By Lou Korac
The final result may not indicate things are better with the Blues, as evidenced by their 5-2 loss Wednesday in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round to the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place in Edmonton, but there are numbers that indicate things are trending in the right direction.
However, if the Blues don’t fix some of their glaring mistakes that find their way in the back of the net, and they don’t change those negatives, particularly in the third period, this will be a short-lived series.
Including the exhibition loss against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Blues have been outscored by an alarming 11-0 in the third period, including 3-0 on Wednesday. They have led or were tied after two periods in their past four games. So how could a team that was 27-0-6 when leading after two periods in the regular season and 8-6-2 when tied after two periods be so unreliable in these playoffs?
The Blues led in each of the round-robin games, only to lose, and they were deadlocked in a 2-2 game on Wednesday and lost. Not a recipe for success for the defending Stanley Cup champs, who trail this best-of-7 series 1-0.
“We know we have to better in the third, no doubt about it,” center Brayden Schenn said. “We’re giving up some goals and got to tighten up a little bit. But as a game, it was better. Obviously not good enough, and we’ll find ways to continue to build and try to score some more goals here.”
Mistakes were again a glaring issue, and a Vladimir Tarasenko turnover and subsequent lack of a save from Jordan Binnington, who allowed five goals on 22 shots, on Troy Stecher’s shot from a bad angle at 5:37 of the third period gave the Canucks their third and final lead of the game, and then Vince Dunn, who had a game he likely won’t save in the archives, got undressed by Bo Horvat that led to Vancouver’s fourth goal at 8:01. Dunn also had a giveaway that led to a Justin Faulk penalty in the first period, and 12 seconds later, Horvat made it 1-0 at 4:29.
“Well, we had some good chances in the third and it just didn’t go in,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Listen, the game’s right there. We just didn’t get the next goal, but we’ve got to do a better job of not allowing what happened to happen. Penalties are a problem too.”
And how about those penalties?
When the Blues said discipline needs to be focused on going into this series considering the Canucks came in right behind the Blues in power-play efficiency at 24.2 percent during the regular-season, good for fourth in the NHL behind the Blues in third (24.3 percent).
They complained about some of the calls made by Chris Rooney and Jon McIsaac Wednesday, but the Blues put themselves in position to be shorthanded six times.
The Canucks cashed in on three of them.
“It’s not only us, it’s everything right now,” Schenn said. “I think if we went back on Vancouver’s playoff series against Minnesota, they had 28 power plays in four games. So they’re calling a lot of penalties and that’s on us to keep your stick to yourself and move your legs and check with your legs rather than your stick. Penalties are going to happen. At the end of the day, it is what it is, there’s no sense in complaining about it now. We’ll find a way to be better in Game 2. You’re going to get power plays and you’re going to have to kill off some penalties, and it’s going to be like that all series.”
Stick infractions is what irked Berube coming out of the round-robin series. There were three tripping penalties, a slash, a high stick and an interference.
“We’ve got to be better,” Berube said. “We’ve got to be more careful with our sticks. They are not great calls, but they’re obviously calling them so we’ve got to do a better job.
“… Listen, we’re playing hard. I think we’re intense out there, we’re competitive. We just got to do a better job with our sticks. That’s the bottom line. I think we did a good job of being physical tonight. There wasn’t many of those calls. We’ve just got to watch our sticks more. That’s all I can tell you.”
Even through all that, the Blues were right there. Once again, win a third period, win a game. But once again, that wasn’t the case.
They’ve gone 101 straight minutes without a third-period goal, or 154 days ago when Alex Pietrangelo scored at the 19:00 mark of the third period into an empty net in a 4-2 win at Anaheim on March 11.
The Blues produced 62 shot attempts, including 31 on goal, and had 17 scoring chances to the Canucks’ 9, which should be good signs when it comes to numbers, but on many of those perimeter or point shots, Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom was seeing those pucks cleanly.
When Markstrom was beaten by David Perron’s power-play goal at 16:37 of the first period that tied the game 1-1, he was screened by his own teammate (Christopher Tanev).
“Yeah, I think at this time of the year, in front of both nets is obviously really important,” said forward Jaden Schwartz, whose breakaway goal tied the game 2-2 in the second period. “The 50-50 battles, I thought we didn’t do a good enough job of, whether it was on the boards or just making good, strong plays through the neutral zone. I think our execution and battle level just has to be better, but definitely in front of the net. He’s a big guy, so we’ve got to get traffic there. We did a little bit, but just not enough right now.”
Not nearly enough.
“I liked our game,” Berube said. “I don’t like the mistakes in the third period on the two goals. They’re gimmes in my opinion. That’s got to be better, but I thought that we did a good job of controlling the tempo and the play. I thought we had a lot of good looks. We’re going to have to a better job of getting more traffic in front of their goalie and getting some greasy goals.”