By Lou Korac
It hasn’t been said about the Blues recently, not with all the winning that February brought to them, but the start of March has turned out to be a lost weekend.
The Blues followed up a Friday loss at Carolina with a similar stinker, 4-1 to the Dallas Stars to snap a seven-game home winning streak and a chance to gain some separation on those teams behind them and start tapping those in front of them (Winnipeg and Nashville) on the shoulder.
Instead, the Blues (34-26-6, 74 points) now have to look over their shoulders again because the Stars (33-27-5, 71 points) are three back (each team has 17 games remaining) for third in the Central Division, and the Minnesota, Arizona and Colorado are all still lurking in the wildcard race.
“It makes a good test for us. It’s frustrating,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly. “We need these points, especially against a team that’s behind us. We need those points. It’s adversity and opportunity for us to grow and regroup and get to back moving forward.”
Among the Blues’ issues Saturday stemmed from what has become a growing trend of not scoring goals (nine goals the past six games they’ve actually scored, including one empty-netter).
“We’ve got to find a way to get some goals here again,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. “It’s kind of dried up for a few games here now. I think we’re getting some looks, but it’s not the same. We’re not controlling the play in the offensive zone, getting as many looks, good looks.”
The Blues had better zone time as opposed to Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Hurricanes, but a trend of not getting to the net seems to be an issue again, along with the fact that two of their top six forwards (David Perron and Brayden Schenn) continue to miss games because of concussion-related injuries.
“It obviously affects you, they’re good players, but there’s no excuses,” Berube said. “You’ve still got to find a way to win games.
“… We had more zone time tonight. They collapsed a little bit more and give you more time. We had some looks, some shots and some zone time, but we didn’t really do a good enough job around the net on puck recoveries and things like that.”
Blues killer Jamie Benn scored three goals in his return to the lineup for the Stars, who won three of four games against the Blues this season, after missing the past two games with an upper-body injury. Benn has 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) in 39 games against the Blues.
“He’s big and strong,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said of Benn. “When he’s out there with those other two guys (Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin), they’re a pretty dangerous group, especially on the power play. So you’ve got to play him hard, and it wasn’t hard enough.”
The Blues seemed lax on pucks tonight, not nearly dogged enough and relentless as opposed to their 13-1-1 stretch. The Stars seemed more determined on the forecheck and caused the Blues to turn pucks over and not get it in transition cleanly.
“I think it’s on us, most of the goals the last two games,” Blues center Oskar Sundqvist said. “I think we’ve got to be better with the puck. Better puck placement and stop turning the puck over. I don’t think the other teams are doing anything special or different. I think we can be better.
“I think we can do a little bit more. I think we can go harder to the net. Get more pucks there and get some greasy ones. There haven’t been many goals right around the crease. We need to come back to that.”
The start of the game was just what the Blues wanted. They got two power plays (they were going to get three but after deliberation, one was called back) but made nothing of it, including little zone time.
“We have to find the consistent effort with our power play,” O’Reilly said. “I think we’re too sporadic. I’m one of the guys that have to be out there to lead the charge that way and winning battles and creating more. We have to find consistency within it where we’re going to outwork the PK and when we have opportunities to shoot the puck, we shoot it. It starts with myself. As a group we have to do that.”
The opportunistic Stars struck for two late first-period goals against Jordan Binnington, who lost at home for the first time (7-1-0) and made 17 saves, when Benn’s tip-in of Taylor Fedun’s shot after the Blues, who were poor on faceoffs winning only 45 percent, lost a key draw to lead to the first goal at 16:52.
Robert Thomas’ turnover in the neutral zone near the offensive zone blue line led to John Klingberg’s goal from the left circle at 18:44 made it 2-0, a period in which the Blues outshot the Stars 12-7.
“We just gave up to many good chances and they scored on their good chances,” Pietrangelo said. “That top line’s going to score in those situations. It was a better game than last night, but we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re only scoring, what, one goal a game here. So it’s obviously a big emphasis here moving forward. We’ve got to be better.”
Ben Bishop, who made 29 saves, was going to be tough to beat, and the Blues were already in a tough enough spot down 2-0, but Pietrangelo’s goal t 15:40 of the second on a nifty feed from Sundqvist, made it a 2-1 game and the Blues had life.
But for one of the few times since he’s come up this season, Binnington allowed a soft one to Benn, his second of the game, on the power play at 17:11 of the second to make it 3-1.
The Blues couldn’t get the zone cleared, and Benn whipped a shot from the right circle through Binnington, who immediately looked skyward, to suck the life out of the home side. It all came after a Mackenzie MacEachern in which he was called for roughing for sticking up for Jordan Binnington, who took a couple extra taps after a whistle had blown, a similar situation in which Pat Maroon was jumped when he was in too tight on Bishop with no calls made.
“Big goal, but then they answer,” Pietrangelo said. “We were building there as the period was going on, and that helped us just build even more. But we’ve got to find a way to try and limit them on the power play. Those type of guys like to feed off those opportunities.”
There wasn’t much punch in the third period, despite the Blues outshooting the Stars 10-4. And Benn completed his second NHL hat trick against the Blues (fifth overall) with an empty-netter with 28.5 seconds remaining.
It’s the first time the Blues have lost two in a row since Jan. 15-17 and first time since Dec. 29-31 they’ve lost two in a row in regulation.
Now they get to rest Sunday, then have three days of practice before a California swing that sees the Blues play three times in four days.
“Get a quick rest, obviously get back to practice and back to the work,” O’Reilly said. “I think we’ve had a lot of hockey. It’s a good chance to mentally regroup and get that hunger back and keep climbing because these last two games are not nearly what we’ve wanted. Myself, as well, I have to bring a lot more going forward.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports
Craig Berube Post-Game Interview: