By Lou Korac
The diminutive one, the one that has a mantra labeled for working his tail off and is a popular figure in the locker room, provided the offensive flair in a series-clinching game and thrust the Blues into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jaden Schwartz, all 5-foot-10 of him (and that listed height is stretching it quite a bit), stood tall Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets. He provided all the offense the Blues needed with his first playoff hat trick, and the Blues fended off the desperate Jets before eliminating them in Game 6, 3-2, to win the first round series before 18,524 at Enterprise Center on Saturday.
Schwartz, who provided the deciding goal in Game 5 with 15 seconds remaining in regulation on Thursday, finished the series with five points (four goals, one assist), including the final four goals scored by the Blues, who won the best-of-7 series 4-2.
“It’s nice definitely to help out and step up,” Schwartz said. “We played a great team game today. We didn’t give them much, we worked our butts off. Our ‘D’ were great. I thought our forwards backchecked really hard and frustrated them. That was the biggest game of the year for us. We played aggressive and we were on our toes.”
The final result was in no way a mirror of how dominating the Blues played. They outshot the Jets 36-20, but at one point had a 27-6 edge on the shot clock, including a whopping 16-1 in the second period.
“Yeah, I think what was it … six shots after two periods,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “That’s exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted to be hard on their top line, come out strong. Got a lot of energy after that first shift. That’s a heck of an effort all around.”
The Blues were smothering, they were relentless, they were puck-hunters, and they didn’t waste any time in grabbing the lead and firmly grabbing it.
“We talked about bringing that momentum from the third period of Game 5,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. “And I think that the guys did. We mentioned it yesterday. Talked today about it. They had good energy and played hard. It’s a hard game out there.”
Jordan Binnington made 18 saves for St. Louis, which won the first home game in the series.
“It makes it more special,” Binnington said. “It’s one series and it was good to win it in front of our home crowd here after losing the last two (games). We’re excited and we’ll take a little rest here and prepare for the next series.”
Game 6 was an extension to Game 5. The Blues won Game 5 3-2 by scoring three times in the third period to overcome a 2-0 deficit, including Schwartz’s tiebreaking goal with 15 seconds remaining in regulation. It seemed to have a carryover effect.
“We knew how we wanted to play and we wanted to execute that game plan and we did a good job of carrying it over,” Schwartz said.
Dustin Byfuglien had a goal and an assist, and Connor Hellebuyck made 33 saves for the Jets, who reached the Western Conference Final last season.
“It was tough. Tough to swallow,” said Jets forward Bryan Little, who scored late in the third period. “I think we had really high expectations for ourselves coming into the season. It just feels disappointing right now.”
Schwartz gave the Blues a 1-0 lead 23 seconds into the first period when he poked in a loose puck behind Hellebuyck. The Jets challenged for goaltender interference, but the call in the ice stood.
“You want to have that positive mindset for sure,” Schwartz said. “The first two games at home didn’t go as planned. We want to be aggressive. You don’t want to sit back against these guys. We know it’s a long game though. We know they scored on their first shift in their building. You kind of learn as you go that you’ve got to put in a full 60 for sure.”
Schwartz’s first goal was the third-fastest in Blues playoff history behind Sergio Momesso (:18, Game 3 1990 Division Final) and Brett Hull (:20, Game 3 1995 Conference Quarterfinal). Schwartz also Phil Roberto (Games 2-4, 1972 Quarterfinal) and Red Berenson (Games 1-2, 1969 Quarterfinal) as the third player in Blues history to account for four consecutive team goals in the postseason.
With the Blues playing relentless, Schwartz made it 2-0 at 12:36 of the second with a power-play goal on a wrist shot from the left face-off circle.
He completed the hat trick by making it 3-0 at 3:55 of the third period. It was St. Louis’ first playoff hat trick since Vladimir Tarasenko had one against the Minnesota Wild in the first round in the 2015. Schwartz scored the last four St. Louis goals in the series.
The hats reigned down onto the ice from the Enterprise Center faithful in jubilation.
“I’m not sure. I wasn’t really even looking at the hats,” Schwartz said of seeing them. “I was just trying to catch my breath. We were trying to get the faceoff and they were throwing them on late, so that was slowing the game down a bit.”
The Jets didn’t go away quietly, and Byfuglien made it 3-1 at 12:17 of the third by driving hard to the net to follow in a Kevin Hayes shot.
Little scored a shorthanded goal with 38 seconds left for the 3-2 final after the Jets pulled Hellebuyck with Blake Wheeler serving a high-sticking penalty.
“I thought we did play a full 60, but the last two minutes, it was very scary, especially with 36 seconds left on the clock,” Blues forward Pat Maroon said. “They’re a team that’s very resilient. They never give up. They have a lot of high-powered offense, especially on the backend. They can skate it in. We made it close and interesting, but ‘O’Ry’ [Ryan O’Reilly] had a heck of a faceoff and Steen came out and blocked a shot and got it out. That’s a big win for us.”
The Blues won Game 6 for the first time since April 21, 2001. They had lost their past eight.
Binnington, who took every shot thrown his way, from Jets fans chanting ‘You look nervous!’ to being targeted for tweets in his past, could hear the crowd Saturday chanting ‘You look nervous!’ at the Jets.
“The city’s got my back I guess,” Binnington said. “That was pretty cool to see. The city’s a great hockey town and sports town. It was a lot of fun and that was pretty cool.”
The Blues now await the winner of the series between the Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars. The Stars lead that best-of-7 series 3-2, with Game 6 slated for Monday.
“It is what it is. Make the best of it. Do what you have to do,” Berube said. “Guys can heal up a little bit. You’ve got to stay focused. You’ve got to practice and do the right things. But it is what it is. So to say it’s a good thing or bad thing, it is what it is. So just deal with it and be prepared. That’s all.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports