By Lou Korac
Another elite opponent where on paper, it looks like a no-win situation for the Blues.
But as hard as these Blues have been to figure out this season, this really shouldn’t have been a surprise.
The Washington Capitals came to town, the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals, among the elites once again this season in search for back-to-back titles.
But the Blues, who came in last in the NHL in points with 34, somehow rise to the occasion against the elites. They were touted among the top teams heading into the season but have left a trail of puzzling obscurity.
But they used a fight by Robert Bortuzzo to springboard them into four unanswered goals in a 5-2 win against the Capitals Thursday at Enterprise Center with Alex Pietrangelo leading the way with a goal and an assist.
With the win, the Blues (16-18-4), who jumped four spots into 27th overall in the league, are now 8-4-1 against the top seven teams in the NHL. They’re 8-14-3 against the rest of the league, including 1-4-2 against the bottom six teams.
Talk about baffling.
“It’s putting everything together, right,” Pietrangelo said. “The penalty kill was good again tonight, the power play wasn’t so good in the first, that four-minute, but I thought we built a little bit there in the second period, got some shots, ‘Parry’ [Colton Parayko] scored.
“We’ve been pretty good 5-on-5. I know we gave up four power play goals against Pittsburgh, but 5-on-5, I think we out-chanced them, so we’re building here at even strength. It’s just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren’t necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances.”
So why can’t this team sustain this level of play against the rest?
“I don’t see it that way at all,” said goalie Jake Allen, who made 23 saves, including some key ones while the Capitals attacked shorthanded. “They’re the defending Cup champions and one of the best teams in the league, they have been for a long time, but every team in this league can beat anyone. It doesn’t matter anymore. So I don’t think it matters who you’re playing against. Right now, it’s just finding ways to win, whether it’s Wash. or Chicago. Every night, you see scores on the scoreboard and each team is beating each other. You never know what is going to be the outcome, so I think it’s game in, game out, no matter who the team is really.”
The Blues were clearly the better team Thursday, particularly after Bortuzzo’s fight with Washington’s Tom Wilson, who has been scrutinized the past year or so for questionable (and often punishable) hits, including one to Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, who coincidentally scored the game-winner Thursday, during the preseason.
It was almost inevitable that something would happen, some sort of retaliation of sorts.
It happened 2:13 into the second period, a good scrap between the two, and despite giving up the go-ahead goal to Brett Connolly 47 seconds later to give the Capitals (24-12-3) a 2-1 lead, the Blues soared from there.
“I wouldn’t say it was on my mind,” Bortuzzo said. “It was something we knew happened last game. This was a big hockey game for us. We didn’t in the game thinking, ‘Let’s get vengeance’ or what not. It was an emotional game. I think both teams played hard. It happened. Happy to defend teammates or what not, but at the end of the day, it was just about winning this game.
“It was 1-1 and I don’t know whether he expected it or not. I think he would have done the same thing on his side. I’m sure a lot of guys would have stepped up in this locker room. I just happened to be the guy. It is what it is, we’re happy to get the win.”
Sundqvist, who missed eight games to start off the season, had no idea it was coming but appreciated it.
“Obviously he’s a team guy first and I think he stepped up for the whole team and that set the tone for the rest of the game and I think we played almost flawless after that,” Sundqvist said.
It certainly meant something to the players, and coach Craig Berube, who was no stranger in his career to scraps.
“(It meant) a lot. That goes a long way,” Berube said. “I thought the timing of it was really good. ‘Borts’ is a team guy and that’s not an easy thing to do. From what happened in exhibition (play) with the hit, it was good team stuff.”
Parayko scored a power-play goal — yes, a power-play goal — at 12:23 of the second to tie the game 2-2, and Sundqvist added to his career-high with his seventh of the season by following up Pietrangelo’s shot to the net and falling down, he was able to backhand in a shot past Braden Holtby at 16:33 for a 3-2 Blues lead.
“We haven’t had a lot of dirty goals but tonight we had a couple and I think that’s what we need,” Sundqvist said. “… I don’t remember (it). I think the puck came out to [Carl] Gunnarsson, who passed the puck to ‘Petro’ up top. He got the shot through and I saw the puck laying loose and the diving shot was more to be sure I was going to be first to the puck.”
Speaking of Gunnarsson, he returned after missing 20 games with a hand injury and played 12:53 to go with a career-high plus-4.
“Made it look pretty easy, huh,” Pietrangelo joked. “What is that, plus-1 every two minutes? He kind of put us together at the end of the game.
“I didn’t realize how long he was out but pretty impressive, not missing a beat there. He played more as the game went on. I’m sure he felt pretty good.”
What made this win more impressive was that the Blues stayed on the attack in the third period, outshot Washington 14-2 and got a goal from Pietrangelo at 5:44 to make it 4-2 and Tyler Bozak’s breakaway at 11:08 to make it 5-2.
“We stayed aggressive,” Pietrangelo said. “When we’re playing in the o-zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked, forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game.”
“Yeah, I liked that we were aggressive and attacking and trying to score,” Berube said. “Making it even a harder comeback for them.”
As for Allen, he allowed Alex Ovechkin’s 30th of the season at 15:34 of the first to tie the game after Robert Thomas had given the Blues a 1-0 lead at the four-minute mark, and then when Connolly scored on a leaky rebound early in the second, Allen was sharp and made two breakaway saves on Wilson while shorthanded and stopped a 4-on-2 shorthanded attempt.
“From the pre-scout, we know they like to really jump,” Allen said of the Capitals. “They’ve generated a lot of goals this year or more or less chances than a majority of the teams, so I had to be ready for those and I got away with it. … The first (Wilson breakaway), I tried to stay as patient as I could and sort of had to make an old-school blocker save. The second one, I sort of could tell he was going to shoot and got a glove on it and was able to keep the play going which I thought was big.
“We’ve shot ourselves in the foot many times this year over the course of the year, throwing leads away and I thought the guys did a great job tonight. The third period, I was really impressed. Right from the mentality going on the ice to what the guys did out there, it was really impressive.”
The Blues played 11 forwards and seven defensemen with Gunnarsson back, and did so with Vladimir Tarasenko (sick) out of the lineup.
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Blues