By Lou Korac
There was no avoiding the emotions.
When the videos started replaying moments that led to the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup, it only revved the sellout crowd of 18,096 and sent it into delirium. And then when the team was introduced and first, Alexander Steen skated onto the ice with the Clarence Campbell Bowl, then Ryan O’Reilly skated out with the Conn Smythe Trophy, and captain Alex Pietrangelo came out with the Stanley Cup, the decibel meter really was racing.
And then the capper: the banner, one that went to the rafters of Enterprise Center never to be touched again. It will be a stern reminder that the Blues were Stanley Cup champions of 2019, and up with it, went their team song of a year ago ‘Gloria’ and it signified a new beginning, the 2019-20 season.
Unfortunately for the Blues, they couldn’t sustain what they started when they blew a two-goal lead and lost to the 2018 Cup champion Washington Capitals, 3-2 in overtime, when Jakub Vrana scored 2 minutes 51 seconds into the extra frame to spoil the fun on Wednesday.
The matchup of the past two Cup champions lived up to the billing, although the Blues may not feel the same way after taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Sammy Blais and Pietrangelo 7:55 into the game.
From there, things tailed off for the defending champs, and there were a few subtle reminders of what went awry at times before they went on their incredible run.
“We weren’t quite as aggressive,” Pietrangelo said. “They were trying to stretch us out and we just kind of got on our heels. We’ve got to find a way to continue to stay on our toes and stay aggressive.
“I thought we started well, we got a point, right? It would have been nice to get the extra one, but I thought we started well, got to our game. We’ve just got to keep pushing the whole time.”
The Blues pushed in the first period, got the lead just 53 seconds in when Blais finished off a beautiful feed from David Perron for a 1-0 lead. That line really did some good things in this game and bodes well moving forward.
The Blues dodged a bullet when Blais left with roughly nine minutes remaining after he took a double-hit, first from Lars Eller, then getting a shot under the chin from T.J. Oshie.
“He came back, so that’s a good sign,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “I thought he had a good game. I thought he was aggressive. That line did some good things, I thought, but he was physical, he played the way he played in the preseason for me.”
Another good sign was a more deliberate power play, one in which scored on its first attempt when Pietrangelo beat Braden Holtby on a one-timer from the left circle after a feed from Justin Faulk, who was making his Blues debut to make it 2-0.
All was well, right?
Alex Ovechkin got one for Washington at 15:37 of the first to cut the lead to 2-1, and the second period seemed to be the Blues’ undoing. They spent a lot of time in their end mismanaging pucks, and eventually, Dmitry Orlov’s power-play goal would tie the game at 12:28.
At one point, the Capitals outshot the Blues 14-0 and the Blues went nearly 14 minutes without one.
“We turned the puck over a lot,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “They played quick, got it in on us, got to work, and they just had a bunch of zone time on us. When we got it back, we turned it over at the blue line, they countered on us again, here they come again. We were on our heels for quite some time until probably five minutes to go in that period. We were OK then.
“You’ve got to manage the puck better. That’s the biggest thing I take from the game tonight, our puck play wasn’t very good.”
Perhaps it’s from a lack of time together, but as Berube pointed out, “We’ve got the same team (as last year) pretty much.”
So the coach wasn’t using that as an excuse as much as the players were.
“We couldn’t get our feet back going and change the momentum like we needed to,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, who had two assists to give him 501 NHL points. “Getting a point out of that with all the emotions going on, I think it’s a good point, but it’s not good enough. It’s a good realization that we have to go back to work.”
On the overtime goal, the Blues were giving the Capitals way too much real estate, and not just on the sequence on the overtime goal but even before that. However on the Vrana goal, he took a cross-ice pass from John Carlson, and from the right circle, hit it into another gear and raced past O’Reilly and whipped a wrister through Binnington.
“Just too slow and too much time. More aggressive. Soft. Just backing off too much,” Berube said. “To me, our whole game tonight, we weren’t aggressive. We didn’t play our game. The first period was fine, but after that, I thought we got away from our game and just didn’t have that aggressive mindset, didn’t manage the puck very well.”
Despite some of their deficiencies, the Blues had some terrific scoring chances.
Robert Thomas took one in the second period on a great hand-to-stick play and went in alone on Holtby but was stopped; Vladimir Tarasenko had one off to the left of Holtby off a Brayden Schenn pass but couldn’t squeeze the shot through in the third, and early in the second, Holtby made a point blank stop on O’Reilly.
But the greatest one of all was when Faulk sent in O’Reilly alone on the backhand with 1:35 remaining, but he couldn’t beat Holtby on the backhand.
“I wish I could take that play back and redo it,” O’Reilly said. “I’m better than that.”
All in all, the Blues can take a lot from this season opener. Last year, they were blitzed in the third period en route to a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
But as Berube said, “We’ve got work to do.”
There are 81 more games remaining, enough time to get some things right, and unlike last season, the doom and gloom gap is not nearly as noticeable. These Blues should be just fine.
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports