By Lou Korac
Now that they’re on the cusp of clinching a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s been an amazing journey for the Blues to get to this point.
Especially when you go back to the start of 2019 and where they came from, it’s rather remarkable to think about.
The Blues closed a four-game homestand with a clean sweep, capping it off with a 3-1 win over the red-hot Vegas Golden Knights at Scottrade Center on Monday.
As late as Jan. 3, the Blues were sitting dead-last with 34 points in the league despite playing fewer games than the four teams immediately ahead of them with 35 points, but the fact of the matter is, they were 31st out of 31 teams, and in a span of 82 days, the Blues (41-27-8), who are 5-0-1 the past six games, have gone from 31st to 12th overall.
Confidence is at a season-high, or is it?
“I don’t know, when we probably won eight or nine in a row, that’s pretty high at that point,” defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. “This homestand’s been pretty good. We haven’t been great at home all year. I think to have a four-game stretch like this at home, still trying ti push and get ready for the playoffs, that’s pretty big because you know that’s going to be pretty big in series like that. The last two games, you knew there were really good teams coming in. I thought we played pretty well. You’re never going to play a perfect game and they’re going to get chances. They are who they are, but I thought we handled it pretty well.”
If the last two games in particular have been a test of wills to see how the Blues stack up to teams heading to the playoffs, they pass with flying colors. They halted Tampa Bay’s seven-game winning streak Saturday in a 4-3 win, and cooled off the hottest team in Vegas (42-28-6) since the all-star break (10-1-1).
Also, St. Louis has won 11 of 13 at home after starting the season 10-13-2.
“Yeah obviously if you look at these last four games, it’s been good,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, who scored his 27th goal of the season. “We’ve found a way to win games and coming into the end of the year, that’s what we want. We want this to be a tough building to play in and it’s good. We’ve got to keep building. We’re not done yet. Get a good day off and get back to work.”
On Monday, it was another effort from the fourth line, and making a positive impact on the offensive side.
Zach Sanford had a goal and an assist, and linemate Ivan Barbashev scored his fourth goal — and fifth point — in three games. Jordan Binnington made 24 saves to move within one win of tying Jake Allen for most wins in Blues history among rookie goalies (22, 2014-15).
“I think he’s been bringing that the last few games,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said of Sanford. “That fourth line, that’s what they’ve been bringing and they produced again tonight for us. Just playing a hard game, going to the net, forechecking, simple game but hard, physical, on pucks, did a great job again.”
Barbashev gave St. Louis a 1-0 lead at 18:41 of the first period after Sanford chipped a puck in deep that Golden Knights goalie Malcolm Subban retrieved and turned back over to Sanford behind the Vegas goal. Sanford gave Barbashev a little feed in the low slot, and he beat Subban short side.
“I was a little surprised,” Barbashev said. “I was trying to shoot on the short side, and somehow, it got in between his arm and the body and it just went in. I saw the replay and I was a little surprised.”
Vegas had some sustained zone time in the second and finally cashed in on a power play when WIlliam Karlsson scored at 15:12, the fourth allowed by the Blues in 47 attempts, to tie the game 1-1.
A heavy shot from the point by Colin Miller produced a rebound, and Karlsson was there to pounce.
But O’Reilly’s first goal in nine games gave the Blues a 2-1 lead at 18:14 of the second.
O’Reilly started the play when he picked off a pass from Jonathan Marchessault near the Blues’ blue line, then headed back up the ice and found some open real estate before getting a hard pass in stride from Bouwmeester before a quick snap shot from the left circle that beat Subban glove side.
“Yeah, it was nice to get on the board,” O’Reilly said. “I haven’t been shooting the puck very well lately and obviously ‘Bouw’ made just a great pass to set me up there.
“The goal came at a good time. It wasn’t a great second period. We defended well, I think, all game and ‘Binner’ played great defensively. But still, we didn’t get the offense we needed to, so the goal came at a good time, kind of gave us a little spark going into the third.”
And Sanford supplied the insurance when he scored at 6:27 for the 3-1 lead by going to the net and knocking in Robert Bortuzzo’s wrister from the right point. Subban deflected the puck away, and as Sanford was falling down, the puck hit his neck and caromed in.
“No, not quite like that,” Sanford said when asked if he ever scored one like that, his first goal in 16 games. “Maybe a couple other body parts, but not in the neck.
“… That was a funny one. I hadn’t had one in a little bit, so for that one to go in, it felt good. It was funny though.”
The Blues held down the fort and held Vegas to its lowest shot total (25) in 19 games the rest of the way.
“I think we’ve gotten off to leads,” Bouwmeester said. “All year, when we’ve been able to get out to a lead, we’ve been pretty good. That’s something that we can probably improve on. But at home, it’s important. You kind of get the crowd into it. Everyone says it, but you don’t want to make it an easy place to play. We need to come out and establish the kind of game you want to play early. It goes a long way.”
The game marked the return of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who missed 24 games with a wrist injury. He played 12:00 and was a plus-1.
“I thought he was fine,” Berube said. “He’s been out a while. Once he got his feet under him, I thought he was pretty good and did his job.”
The Blues will not play again until Friday when they head to New York to face the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, but they’re in a good place with six games left.
They’re just four points behind the Winnipeg Jets for first in the Central Division, two behind the Nashville Predators for second and six ahead of the Dallas Stars for third.
They can clinch a playoff berth on Tuesday if the Arizona Coyotes lose in any fashion.
“I think rest is important,” Berube said of the nest three days off. “We’ve got six games in eight days coming up, I think it’s good to get some rest this week.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports