By Lou Korac
The pregame crowd was ready to blow the roof off Enterprise Center Sunday night, and Blues fans were tasting a stranglehold on the Western Conference first round series against the Winnipeg Jets.
The pregame show the Blues put on for their fans to get them revved up was marked with approval from the 18,486 there to see St. Louis go up 3-0 in the series and leave the Jets desperate for survival.
However, Winnipeg had other ideas, and it’s a series again.
Kyle Connor led the onslaught with two goals, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrik Laine each had a goal and an assist, and the Jets continued their mastery of the Blues here with a 6-3 win in Game 3.
So instead of grabbing a 3-0 series lead, the Blues had their series lead cut to 2-1, and the Jets will feel good about themselves heading into Game 4 on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.
The Blues, who won Games 1 and 2, 2-1 and 4-3, looked the part in those games. They were crisp, they were sharp, particularly in the 5-on-5 game. They limited their penalties to keep the Jets’ lethal power play off the board and absorbed Winnipeg’s big hits without taking retaliatory penalties.
Sunday night, they looked slow, they chased the puck, the puck management was horrendous and if not for Jordan Binnington in the first period, the Blues would have been, as interim coach Craig Berube said, “It could’ve been 4-0 in the first period, so he played a pretty good game.”
The Blues somehow managed a 1-0 lead on David Perron’s power-play goal with 47.6 seconds remaining, but somehow, they didn’t get the message and the Jets turned the Blues into mince meat the rest of the way.
Perron gave the Blues a 1-0 lead, scoring their first power-play goal of the series at 19:12 of the first period on a wrist shot from the slot to Hellebuyck’s blocker side. Binnington, who made 23 saves, got an assist on Perron’s goal, his first Stanley Cup Playoff point.
“Tonight was not really our team obviously,” Perron said. “We weren’t happy with our effort. We didn’t play a good game, but we’ve got to give them credit, they played a good game as well. We didn’t respond enough.”
The Jets were desperate and they played desperate. They came out with a plan to skate hard and fast and did just that. The Blues started turning pucks over and when Winnipeg dangled it on a string, the Blues were caught chasing it all around the ice, getting tired and in essense, getting caught out of position.
The Jets scored three second-period goals to take a 3-1 lead. Kevin Hayes tied it at 4:57 on a shot through traffic from the blue line. It came after Binnington made a series of saves, including point-blank attempts from Bryan Little 2:03 into the game and another on Mathieu Perreault at 5:55 of the first period.
“The goalie has been playing great, so we just tried to get a greasy one,” Hayes said. “I threw it on net and luckily, it went in.”
Laine’s third goal in as many games made it 2-1 at 7:47 during a 4-on-4. He slipped past the Blues and was in alone on Binnington and tucked a forehand home, and Connor’s power-play goal during a 4-on-3 after Bouwmeester was whistled for his second tripping penalty of the period and made it 3-1 at 8:58.
Just like that, the Blues were chasing a multi-goal deficit. It was the first two-goal lead for either team in the series.
“The biggest thing is we didn’t play our game tonight,” Tarasenko said. “We have to find a way to play different, after tomorrow. It was not our best game out there. It’s on us. And we’ll handle it tomorrow.”
The Blues were being outshot 25-13 through two periods, and had chances on the power play to get back into the game and did.
Tarasenko’s power-play goal at 1:51 of the third period cut the Jets lead to 3-2. Tarasenko whipped a wrister from the slot past Hellebuyck and the crowd was back into it. But Brandon Tanev restored the two-goal lead at 4-2, scoring at 4:25 on a redirection off his skate after Hellebuyck made a save on Pat Maroon at the other end to prevent the tying goal. What was a microcosm of the Blues’ game, Robert Thomas lost Tanev in coverage going to the net.
“We made a good push there for a little bit, but we just didn’t start the way we wanted to,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We knew they were going to come out (and) it just wasn’t us from the start. We had some good pushes, but overall we need to do better.”
Byfuglien scored from the goal line at 8:06 to make it 5-2, probably the only shot Binnington would like to have back. It came from the corner along the goal line from a severe sharp angle.
“Hopefully we can keep going and getting pucks by [Binnington],” Byfuglien said. “We have to focus on the little things and focus on our zone and the offense will come.”
Steen’s tip-in at 13:42 of the third made it 5-3, but Connor’s second of the game at 14:44 made it 6-3. The Jets’ three third-period goals came on consecutive shots.
On the Blues’ final two goals, the Jets had an answer 2:34 later and 1:02 later.
“We’re building every shift, every game throughout the series,” Connor said. “We’re getting closer to our game and it’s pretty dangerous.”
That bodes to be bad news for the Blues, who would love now nothing more than to gain a home split and head back to Winnipeg with the chance to close the series.
“Yeah, it’s the playoffs. What did we finish, same points (99),” Pietrangelo said. “We knew it was going to be a tough series, so again, we’ll be better next game.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports