WICHITA, Kan. – Blues hockey is back, in south-central Kansas of all people.
With a very young team on the ice, the Blues defeated the Arizona Coyotes 5-4 Saturday at INTRUST Arena.
Thirteen of the Blues‘ 20 players in their preseason opener were in minor or junior hockey at the end of last season. But with eight exhibition games this year more than usual, Saturday night was a time to watch prospects and veterans trying to squeeze their way onto a roster that’s pretty well primed to enter camp.
Two players who appear to be vying for third-row spots up front, Jake Neighbors and Logan Brown, scored two goals apiece, with Brown scoring the winner with 4:10 left in the game.
Look who’s back
For the first time since Nazem Kadri crashed into Jordan Binnington in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals last May, resulting in a series-ending knee injury, the Blues goaltender was back in the game. the game. Binnington took the start on Saturday, much to the delight of the crowd at INTRUST.
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He only played in the first period, stopping seven of the Coyotes’ eight shots. Arizona’s goal came on the power play, with Blues prospect Landon Sim missing for hanging. Nick Ritchie scored a backdoor for the Coyotes on a pass from Barrett Hayton with 4:51 left in the period.
Joel Hofer took over in the second period and finished the game; he is expected to be the No. 1 goaltender this season for the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League.
Getting the start for Arizona in goal was a (somewhat) familiar name to Blues fans – Jon Gillies. With Binnington sidelined with COVID and Ville Husso injured, Gillies started a game Dec. 12 against Anaheim last season. The Blues lost 3-2 in overtime, but Gillies at least earned the Blues a point.
Three days later, Binnington returned from the COVID roster and Gillies was traded to New Jersey for “future considerations.” He’s now with Arizona on a two-way deal.
Fastest shot in Wichita (or anywhere)
The Blues signed striker Martin Frk on July 15 to add organizational depth and compete for a place at the ‘big club’. A native of the Czech Republic, Frk was a second-round draft pick from Detroit in 2012, which never really made its way to the NHL.
He played 124 games for Carolina, Detroit and Los Angeles over the years, scoring a career-high 11 goals for the Red Wings in 2017-18. But all told, he only has 20 career NHL goals. After scoring 40 goals last season for Ontario’s AHL reign, the Blues thought they’d give him a chance.
And it’s a hit – by Frk, that is. At the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic, Frk won the toughest shooting contest with a slap shot at 109.2 miles per hour — the fastest ever in hockey.
Frk threw a few rockets in the second period on Saturday, which caused oohs and ahs from the crowd at INTRUST.
The first of the two was tipped by Neighbors on the power play early in the period. The Blues signed Frk to a two-way deal, but he gets $500,000 if he ends up in the minors, which is a ton for an AHL player.
Big Events in Wichita
Wichita pulled out all the stops — or at least most of them — for what was not just Wichita’s first NHL game, but Kansas State’s first. Already.
And it was a festive atmosphere. A good crowd, with fans wearing NHL jerseys from the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. … And of course, all kinds of Les Bleus jerseys.
Arizona, unable to play preseason games at home while its new building in Tempe is under construction, was technically the home team on Saturday. But that was just the name. As former “The Voice” runner-up Chris Mann finished the national anthem, it was the “Land of the Free and Home of the Bluuues!”
When the starting lineups were presented before the game, the loudest cheers were heard – of course – when Binnington was announced as the starting goaltender.
And it wasn’t too long into the opening period before the first chants of “Let’s go Blues!” have been heard.
The signs along the ice level were filled with advertisements purchased just for this game. Ads for the two Zambonis were also purchased for Saturday’s game only.
Things we noticed
The pace was fast, too fast for some players – Blues and Coyotes alike – who skated the puck too much or made hasty passes.
Blues prospect Keean Washkurak is small but fast and fiery.
Zachary Bolduc, who scored 63 goals last year among juniors, was relatively calm during the first two periods but perked up in the third.