By Lou Korac
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Imagine before the series with the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference first round began if the Blues could somehow pull one out of a hostile environment known for its compacted noise and ‘Whiteout’ sights.
Forget one, the Blues talked about going for the jugular Friday afternoon, wanting more. Splitting wasn’t an option. How about going back to St. Louis with a 2-0 series lead?
Yes indeed, and they got it. Another close, tightly-contested game went back and forth, this one a little more open, but Ryan O’Reilly’s third-period goal turned out to be the difference in a 4-3 win over the Jets in Game 2 at Bell MTS Place.
The Blues, who took Game 1 by a 2-1 score, will in fact head back to St. Louis with a 2-0 series lead and in control of it.
The Blues did it this time despite being ineffective on the power play, allowing two man-advantage goals of their own, but they got some solid goaltending, especially in the third period from Jordan Binnington and his 15 saves, and winning the 5-on-5 battle. Oskar Sundqvist scored the first two playoff goals of his NHL career and Pat Maroon also scored.
“I think both games we’ve got everybody pretty dialed in, they’re playing hard for each other, doing all the little things, and finding a way to get some goals,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. “It’s a battle, though. Both games, they’re tight, it’s good hockey, pretty even hockey.”
“Yeah, we were pretty confident coming in if we played our game, we could get results,” said Blues rookie forward Robert Thomas, who got the assist on Maroon’s goal. “Today was a back and forth game, we stuck with it and it went our way.”
Indeed it did.
The Blues were the better team 5-on-5, but the Jets, who will not have to try and salvage at least a game, if not two at Enterprise Center to win the series, were the better team on the specialty teams.
It didn’t matter though, as the Blues were efficient with the 5-on-5, and O’Reilly’s goal, a superior shot using Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot as a screen from the right circle to whip a wrister past Connor Hellebuyck’s pad at 3 minutes 46 seconds of the third period to break a 3-3 tie, typified a night of efficient even-strength play.
It was a precise shot, one players say you can practice and they do practice it for a reason.
“I think lots of times you practice that of shooting through something,” O’Reilly said. “It’s obviously a great pass by ‘Bouw’, kind of put me in there in a good spot and I’m just trying to get through on to the net. It was obviously a big play that was nice to have.”
Jets coach Paul Maurice was utilizing the line centered by Adam Lowry, the son of former Blues forrward Dave Lowry, on the O’Reilly like with Vlarimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn. The O’Reilly line had been matched up in Game 1 against the line of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. Maurice tried getting them matched up to get moe offense from the Scheifele line, but it was out there on what turned out to be the eventual game-winner.
“I think obviously it’s a big play,” O’Reilly said. “I think it gave them matchups and getting them to find rhythms and things like that. It was a nice little turn there and we were doing some good things that gave us momentum. Obviously a chance to score a big goal.”
A big goal it was, and gave the Blues a 3-0 edge in the series on goals scored in the third period.
“Just grinding them down low,” Maroon said. “Getting to our game, which is getting pucks deep. Just wearing their D down and just trying to get second and third opportunities. That fourth goal there, Bouwmeester made a heck of a play, great breakout. Heck of a breakout, and ‘O’Ry’ had a heck of a shot.”
Sundqvist’s first career playoff goal gave the Blues a 1-0 lead at 5:23 of the first period. It developed during a 4-on-4, and after Bouwmeester, who had his first multi-point game of his NHL playoff career, chipped the puck by Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, then jumped into the play with Sundqvist, who kept the puck and snapped a wrister by Connor Hellebuyck low stick side from the slot coming in off the right.
“I was actually trying to go low blocker on the first one,” Sundqvist said. “I think it went under his arm.”
The Blues had the chance to put the Jets in a big hole, but failed during three power-play attempts, including an abbreviated one for 17 seconds. Alex Pietrangelo did hit the bar on one, but those would cost the Blues, and Blake Wheeler tied the game 1-1 at 12:01 when he got a pass from Scheifele from behind the net to the slot and lifted a quick shot over Binnington’s left shoulder.
The Blues, who once had an 8-3 shot advantage in the first, were held without a shot for 17:11. They had to withstand the Jets’ attack early and paid the price early when Blues killer Patrik Laine’s one-timer on the power play gave the Jets a 2-1 lead at 2:49 of the second with Robert Bortuzzo in the box for interference.
And just as the Jets were buzzing and the raucous crowd was into the game, Maroon came up with a huge goal to tie the game. He stuffed a second opportunity just over the goal line after Robert Thomas collected a loose puck off an Alex Pietrangelo shot, circled around the net and threw a backhand into the slot before Maroon cashed in at 6:42 of the second to tie the game 2-2.
It turned out to be the turning point of the game.
“It was a huge goal,” Maroon said. “I think after that we had the momentum right away. We stuck with it and kept grinding down low, kept creating opportunities and then — there you go — we capitalize on a turnover on the 3-on-2 and ‘Sunny’ and Perron and ‘Schwartzy’ made a heck of a play and he buries it. So that was huge.”
“I think it switched momentum back to us, for sure,” Sundqvist said. “We were a little bit sloppy there in the second. Maroon’s goal was really big for us to kind of swing it back to our favor.”
“That was the big momentum-changer right there,” O’Reilly said. “That whole first period right there and just taking it to us, a big play like that sparked us. We started to get confidence and put them back on their heels and things started going our way. That was a huge goal, came at an important time for us.”
The Blues fed off that momentum, as Maroon said, and Sundqvist cashed in on his second of the game at 9:50 of the second to give the Blues a 3-2 lead after Joel Edmundson’s outlet feed to David Perron, who then found Sundqvist coming up the gut and he beat Hellebuyck five-hole.
“The second one, I actually wanted five-hole and he kept standing up so it’s nice to see that one go in, too,” Sundqvist said. “… The pucks are going where I want them. That’s nice to see.”
And just as the Blues were hoping to go into the third with a lead, Thomas was called for hooking, and Scheifele cashed in on the Jets’ second man-advantage goal with 1:05 remaining in the second to tie the game 3-3. It was Winnipeg’s first shot since the 14:39 mark of the second period and their third goal on 14 shots on Binnington.
It didn’t get them down, and the Blues found a way to win another game late, and they did so by staying disciplined when the Jets were trying to get under their skin. Lowry blasted Sundqvist in the third period with an open-ice hit that Pietrangelo didn’t take kindly to, and then seconds later blew up Bortuzzo along the boards that led to Bortuzzo needing to go back to the dressing room for repairs to what looked like his wrist. Berube said Bortuzzo will be looked at on Saturday.
“We knew they were going to come out hard, just like Game 1,” Edmundson said. “They came out hitting everything. I think we’re playing smart hockey right now. We’re playing in between the whistles. We’re not retaliating … They have a really good power play over there, so we’re trying to limit the penalties as much as we can.”
And then there’s Binnington, who made 26 saves, including 15 of them in the third period; some of which were key.
“His third period, they tied the game up late there (in the second), but he came out in the third, he made some huge saves in the third period. He’s just composed. He stays composed and stays with the moment and comes up big.”
The Blues left a white trail behind as they depart Manitoba and head back to Missouri, hoping to catch perhaps a Blueout in their building.
“I think it’s going to be louder than this,” Edmundson said. “I’m expecting an unreal crowd. They’ve been supporting us all year, so I know they’re really looking forward to Games 3 and 4.”
It’s the fourth time in Blues history they’ve started 2-0 on the road in a best-of-7 series. The others were 2017 First Round at Minnesota (a 4-1 series win); the 1993 division semifinal at Chicago (a 4-0 series win) and 2001 conference semifinal at Dallas (a 4-0 series win).
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Blues