9-0.
At the morning skate Thursday, Hitchcock had Tarasenko on the right wing of the second line with center Vladimir Sobotka and left winger Jaden Schwartz.
Hitchcock said expecations for that trio should be tempered by the knowledge that Tarasenko and Sobotka are both coming back from injuries (Sobotka’s being undisclosed).
"We have to be careful and balanced in this thing. Let’s let them get their feet wet," Hitchcock said. "But this line does more off the rush for us than any line we have. … Whether Bergie has been in the middle or whether Sobotka has been in the middle, this line has done damage off the rush all year, and we’re hoping that within a couple periods that they are going to be back up to speed."
NO OSHIE OR BERGLUND
Oshie took the ice Thursday morning but was not playing with any of the Blues’ line combinations.
Kayla and Teryn will be outside Scottrade Center at 5 p.m. Thursday for a Blues fan rally.
Hitchcock said there is "no update" on Oshie’s upper-body injury, which he suffered after taking a hit to the head at Minnesota one week earlier.
Oshie missed the final two games against the Stars and Red Wings, was a full participant at practice Tuesday but then did not practice Wednesday.
After skating Thursday morning, the forward did not go to the locker room or speak with reporters.
Taking Oshie’s spot on the first line Thursday will be veteran forward Steve Ott, who will be making his first playoff appearance since playing for the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals in 2008. Ott will be paired on the first line with David Backes and Alexander Steen.
Berglund, who has 32 points in 78 games this season, suffered an upper-body injury against the Stars in the second-to-last regular-season game. He has not skated or practiced since.
The sixth defenseman spot in the lineup has been a revolving door late in the season with Carlo Colaiacovo, Ian Cole and Jordan Leopold all starting games there.
For Game 1 against the Blackhawks, Leopold gets the call.
"I think in the last two games, Chicago has been able to control us for the first time in our zone and they’ve been able to hem us in a lot," Hitchcock said. "They’ve created a lot of offense from their ability to win puck battles, board battles, one-on-ones. We just felt at this time, we needed a more physical presence back there who can still move the puck well but can play with a physical part of the game, control people.
"One of the reasons we had success early in the series, we spent no time in our zone. In the last two games, Chicago’s done a better job of hemming us in, so we feel Leo to start with can help us exit a little bit quicker."
Leopold, who was acquired in a trade last March and then re-signed to a two-year contract in the offseason, has played in only 27 games this season because of a broken hand, high-ankle sprain and the flu. He played in just three of the Blues’ final 25 games.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.