Much like the first meeting against his former team in late January, Alex Pietrangelo is ready to rip off the band aid.
So long as he remembers to go to the correct locker room.
“Training camp, they used to shove me [in the visitor’s locker room] every once in a while,” Pietrangelo said. “A little different, right? I didn’t know where to go this morning. Obviously an exciting game for me. I didn’t get to come last time, but business as usual for us out there.”
Monday will mark the fifth meeting this season between the Golden Knights and Blues, but only the second with Pietrangelo in the fold. The defenseman, who signed a seven-year deal with Vegas last October after playing his first 12 seasons in St. Louis, had an assist in 28:57 on Jan. 26 in his first game against the Blues — a 5-4 shootout loss.
The next day, Pietrangelo and three Golden Knights coaches entered COVID-19 protocol. Pietrangelo missed the full two weeks, tacking on what was a struggling start for Vegas’ prized free agent acquisition; he had four points through his first seven games, but eye-test wise, did not look like the Norris Trophy candidate he came in advertised.
Pietrangelo rounded into form returning from COVID during the Golden Knights’ six-game winning streak from Feb. 22 - March 6, averaging near a point-per-game in that stretch. Then Pietrangelo injured his arm March 6 at San Jose, keeping him out for more than three weeks. That ended what Pietrangelo, and coach Pete DeBoer, said was his best stint of hockey since joining Vegas.
This season hasn’t been unusual with many players missing time due to COVID and injuries, but it’d be understandable if Pietrangelo wasn’t the least bit frustrated. He’s been one of the game’s iron men for the past decade, missing only 34 games since his first full season in 2010-11. He missed 12 alone with that arm injury.
“Not ideal obviously, not the way I drew it up,” Pietrangelo said. “But I think where we are, as a team, we’ve put ourselves in a good spot in the standings. I think the last couple games, as I’ve come back, I’ve felt good. Continue to build here. We’ve got 20 games left until the playoffs. It’s important to stay positive because we’ve put ourselves in a good position here, it’s just a matter of building at the right time.”
The Golden Knights went 8-4-0 in Pietrangelo’s absence to keep them near the top of the top-heavy West Division. Now with their $61.6 million defenseman back in the fold, the Golden Knights face their own collective adversity; a three-game losing streak and looking up at the first-place Colorado Avalanche, who lead Vegas by four points.
Meanwhile, the Blues are on the outside looking in of the playoff picture, sitting fifth in the West and 2-7-1 in their last 10. They’re on the cusp of falling behind the Sharks, who are tied with St. Louis at 38 points.
Not only will emotions run high with their former captain’s return, but the Blues are suddenly in must-win territory for this two-game set against Vegas.
“Boy, I’m sure it’s emotional,” DeBoer said. “For him, it’s just getting through it, try not to overthink it or do too much. It’s nice he’s already had one game against his former team, so he’s got that behind him. This is, for sure, a special and different experience.”
The Golden Knights are trying to get to where Pietrangelo has been. Vegas signed Pietrangelo thinking he was the missing piece to its Stanley Cup puzzle, and it’s a bumpy road to get there with 20 games in 34 days remaining on the calendar.
But for one night, Pietrangelo returns to the city where he had his greatest triumph as a player. Much like he said back in January, the Golden Knights face the Blues eight times this year and the time was going to come eventually. The time is here, and the Golden Knights could benefit from having the Pietrangelo of St. Louis begin to emerge.
“When you get to this point of the season, it’s crunch time for everybody,” Pietrangelo said. “This year, every team’s got a chance to make the playoffs and move around the standings, the way the divisions are. Focus for me hasn’t been that hard; it’s been get ready for tonight. These are important games for us. We haven’t won in the last couple games, so we’ve got to change our focus here and make sure we get ready regardless of who we play against.”