By Lou Korac
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Maybe the kid goalie can handle the pressures of playoff hockey, and for another Blues skater, grandpa was smiling from ear to ear on this night.
Jordan Binnington, the subject of being a rookie who would go into a hostile environment known as Bell MTS Place and the whiteout of Winnipeg only to get shell-shocked, handled himself quite well, and for Pat Maroon, whose grandfather passed away on the eve of Game 1 of the Western Conference first round series against the Winnipeg Jets, a great individual effort to set up the game-winning goal has the Blues sitting on solid ground.
Binnington made 24 saves, including an incredible stretching stop on the Jets’ Mark Scheifele, and Tyler Bozak netted the game-winner with 2 minutes, 5 seconds remaining in the Blues’ come-from-behind 2-1 win against the Jets on Wednesday in front of 15,321 sad Manitobans.
The Blues, who lead the best-of-7 series 1-0 with Game 2 slated for 8:30 p.m. on Friday here, slowly took the game over in typical Blues fashion of dictating the pace, playing below the circles in the offensive zone and creating chances, and that was the result of getting the kind of goaltending needed to win.
Binnington was run over just 34 seconds into the game by Scheifele, who got an interference penalty on the play, fittingly robbed the Jets center from tying the game up with 12.4 seconds left.
David Perron scored the tying goal, and Bozak netted the fourth-latest Blues game-winning goal in playoff franchise history when he beat Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck from the slot after an individual effort by Maroon winning and battling for a puck multiple times in the right corner.
“Yeah, I mean just try and find the soft areas on the ice,” Bozak said. “I had a lot of chances tonight so I knew the puck was kind of following me around a bit. It’s always fun when that happens, so after the few I missed, it was definitely nice to get one in there.”
Maroon was the grinder on the play and it showed. After getting a puck near the center ice dot from Alex Pietrangelo, he chipped it past Dmitry Kulikov into the corner, where he had to fend off three Jets before kicking it to himself, finding Bozak in one of those quiet areas in the slot, and the Blues center wired a snap shot top shelf.
“I guess he was watching. He was behind me tonight,” Maroon said of his grandfather. “I did a good job, Bozie did a good job of finding the high slot. He was watching above. Obviously that was for him. It’s been emotional, tough days for me. Being with the guys and having them by my side has been really good.
“I put it back to ‘Dunner’, I was building some speed. ‘Petro’ made a good play. The d-man poached me and I tried to chip it over his stick, got with it and there were three guys on my back there. I was just trying to find the puck in my feet and I got loose and Bozie was high slot. I seen him in the glare of my eye. He did a really good job of finding the soft spots tonight. Good shot.”
It helped produce a Blues win that had the earmarks of a grinding type of win, and it was.
Binnington, who was only beat by a Patrik Laine wrister from the high slot at 13:28 of the first period, remained calm, cool and collected from the opening whistle to the very end when Scheifele thought he had tied it.
“The mindset was just compete to the end and give the team a chance to win,” Binnington said. “That buzzer couldn’t have come sooner. We were just battling throughout in our D-zone. It was a grind right until the end. So it was a good win.
“They were moving the puck around. It went down to Scheifele and I had to make a little bit of a desperation save there and hope for the best, with the boys coming and clearing out the rebound. That’s all I remember. And we’re happy with that win.”
“Yeah, he did a great job … early on, with the Scheifele thing … but that’s part of playoffs and he handled it well, and he played a hell of a game,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said of Binnington.
Perron got it going with a goal off a faceoff play at 4:05 of the third. He was talking to Colton Parayko before the draw to set something up, and after Oskar Sundqvist won the faceoff, Parayko moved the puck along the wall before dropping it back to Perron, who used bodies in front of Hellebuyck to tie the game.
“We have different faceoff plays and this one, I talked to ‘Pary’ before,” Perron said. “Sometimes he takes the middle and this one, I told him I think he can go down the wall and be patient with it and maybe play it back to me and keep skating with it. We’ll see how their coverage reacts to this. He got it back to me and I had a quick lane and I decided to shoot it and it was good.”
As expected, the Jets came out flying, hitting whatever was in sight, including Scheifele, when he bowled over Binnington behind the net.
“It’s playoff hockey. I can take a hit,” Binnington said. “We’re just going to keep preparing for the game, stay composed and keep working.”
The Jets had the Blues looking over their shoulders at times looking to get hit, and in a haste may have led to Winnipeg’s first goal, scored by that guy, Laine, who whistled a wrister top shelf from the high slot after Bryan Little picked the puck off Pietrangelo’s stick down low and fed an oncoming Laine, who scored on the short side.
Laine, who scored five goals against the Blues in an 8-4 win at Enterprise Center on Nov. 24, had one goal in his last 19 regular-season games.
Each team traded chances, off turnovers mainly, in the second period but the netminders kept the game 1-0.
Vladimir Tarasenko had the Blues’ best chance early when he got a head of steam and went on on Hellebuyck alone but his shot was stopped. The puck trickled through him, but Dustin Byfuglien was there to sweep it out of the crease 4:45 in.
Binnington made a breakaway stop on Par Lindholm at the end of a Blues power play, and also made a body save late in the period to keep it a 1-0 game. The Blues wanted to dictate but needed that extra push to finally establish themselves.
“We’re trying to do that at all times, but they’re a really good team on the other side,” Perron said. “It’s not going to happen all the time. Their goal gave them momentum a little bit and got the crowd into it even more. We just kept climbing, climbing, grinding. Our second intermission, I thought we were calm and composed in here. It was good to see. Obviously a lot of nerves to start games. We put pucks deep, not make too many plays early on, but that’s something we have to adjust and be confident to make those plays to allow us to have chances and score goals.”
The Blues didn’t waver, and found a way.
“I just think we stuck with it,” Maroon said. “They did a really good job in the first and second. They’re a high, powerful, skilled team. They’re going to have offense, they’re going to generate offense. I thought we just did a good job of sticking with it, battling through it. They had some good hits to get the crowd into it. We kind of blocked it out and we stuck with it and we finally got to our game below the top of the circles and we finally got (them) to crack.”
And now the pressure’s on the Jets to try and even the series, or else the Blues can take a commanding lead heading back to St. Louis.
“Well it’s one win, but it’s a good win for sure,” Berube said. “We come in here, this is a tough building and it’s an excellent team over there. It’s going to be a battle. We were on the right side tonight.”
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Blues