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Rocky Mountain High: With opener in mind, Blues get acclimated to altitude

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Blues players stretching after Tuesday's practice in Vail.

VAIL, Colo. – Vail, Vail, the gang’s all here.

With the opening-day roster set, and the regular-season opener in sight Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche, the Blues couldn’t wait to hit the ice Tuesday.

“It’s like Christmas Eve,” defenseman Torey Krug said. “You’re excited for that first game. All the work you’ve put in throughout the summer leads up to this point. And you feel like you’ve put yourself in a position to succeed as an individual and as a team. So we’re all itching to get going here.”

To illustrate that point, the first players started trickling out on the ice at John A. Dobson Ice Arena a full 45 minutes before the scheduled 11 a.m. (Mountain time) start. The full roster was out there and fully warmed up maybe 15 minutes before the hour, so coach Craig Berube had no choice but to start practice early.

Berube did not run lines. Instead there were drills and plenty of special teams work. Granted, Berube wants the power play and penalty kill units to get off to a good start, which was not the case last season.

(Remember the five power-play goals allowed in the second game of last season in Colorado? Of course you do.)

“Obviously, they help you win and help you lose games,” Krug said. “We don’t want to start off like we did last year as a power-play unit. We got ourselves in a hole. We were lucky to climb out it

“On the flip side of it, same thing with PK. We got off to a bad start and it was just too tough to climb out of that hole. ... It’s slim margins out there. And we gotta get off on the right foot.”

But there was more to the special teams work than met the eye.

“The first day up here, with the altitude, you don’t want to exert our guys too much,” Berube said. “We’re up here pretty high. So I wanted to do more of structured day with special teams and not a lot of skating.”

Vail sits 8,150 feet above sea level; the Blues will open the season at an altitude of 5,280 — give or take a few feet — against the Avalanche. So there’s something to be said for coming out West early and having a few days to get acclimated.

“Just walking over to the rink, it’s tough to breathe,” Krug said. “But hopefully, just getting acclimated here will help us when we head down to Denver. It is tough, that’s for sure. Even guys out on the ice just talking, it catches up with you. ...”

It’s a walk of about two-thirds of a mile from the team hotel to the rink.

Tuesday’s practice ended with a little fun — a shootout/breakaway contest. Each player got a breakaway attempt at both goalies in one sequence: Ville Husso at one end and Jordan Binnington at the other.

Those skaters who didn’t score on either of their two attempts were relegated to the bench. If you scored, you stayed on the ice. After the first round, about half of the team was eliminated.

In the second round, each shooter got only one attempt. And the only man left standing after Round 2 was David Perron.

It should be noted that there was a surprise participant in Round 1 — the head coach. To hoots and hollers from the players, Berube first attempt was stopped by Husso. At least he made Husso work a little to make the save.

On Berube’s second attempt, Binnington didn’t have to do much at all. There wasn’t much dipsy, doodle or dangle from the 55-year-old Berube.

“I was just hoping I didn’t fall down,” said Berube, who then kind of blamed his skates. “I don’t feel too sturdy on them.”

The reviews from the players were diplomatic.

“Looked good,” Krug said. “I think just a little bit of bad luck not scoring.”

“He wasn’t known for scoring goals,” center Brayden Schenn said.

Berube compiled 61 goals in 1,054 regular-season games as a player, with a career high of eight for the Philadelphia Flyers during the 1990-91 campaign.

Following Tuesday’s practice, the Blues don’t hit the ice again until Thursday. They are off on Wednesday and will be out and about in the Vail area, at least as much as the weather permits in terms of any outdoor activities.

“We were supposed to golf today,” Schenn said after Tuesday’s practice. “But by the looks of it, I think it’s supposed to be snowing today.”

There were, in fact, snow showers in the early afternoon with temperatures in the low 40s.

“We have a certain amount of golfers on our team,” Schenn said. “We gotta take everyone into consideration. Some guys don’t enjoy golf that much. If it’s gonna be cold and snowy, I don’t think we want to put guys in that situation.”

Schenn said there is more golf scheduled Wednesday, plus some activities for non-golfers.

“Justin Faulk’s the big fisherman on our team,” Schenn said. “So he lined up some fly fishing. I think there’s a few guys that have done it. So if on your day off ... you want to go out and fish, I hope you’re not freezing.”

Sounds like Schenn won’t be fishing.

Jim Thomas

@jthom1 on Twitter

jthomas@post-dispatch.com

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