(Reuters) - The St. Louis Blues were already the team to beat in the NHL’s Western Conference when COVID-19 halted play in March, and the defending Stanley Cup champions have only gotten stronger as veteran sniper Vladimir Tarasenko has returned from injury.
The Russian forward, who has not played since suffering a shoulder injury last October, gives the Blues yet another weapon heading into Sunday when they play the first of three round-robin games to determine their seeding for the playoffs.
“I was really close to coming back playing when the season got delayed, so I got some extra time for recovery and practice to make (my shoulder) more strong,” said Tarasenko, who led St. Louis with 33 goals last season. “Everything is good.”
Tarasenko had 10 points in the 10 games he played during a season in which the Blues have at times looked stronger than they did during their 2019 playoff run when they ended the longest wait -- 52 years -- by an NHL team for their first Stanley Cup championship.
St. Louis will be based in Edmonton for the postseason as the Canadian city will host the Western Conference games along with the Eastern Conference final and Stanley Cup Final. All other games will be held in Toronto.
Among the other favourites to represent the West in the Cup final are the 2018 runner-up Vegas Golden Knights and a Colorado Avalanche team led by centre Nathan MacKinnon, who is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as NHL Most Valuable Player.
The young Avalanche team are comfortable at this stage as this marks their third consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance having lost in the first round in 2018 and the second round in 2019.
“The last couple of years, having young guys on our team get experience in playoffs and, you know, last year winning a round, all of that plays a huge factor in guys knowing what it takes to make a deeper run,” said Avalanche forward Matt Nieto.
“So, yeah, we’ve got a lot of experience now in this locker room and, you know, we’re going to rely heavy on that and the young guys know just as much as us what it’s going to take to get there.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis
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