By Lou Korac
DALLAS — When Blues coach Craig Berube stepped up to offer some candid thoughts pregame in an elimination game against the Dallas Stars on Sunday, his message was bold, yet confident.
“I think we all believe we’re going back for Game 7,” Berube said. “Why wouldn’t we? We’re a confident group, we’ve played good hockey for a long time and we’re going to continue to play good hockey here today.”
It was the kind of start the Blues wanted, one in which they needed to take the initiative and they did.
Backs against the wall, season on the line against the Stars, who were looking for their second straight six-game closeout.
Not a chance.
The Blues came out hard and heavy, then initiated the play in the third period before locking down the Stars, 4-1, Sunday afternoon before 18,876 at American Airlines Center.
The Blues took their coach’s comments to heart, and he knew they would. That’s why he used them.
“I always talk like that and I think it’s important, but they believe that before I even talk to them,” Berube said. “They believe that. They know if they play the right way and they do things properly and put the team first and play the team game, we’re a good team. I liked a lot of our Game 5, there’s a lot of good things. We just didn’t score enough goals.”
The Blues pushed the series back to St. Louis for a Game 7 on Tuesday at 7 p.m., giving their rabid fans, who booed them off the ice after the second period of Game 5, one more chance to will them to a series win and earn a trip to the Western Conference Final for the second time in four seasons.
When they heard their coach’s comments, the Blues knew how to apply them.
Berube made another bold move pregame by inserting Sammy Blais into the lineup for his first Stanley Cup Playoff game, and he promptly scored his first playoff goal, Colton Parayko nearly severed Stars goalie Ben Bishop’s shoulder off with one of his wicked winding slap shots that led to another third-period goal, and the Blues got off to a roaring start by dictating play and pace, something that’s definitely been null and void for good stretches of this series.
“None of the guys came in here with their heads between our legs or whatever,” said Blues right wing David Perron, who scored the tiebreaking goal in the second period. “I just thought that we were really excited about the challenge. We came out in the first period and had a really good period. We spoke (after) the second period that we didn’t put a lot of pucks on net and didn’t generate enough. But they’re going to push. They’re a really good team over there. We know that. We had a good third period.”
From the moment the puck was dropped, the Blues seemed to have the puck on a string, and Alex Pietrangelo scored on a wrist shot from the right point through a screen to make it 1-0 just 63 seconds into the first. The Blues were all over the Stars early, cycled the puck well with Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and even Joel Edmundson down low, who was able to get the last touch on the puck back to Pietrangelo at the blue line. He initially fumbled it, close to being out of the zone, but recovered, moved in and found a shot to his liking using Schenn as a screen for a 1-0 lead.
The goal was the third-fastest in Blues history to start an elimination game, behind Martin Rucinsky (Game 7 of the 2003 conference quarterfinal) and Jori Lehtera (Game 7 of the 2016 first round). Those came exactly 1:00 in.
“We felt like we had a lot of good chances in the third period (of Game 5) and we just built off that,” Pietrangelo said. “You simplify on the road. You want to get pucks on ‘Bish’ early here. We just shot pucks through, made plays, made confident plays. We kind of backed them off early, and that kind of opened everything else up.”
The Blues had an 8-0 shots edge early in the game, but the Stars tilted the ice a bit, and the whistles were out in full force throughout the period.
Dallas cashed in on a Vince Dunn slash, with Tyler Seguin scoring from the slot, a not-so-hard one-timer that leaked through Jordan Binnington’s pads at 11:36 of the first to tie it 1-1.
Despite being on level ground, Berube liked what he saw.
“I liked our first period all around,” he said. “I thought we got to our game right away on the forecheck and did a good job through the neutral zone getting the puck in deep and getting on our forecheck, banging, getting into it, got quick line changes and shifts were short, a lot of good stuff.”
The second period was a bit of a snoozer, but for the Blues, they were able to come away with the lone goal despite being outshot 9-4.
Perron scored at 15:24 to make it 2-1 after Oskar Sundqvist was able to get in quickly on a puck and center it to Perron, who one-timed a quick redirection with John Klingberg on him.
Carl Gunnarsson made the initial play with a stretch pass to Ivan Barbashev at the offensive zone blue line. Barbashev’s chip to the right boards was right in stride for Sundqvist, who made the pass with speed.
“What a heck of a play, hey? By Sunny, that was crazy,” Perron said. “… I just thought we had a really strong first period and obviously, that was kind of a game-breaking moment and I don’t take any part of it because I felt Sunny made the whole play. It was an unbelievable pass and I honestly never saw the puck. I didn’t even see it go in. The guys just grabbed me and I was excited. I kind of knew (the puck) was coming and I moved my stick with the momentum forward, hoping that it hits and it did. That was an unbelievable pass by him. He’s played really good for us all year and hopefully, he keeps doing it.”
Sundqvist said there was no angle for him, so he decided to give Perron a chance.
“I looked at (taking) the shot and I had a pretty bad angle,” Sundqvist said. “I saw Perron on the backdoor and I know he’s got a heavy stick and he’s good at (being) in that area. I’m happy that he got that puck in. It’s nice to see.”
Typically, one would find a road team leading in the third period sitting on their laurels and trying to protect it.
Not on this day.
Not the Blues.
They kept attacking, and they kept pressing, and the key moment came when Schwartz scored at 7:37 to make it 3-1, a redirection of Alexander Steen throwing the puck at the net, but what transpired before that was what was key.
Colton Parayko’s bomb slap shot injured Bishop. The shot hit Bishop flush on his left shoulder/collar bone area. He went down immediately, but the officials didn’t stop play with the Blues in possession of the puck. Steen alertly threw it back at the net and Schwartz redirected it in.
“Obviously you’re right there in the slot, you’re going to try to shoot to score,” Parayko said. “I was just trying to get it around their first guy and find a corner. I was shooting to score. I’m never out there to hurt nobody. Hopefully he’s OK.”
Some of the Stars on the ice seemed to stop in their tracks thinking there would be a whistle to stop play, and when none came, they seemed perplexed by it.
NHL supervisor of officials Kay Whitmore said afterwards it’s a judgment call, and according to NHL rule 8.1, ““That’s what the rule says, 8.1. It means they don’t kill the play until they get possession of the puck,” Whitmore said. “That’s their judgment. They may blow it if it’s (a) serious (injury), but they didn’t feel getting hit by a puck was serious. I haven’t talked to them yet about it, but that’s my interpretation of how they would have looked at that rule.
“The puck hit him in the shoulder and they didn’t deem it serious. … The scoring chance is imminent and it happened bang-bang and the puck’s in the net. It wasn’t a long duration of time. But the rule is pretty clear that in that situation, they’re not going to kill it. As soon as his team would have got possession, they would have killed it immediately. That happens all the time. But in this situation, they didn’t deem it serious enough to kill it immediately and they didn’t get possession before the puck went in the net. It’s pretty clear on how that rule works.”
Berube said: “It’s like any player, you’re in the offensive zone and you’re playing and your player gets hit by a puck, they don’t blow a whistle when you have possession. We had possession. His mask was still on, so that’s the reason.”
The Stars had differing opinions.
“I think there should be a whistle, that’s what the rule is, but you really can’t change anything right now,” Klingberg said. “We didn’t play good enough to win, so it’s not like we’re focusing on that right now. They scored three more goals than us, and that’s what it is right now.”
Stars coach Jim Montgomery felt his players should have kept playing through it.
“It’s the referee’s discretionary call,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to keep playing, we’ve got to keep fighting through that. You can’t be a ref. They’re doing a good job and they’re at this level of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a reason and they thought there was no reason to blow the whistle. Our players have to play through stuff.”
Bishop was attended to by Stars trainer but stayed in the game. Probably wasn’t a good idea.
Just 33 seconds later, Blais came through with the nail in the coffin goal to make it 4-1 after Ryan O’Reilly intercepted an errant Jamie Benn pass, went in alone and ripped a slap shot high, short side to end Bishop’s day for backup Anton Khudobin.
Blais, who finished with 12:20 ice time and a career-high nine of the Blues’ 34 hits, is the 12th player in Blues history to score a goal in his playoff debut and first since Brad Boyes in Game 1 of the 2009 conference quarterfinal.
“It was kind of the end of a shift, and O’Ry gave me the puck and told me to go,” Blais said. “I was tired, and I saw an opening on the blocker side and I just took a shot and it went in. It was a great moment.”
Blais, who replaced Robby Fabbri in the lineup and played his first game since March 12 after injuring his ankle against Arizona, said he got was given fair warning on Saturday night that he might go in.
“Chief text me last night to come in ready to play,” Blais said. “This morning he told me I was in, so I was hoping that I was going to go in, but I was really happy when I got the call that I was going to be playing.
“… I was a little bit nervous, but I had a good night of sleep. We played really good today. O’Ry and Perron really helped me out today. Two great players and it was really easy to play with them.”
None of the Blues veterans felt they needed to say anything to Blais, except for fellow freshman Perron.
“I spoke French to him a lot. That’s all I did,” Perron said. “He’s ready, that’s why they called for him to play. I was really excited for him when he scored that goal. He was at the end of a shift, so he was getting tired. That was a massive goal for us and hopefully, he keeps it going. He’s played some really good hockey for us this year – and even in the minors. He’s put in the time, so we hope it keeps going. You just have to remember all the moments you had when you were young, basically. You train for that, you play hockey since you’re five years old for those moments and he made the best of it.”
The move was another in line of Berube moves that spelled greatness and beneficial for the Blues, and he believed Blais was ready for the stage.
“Sammy just has that attitude,” Berube said. “I’ve coached him for a couple years now and been around the kid. He’s come a long way as a player and big moments like this don’t bother him. He can handle the pressure.”
As far as the stroke of genius, Perron said of his coach, “He’s got some balls. I know you don’t like to hear this word, but I didn’t think of anything else. Sorry, I’m French. I just think that Chief wears his emotion and his pride and you can see he’s got so much pride and he puts so much passion into everything that he does. He’s so fun to play for and he made a big decision and it worked out.”
And when the lead was secure, the Blues went into lockdown mode, which has been so good in these playoffs, particularly on the road.
By outscoring Dallas 2-0 in the final 20 minutes, the Blues have now outscored Winnipeg and Dallas 11-2 on the road in the third period. The only goals they’ve allowed is in Game 3 of this series, and improved to 6-1 away from Enterprise Center in the postseason.
“I think we’ve done a really good job,” Parayko said. “We continue to push in the third even if we’re down a couple or if we’re up one. Like tonight, we do a good job of continuing to push. It’s led into some of our early starts in the following games and whenever we do that, it’s tough to play against. It’s just playing full 60-minute hockey, especially in the playoffs and that’s huge.”
Clog the neutral zone, keep the Stars gaining speed from their backend was a recipe for success.
“I think the commitment that our players are making to playing good defense, reloading, working without the puck,” Berube said. “It’s hard to play when there’s no room. When we do that, we’re tough to play against.”
Now it’s on to a winner-take-all game.
“For me, it’s even,” Berube said. “We’re going into a Game 7. We’ve got to forget about this game, it’s over with and we’ve got to prepare for a tough Game 7. That’s the bottom line.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports
POST-GAME AUDIO: By Mike Reeves
Craig Berube, Sammy Blais, Oscar Sundqvist, Alex Pietrangelo