Blues’ Robert Thomas returns for potential series-winning Game 6

Forward Robert Thomas is ready to return to the St. Louis Blues’ lineup for a potential Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 against the Boston Bruins on Sunday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET).

Thomas has missed the past four games of the series with a suspected hand or wrist injury. He handled the puck fine in practice Saturday and Sunday morning and declared himself good to go.

The smooth-skating forward’s return is a major boost for the Blues as they look to try to win the first Stanley Cup in the history of a franchise that has been around since 1967. And it comes at a perfect time to compensate for the one-game suspension of fourth-line winger Ivan Barbashev.

Boston is making its own roster change. Head coach Bruce Cassidy is going back to the traditional 12 forwards and six defencemen after dressing 11 and seven for precautionary reasons in the Bruins’ Game 5 loss because captain Zdeno Chara was playing with a broken jaw.

But it’s not former Blues captain-turned-Bruins role player David Backes going back in for depth defenseman Steven Kampfer. Instead it’s 23-year-old rookie Karson Kuhlman, who hasn’t played since Game 3 of the second round against Columbus on April 30.

Maroon mum on referees

Patrick Maroon doesn’t want to go there. Not even about how the Blues handle the roller coaster of inconsistent officiating.

“I’m not talking about it,” the usually talkative Maroon said. “If you want to talk about Game 6, I’ll talk about Game 6.”

Except St. Louis and Boston are so tight that Game 6 is in danger of hinging on officiating. It might not necessarily be a missed call like the one that helped the Blues win Game 5 and put them on the verge of winning the Cup — it could simply be how much leeway the referees give the Blues and Bruins in the next chapter of what has been a series of big hits and more than a little animosity.

“It’s tough to say,” Blues head coach Craig Berube said. “It’s important for our team to just deal with it.”

Berube and Cassidy have voiced their displeasure to the referees at various points, which is no surprise given this has been the post-season of officiating mishaps. Changes are very likely coming to video review and how the NHL handles these situations moving forward, but none of that will affect the Blues and Bruins on Sunday night, when the Stanley Cup could get wheeled onto the ice for a celebration or put on a plane back to Boston for Game 7.

“We’re going to focus on playing the game,” Berube said. “It goes both ways. There’s calls either way that could be made, and some are made and some aren’t made.”

Stunning non-call on Bozak

It has gone every which way. Vegas was on the wrong end of an incorrect major penalty that contributed to losing Game 7 to San Jose in the first round; the Blues lost to the Sharks in overtime in Game 3 of the Western Conference final on a missed hand pass violation and St. Louis benefited from a stunning non-call on Tyler Bozak tripping Noel Acciari in Game 5 against Boston.

WATCH | Non-call on Bozak leads to St. Louis’ goal:

The Boston Bruins were shocked after a Tyler Bozak’s trip went uncalled, leading to David Perron’s 2-0 goal. The fans threw garbage on the ice, Cam Neely tossed his water bottle at a wall, and the St. Louis Blues won 2-1 to take a series’ lead. 1:04

Even before the missed tripping call, Game 5 alone was a study in how fast the game has gotten and how even the best referees in the world miss what should be obvious penalties. Barbashev’s illegal check to the head of Bruins forward Marcus Johansson wasn’t penalized that night, though it drew a suspension for Game 6, and St. Louis’ Zach Sanford got an elbow up on Boston’s Torey Krug that went uncalled.

“You’re going to get calls where you like them or you don’t like them, throughout the whole playoffs if not throughout the whole season, so you don’t really worry about the officiating,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said Saturday. “It’s just wasting energy. Those guys are the best at what they do. They have a tough job. So I don’t think you worry about calls going your way or against you.”

There have been enough gaffes in all four rounds that no team can reasonably think the officials are biased against them. Mistakes happen, of course, even if that doesn’t make it sting any less after a blown call contributes to a loss.

A frustrated Cassidy declared after Game 5 that “The National Hockey League’s getting a black-eye with their officiating in these playoffs.”

‘Our play should define us,’ says Cassidy

It’s enough of an issue commissioner Gary Bettman addressed it in his annual state of the league speech prior to Game 1. He said expanded video review will be a topic of discussion this off-season with input from general managers, the competition committee and the Officials Association.

“No one should doubt that we want to get it right,” Bettman said May 27. “This is not an excuse. We’re not whining about it. It’s simply a recognition of a challenge which we will address sensibly, appropriately and in the best interest of the game.”

It’s too late for Vegas, but it’s not too late for Boston to overcome a missed call like St. Louis did with the hand pass. Just don’t expect it to be used outwardly as a rallying cry.

“It’s not going to be brought up in the locker room,” Cassidy said. “Our play should define us, not a call. It will be part of the message.”

Knowing what it’s like to bounce back from feeling as if they were cheated out of a victory could help the Blues understand the Bruins’ psychology. But mostly they expect their opponent to go all out to avoid elimination and keep the series going.

“I think the big motivation for them has got to be they’re down 3-2,” Blues defenceman Carl Gunnarsson said. “Regardless of the call or not, we won the game and they’re going to come in here being down. I think they’re going to be a desperate team. They have to be. That’s what we expect. They’re going to come out full blast, and we’ve just got to be expecting that.”

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