By Lou Korac
Let’s get the obvious out of the way before it gets addressed at some point: it’s early.
Yes, it is early. It’s known how the script played out for the Blues last season, one that will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them or any NHL squad to duplicate again.
There are multiple ways to look at the Blues’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks at Enterprise Center on Thursday.
Yes, the Blues (3-1-3) collected at least a point in six of their seven games, and they only have one regulation loss. That’s a plus. But on the flip side, this marks the third time this season the Blues have lost a game (albeit picked up a point) in which they blew a two-goal lead.
It’s been something that, can’t be called a problem (yet), but definitely something that needs to be addressed, and soon.
“It’s a staple of our game for years here, right, is closing out leads,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We’ve just got to find a way to keep playing the same way. A couple weird bounces the last couple games, not an excuse, but I think we can still do a better job of closing teams out and keeping things 5-on-5, but there’s a lot of things we can build off of here, but once you start closing out games, we’re going to be pushing things in the right direction.”
In what will be polar opposite as far as statistics in the NHL are concerned, the Blues are completely going against the grain thus far. They’re 0-0-2 when leading after two periods this season, but 2-0-0 when trailing.
On Thursday, they led 3-1 against the Canucks (4-2-0) with a chance to put the hammer down on a win, but much like their 3-2 overtime loss against the New York Islanders on Monday, a game in which the Blues blew a 2-0 lead with under six minutes remaining in the game, they failed to take advantage of a man-advantage to not only build momentum, but to all but bank the two points.
Leading 3-1 on goals by Robby Fabbri, Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues were in a position to squeeze the life out of the Canucks with a 5-on-3 power-play for 1:20. But instead of extending the lead, Vancouver’s J.T. Miller scored exactly a minute later to make it 3-2.
Game on, instead of game over.
It was a similar situation on New York when the Blues were in a position with 8:43 remaining to build on a 2-0 lead, to at least build momentum off a good power play. But instead of building momentum, they simply tried to take two minutes off and allowed the Islanders to build momentum. The Canucks built momentum off their 5-on-3 kill and pounced.
The Blues haven’t scored a 5-on-3 goal in the regular season since Dec. 9, 2016, which spans 225 games, which is crazy to comprehend, but here we are.
“You always think you can do more, but we had three pretty good opportunities to score, good shots,” said Blues coach Craig Berube, who took blame for Thursday’s loss, which will be explained later. “Just didn’t pick the corner.
“I think that we can move the puck quicker on the 5-on-3 than we do. Sometimes we probably slow it down too much.”
The Blues simply couldn’t penetrate or get inside the dots to produce the necessary quality shots.
“We talked lately about plays we want to run. We ran them,” Pietrangelo said. “Some were there, some weren’t. We had some good looks. I had one good look and so did Schenner. I think their goal was 5-on-5 and they almost went two minutes and didn’t score either. It would have kind of been nice to go up 4-1 there, but first one we’ve had some there were some pretty good looks.”
At least the past two games, teams have been given the opportunity to build momentum, and the Blues have succumbed despite building good parts of their game within the game.
“We do good things, that’s for sure, but we’re still not where we need to be,” Berube said. “We’ve got to be tighter than we are defensively. I still think our awareness without the puck is not where it should be right now. There is puck play at times, we’ve got to clean it up. We just turn pucks over too much at times. Those are the two areas for me that we can tighten up for sure.”
The Blues did make mistakes with the puck again, and puck management is something Berube has talked about cleaning up, but the Blues coach didn’t want to put the onus on the players for blowing this two-goal lead.
That perhaps belongs to referee Trevor Hanson, whose highly questionable goaltender interference penalty on Robert Thomas, who returned after missing five games because of an upper-body injury, with 9:55 remaining triggered a response from the Blues bench that doubled the penalty minutes and put the Blues in deep trouble with a full 5-on-3 penalty kill.
Apparently Hanson had his feelings hurt when Berube voiced his displeasure for the call, and the Blues technically killed off the entire two-man disadvantage — they’re 16-for-17 on the season, including 15 straight PK’s — but Bo Horvat tied the game with 7:55 remaining on a crazy goalmouth scramble that Colton Parayko nearly prevented.
“It’s on me,” Berube said, who was surprised it was called.
“Yeah big time. But whatever. That’s my fault,” Berube said. “At times there will be (a warning) if there’s continuous yelling. But it wasn’t like that.”
Berube said he was offered no explanation on the call against Thomas, which clearly showed the Blues’ second-year forward was skating diagonally through his lane when he was backed into by Canucks defenseman Tyler Myers and into goalie Thatcher Demko.
“At that time of the game … I don’t know, what’s the point,” a frustrated Pietrangelo said when asked about it. “Game’s over with now. Whatever.”
Bigger picture is that the Blues know they’re getting opponents’ best games. It comes with the territory of being defending Stanley Cup champions. Now they just have to figure out, as Pietrangelo stated, to close out leads, because they have built some good minutes within games, and as Berube points out, there are things to clean up.
“It’s frustrating,” said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, who made 29 saves. “It seems the teams are building momentum off their first goal. I think we have to do a good job at staying composed and getting back to our game.”
The shootout, always a crapshoot, produced zero goals for the Blues from Tyler Bozak, Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, who had his five-game goal scoring streak end but extended his point streak to six games (five goals, three assists) with an assist on Tarasenko’s goal; David Perron and Alexander Steen.
Binnington was also up to the challenge until Josh Leivo beat him in the sixth round.
“Just continue to stay with our game plan,” Parayko said regarding pushing forward. “It’s not easy to win in this league. Just make sure we stay focused, just don’t take any lead for granted and just continue to push.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports