By Lou Korac
So much promise was made over the summer of the Blues and their additions that were supposed to put them back in the upper echelon of the NHL this season.
Maybe the Blues are buying too much into their own hype, because Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, who weren’t supposed to be on the Blues’ level this season, was a stark reminder that this team is not good enough to win on hype alone.
The Blues finally scored, which wasn’t supposed to be the problem, but for the second game in a row allowed five goals, at home no less, and of the few players the Blackhawks the Blues should have been paying attention to (along with Patrick Kane), Jonathan Toews ended it on a break away with his fifth NHL regular-season hat trick 2 minutes, 20 seconds into OT on a breakaway against Blues goalie Jake Allen.
The Blues, who have lost consecutive games for the first time starting a season since 2006-07 when they also were 0-1-1, don’t play again for five days and get to sit and stew on what’s gone wrong.
They blew a 2-0 lead in the first period and 4-3 in the third when they overcame a one-goal deficit themselves.
“We start playing. That’s it right now,” Blues coach Mike Yeo said succinctly. “Let’s quit playing shinny hockey and let’s start playing real hockey. It’s correctable. It’s just a matter of us figuring out how long we want it to take before we decide if we want to be a good team or be a team that plays the game without purpose and as far as doing the little things and things it takes to win hockey games.
“… We have no concern right now as far as turning pucks over. Everything right now is let’s go try and score a goal, and we’re more concerned about that than we are about making sure we don’t give up one. Obviously against a team like this, we just got sucked right into the game that they wanted to play tonight.”
Prime examples on each goal were cases where they could have been preventable.
On the first, Toews scored on a busted play when Erik Gustafsson’s shot caromed off the back boards and to the front of the net from the left circle, and Toews was able to get inside of Alex Pietrangelo and gain position to knock in the loose puck at 18:30, 1:08 after Vladimir Tarasenko gave the Blues a 2-0 lead.
It was the first momentum-changer.
And the Blues began the second with more “shinny” hockey, and Kane was able to waltz in from the high slot and wire a shot past a screened Jake Allen to tie the game 2-2 after the Blues’ Jay Bouwmeester and Vince Dunn had ample chances to get to and clear pucks but didn’t, and Tarasenko allowed Kane the space to get into the shooting lane.
Chicago’s third goal, scored by Marcus Kruger, came when Tyler Bozak’s leave for Alexander Steen, playing in his 900th NHL game, was deflected, and the Blackhawks came back on a 2-on-1. Allen made the save on Kane’s original shot past a sliding Dunn, but Kruger pounced on a juicy rebound in the crease to give Chicago a 3-2 lead at 10:25 of the second.
“They always play like this,” Tarasenko said of Chicago’s counter attacks. “They have really skilled lineup. They can make plays and I think we can be a little bit less fancy some moments, just put it deep and like I said, just be accountable to each other.”
But the Blues found it again, grabbed the lead when Tarasenko’s second of the game (his 16th against the Blackhawks since the 2012-13 season, the most by any other player in the NHL) tied it 3-3 after video review was needed to show Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward’s paddle stopped the puck behind the goal line, at 3:58 of the third period.
Then Chris Butler’s first NHL goal since March 7, 2015 (with the Blues at Toronto) put St. Louis ahead 4-3 at 4:20.
A second chance to play with a lead, hold it, and gain that first win.
But Toews bit the Blues again, and it was another net-front play where Allen makes the first save on Henri Jokiharju, but Toews got away from his man (Pietrangelo), turned and hammered home the rebound to make it a 4-4 game at 6:59.
“It’s brutal,” Yeo said. “This is not winning hockey that we’re playing right now. We can chart or analyze or figure out what the reasons are. Maybe we just think that we’re good. Maybe with more competition, guys are thinking that if they go out and score a little bit more, that’ll put them ahead of the game. The way that you’re going to get ahead of the game is make winning plays. When it comes to ice time, that’s how it’s going to be doled out. If a guy’s gonna do thing that’s going to help us win hockey games and that keeps the puck out of the net, obviously that can be offense too then he’s going to get more opportunities. If somebody’s hurting us, then he’s going to start losing opportunities. That’s just the nature of the game.
“You look at the turnovers we have, they’re all over the ice, yeah. For me, it’s easily corrected, but it’s how you prepare and it’s the mindset you have going into the game, what you take pride in and not enough pride in the little things, in making winning hockey plays. We have to fix that. We also have to get much harder. We have to get much harder on the puck, but way too much around our net. We can’t allow these secondary opportunities. We’re not helping Jake at all. He’s making saves and then next thing you know, there’s a secondary opportunity going in. We’ve got to be harder, we’ve got to be stronger, we’ve got to be more determined there.
“Honestly, there’s more determination on the other teams’ side than there is on ours on those battles. That’s winning hockey and we have to know what that is. … First off, I see not enough guys willing to pay a price to block shots that are getting to the front of the net. Obviously we’re losing battles and it starts before the puck has arrived there. It starts with your boxout and not allowing him to get there. Once he gets there, now it’s just a 1-on-1 battle. It’s his stick vs. you. Tie up his stick and make sure he doesn’t score.”
The Blues had chances in OT to grab the second point, but on the winner, Dunn got a pass left for him by Tarasenko, and instead of making a play in the corner, or getting the pass back to Tarasenko along the wall or to Bozak all alone in front, Dunn’s shot was blocked by Saad that sprung Toews, who was already cheating up, on a breakaway. Toews snapped a shot bar down past Allen at 2:20.
“Probably dump it down low,” Yeo said referring to what Dunn could have done. “The guy got on him pretty quick. We looked at it again, we hoped that he had a chance to shoot it. I don’t know if he did or not, but that’s the one play. Obviously there were a lot of those tonight.
“It was 3-on-3, that can happen easily. Again, being aware of what’s behind you and making sure that you’re not losing pucks in areas … I thought that there were a lot of other things throughout the course of the game that shouldn’t even got to that point though. For me, it’s mindset and we’ll use the week this week properly to make sure we have our mindset proper here to make sure that we tart playing the right way.”
Allen stopped 25 of 30 shots and has given up 10 goals on 50 shots in two games and has a 4.92 goals-against average and .818 save percentage in two games.
But the Blues are playing way too loose in front of their goalie and they know it.
“It’s everyone, forwards, d-men,” Tarasenko said. “I say right away no (blaming the) goalies because the thing with Jake, all of us need to support him. It’s all about us. He makes the saves, and if you look at the goals, it’s like redirect, 2-on-0’s, breakaway and the shorthanded. It’s not his goals. It’s on us to find the ways to help him, help our goalies to win and be closer to each other. Not good when we give up so many goals. It’s nothing against the goalies.”
“He played great tonight,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, who had three assists. “He gave us a great chances. He made some huge stops, especially when we opened the door a bit and we’re making mistakes, he stood on his head for us. We have to be better in front of him. We can’t rely on him every night. We have to be smarter and better that way.”
When the Blues took the lead with two goals in the first, Colton Parayko’s power-play goal was a result of O’Reilly checking the puck away from Brent Seabrook, and Pat Maroon, who had two assists, finding a seam for Parayko coming down the slot at 14:42.
.And on Tarasenko’s first of the game, Maroon laid out Seabrook to create the space.
When the Blues are making these kinds of plays, the benefits were obvious.
“[Maroon] was really engaged in the game. I like his talk on the bench,” Yeo said. “He’s a guy that cares and certainly trying to do the right thing shift after shift out there.
“Even in a game like this it’s disappointing. There’s some guys that we were happy with tonight, but some of the guys that we needed to be good, weren’t good enough tonight.”