By Lou Korac
The Blues dusted off the Winnipeg Jets, 4-1, on Sunday for the second time in 45 hours. It was their eighth straight win.
This is no fluke. It actually, without putting any jinxes on it, looks very similar to the way the Blues (26-8-6) played en route to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
And for the opposition, this version of the Blues looks very scary right now.
“Yeah, similar,” said Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, who scored twice Sunday to extend his point streak to six games (four goals, seven assists). “That’s what we’re kind of building towards and keeping that same intensity, sticking to our systems and it’s been good. We’ve got a tough road trip coming up that will really test us.”
The Blues are getting tested lately in every fashion, taking on all comers. There’s still half a season left and plenty of tough opponents standing in their way. They can still run into a wall, obviously, but the Blues are winning with confidence, they’re winning playing their style and it’s a pain-in-the-you-know-what to the opposition.
They’re 23-1-1 when scoring three or more goals and 19-0-2 (19-0-0 in regulation) when allowing two or fewer goals. Talk about a smothering stat. When the opposition sees that, they know they’re in deep trouble. Either keep the Blues from scoring three or better get more than two.
“We’re just finding different ways to win,” Schwartz said. “Our special teams has been good. I think we’re just aggressive. You look at our forwards backchecking, our D have such tight gaps. We’re just frustrating other teams and making it hard on their top players and we’re spending some time in the O-zone and kind of wearing teams down. We’re playing tight, aggressive and together and it looks pretty quick and fast that way.”
What’s even more impressive is the personnel missing from the Blues lineup, namely Vladimir Tarasenko and without up-and-comer Sammy Blais and a host of others that have been missing and returned or are still out (Robert Thomas, Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev, Alexander Steen, Carl Gunnarsson). This didn’t happen last year, this many injuries. And yet whoever is inserted into the lineup as plug-and-play guys are getting the job done.
The big horses are starting to score, including Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo, but the supporting cast, guys like Robert Thomas, Sundqvist, Barbashev, Mackenzie MacEachern, Jacob de la Rose, Jordan Kyrou are scoring, and the defensemen are pitching in (Vince Dunn and Justin Faulk is coming on fast and curious), Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester are locked against top foes, and Dunn and Robert Bortuzzo are holding their own as a third d-pair. In fact, Bortuzzo is leading the charge among penalty killers.
“We can talk about guys’ assists and points and whatever, but to me, that’s not the stuff that matters,” said Pietrangelo, who passed Al MacInnis for most assists among Blues defensemen in team history (326) Sunday. “If you look what guys are doing in the defensive zone, guys are playing hard minutes, allowing other guys to play free and even guys like ‘Bouw’ and ‘Parry,’ you see what they’re doing against these top lines, it’s pretty impressive and allows some of us to maybe have some more offensive zone starts and the same thing out front. It’s what a good team does. They find a role and everybody takes pride in what they do and none of that stuff goes unnoticed.”
And the goaltending, well, what can we say about Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen, arguably the best 1-2 tandem in the league right now, and what do you have? Well, you have a well-rounded, well-oiled machine that’s ready to take another stab at this.
They just don’t talk about it. They’re not talking about how many games they’ve won, they’re not talking about how many points they have, and they’re certainly not talking about standings. It’s play, execute, move on, get ready for the next one.
“We don’t really talk about it. That was a big win,” Binnington, who is 6-0-0 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .921 save percentage his past six starts, said after making 25 saves Sunday. “We had to be patient and we had to stay composed. We stuck to our team game plan and we executed and it was a big win for us.”
And then there’s the Chief, Craig Berube, who has the attention of his players, commands their attention and has earned their respect, who is all but a shoe-in now to represent as coach of the Central Division at the All-Star Game here on Jan. 25. If he doesn’t gloat about the Blues’ accomplishments, you think the players will?
Not a chance. He’s talking about the present game, and moving on quickly.
“We all like winning,” Berube said with a grin. “… I thought it was a good game. We did a lot of good things out there. We were pretty solid all around. I thought the goalie was good, made good saves when we needed him to. PK did a great job tonight. Robert Bortuzzo, I mean that’s big stuff _ laying it on the line blocking those shots. That’s a big reason you win these games in my opinion. So that’s a tough job, great job by him.”
It’s a good time to be at the rink these days. The Blues, who can tie the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second-most wins in a calendar year in NHL history with 73, have every reason to feel good.
“It’s good. Obviously it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink right now,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got a good feeling. We’re doing a good job even after wins coming to the rink the next day and getting ready and getting prepared.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports