By Lou Korac
When Jaden Schwartz tied the game up Friday in the waning seconds and the Blues facing a tough hill to climb, the impression was that they had turned the corner and would continue how they finished after overcoming a two-goal deficit.
But Bo Horvat has turned into the Blues’ kryptonite, and even after scoring three goals, including a shorthanded goal in Game 2 of the Western Conference First Round series, the Blues somehow didn’t get the message.
Horvat’s breakaway goal 5:55 into overtime gave the Canucks a 4-3 win against the Blues Friday at Rogers Place in Edmonton to give Vancouver a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
It came after Vladimir Tarasenko had lost a puck battle behind the Vancouver net and with Alex Pietrangelo trying to read the play of his teammate with the option of giving him a slot option of Tarasenko had possession of the puck, he and defensive partner Carl Gunnarsson were caught on the same side of the ice and allowed Horvat free real estate behind them.
Quinn Hughes, despite getting trucked by Tyler Bozak, was able to get off a stretch pass to Horvat, who came in on Jordan Binnington from the goalie’s right and slid a relatively weak puck through the Blues’ netminder’s legs for the game-winner.
“It was kind of just a scramble play because I was coming from behind the net with Vladi,” Pietrangelo said. “We’ve just got to know he’s there and just one of us just kind of get out of the zone and cover him. I think we laid off the pressure and allowed the guy to make the play. We just lost the coverage, but again, I honestly didn’t even look at it. We’ll take a look at it. Just got to find a way to find those guys when they’re taking off out of their defensive zone.
“Vladi tried to hit me backdoor through the slot and hit the guy’s skate. That was a fine look, we just maybe got to get out quicker and not allow the d-man to make the play.”
It was a tough ending to a game in which the Blues once again played solid, hard stretches and imposed their will on the young, high-flying Canucks. But what’s been real problematic in these first two games has been a porous special teams, particularly the penalty kill, which allowed two more Vancouver power-play goals in Game 2 and five in two games.
The Blues did a better job of not committing a plethora of penalties, but still got burned on two of three penalty kills, and the power play, which was 1-for-6 after scoring once on three tries in Game 1, allowed Horvat’s shorthanded goal for a 1-0 Vancouver lead.
“Obviously staying out of the box is a good thing for us,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “But when it is, we have to find a way to kill it. They’re moving it around, they’re confident right now. We’ve got to find a way to disrupt them and when we get a chance to clear it, it’s got to go 200. We can’t give these guys more looks than they have. PP, obviously we got one tonight, but still, yeah, move the puck a little faster and take it to the net. I think when we do that, stuff stuff seems to open up and those breaks happen. We need to be a bit more aggressive getting the good look and all five of us being hungry around the net.”
Right now, the Blues can’t stop Horvat, who’s torched them for not only the four goals but on the face-off dot too, where he won 20 of 29 draws. He and O’Reilly are two of the best in the NHL and while the Blues seemingly are doing a decent job on some of the Canucks’ other stars, they’re failing miserably with Vancouver’s captain.
“Don’t give him breakaways,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “He’s walked two of our people 1-on-1 for breakaways. Tonight, it was kind of a chuck-puck play. We’ve got to recognize he got behind us. Their breakaways, so … you’ve got to keep it in front of you and we can’t let him beat us one-on-one. You’ve got to defend that. That’s it. Simple.”
For all that went wrong leading up to Horvat’s game-winner, it was a shot Binnington wouldn’t have a lot of problems with. But the Blues’ netminder, after backstopping them to key save after key save en route to a Stanley Cup a season ago and playing well during the round-robin games, just hasn’t quite been himself in these two games. He’s allowed nine goals on 47 shots, good for a woeful .808 save percentage.
This, after allowing a bad goal on Vancouver’s go-ahead tally in Game 1 of the third period of a tie game.
“Well, I think there’s concern all around. That’s too many goals against just in general, so … It’s not just the goalie, it’s the whole team.”
Could Jake Allen, who was terrific in his only start of the round-robin, a 2-1 shootout loss to Dallas in which the veteran made 37 saves, get the start Sunday for a pivotal Game 3?
“That’s something I’ll discuss tomorrow with the coaching staff,” Berube said. “That’s as far as I’m going to take that.”
As for the game itself in the third period, when Elias Pettersson’s power-play goal at 5:36 gave the Canucks a 3-1 lead, all seemed lost and a 2-0 series deficit would be a formality. But the Blues made it anything but a formality when Sammy Blais scored their first third-period goal since Pietrangelo’s empty-netter in Anaheim on March 11 (including the exhibition, a span of 110:02) between third-period goals to make it a 3-2 game, and Schwartz would get the equalizer with 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation, the Blues’ first in a 6-on-5 situation to tie a game this season, when Pietrangelo’s shot was tipped by Perron, off Schwartz’s knee and past Markstrom.
The goal was initially waved off by officials for a high stick but a review quickly reversed the call on ice.
“Yeah, I knew,” said Perron, who was initially given credit for the goal. “… I knew it was good. I don’t know who called it no goal on the ice or whatever, but it doesn’t matter at this point. We’ve got to find a way to keep playing like that and not give them those breaks when they cheat up the ice and we’ll be fine.
“It’s just a scramble out of our set that we kind of were on the board there I guess. A good shot by Petro to put it there. Only a few seconds.”
The Blues, who outshot the Canucks 37-25 for the game, were feeling good about their game again. A case of 5-on-5, they played like they wanted, in the Canucks zone, forechecking, working cycles, playing that physical, grinding style. Only to see the bubble burst again.
“Definitely we showed good resilience, kind of sticking with it, finding a way to get that goal obviously the last part of the game there,” said O’Reilly, whose power-play goal late on the second cut Vancouver’s lead to 2-1. “I think we went into OT confident that we were going to make it happen and it’s just kind of one bad little break that happens and sometimes that’s the way it is. Sometimes that happens, sometimes we’re on the other end of it, but we’re putting this behind us and focus on the next game. We did a lot of good things tonight and we just have to be more consistent with it.”
The Blues made lineup changes, inserting Blais and Alexander Steen, who both were “unfit to play” in Game 1, in place of Mackenzie MacEachern and Jacob de la Rose, and Berube moved some parts around among his top nine forwards. He moved Brayden Schenn to the wing and moved Tyler Bozak up to play with Tarasenko, Schwartz moved to O’Reilly and Perron’s line and that trip looked great, and Zach Sanford moved off O’Reilly’s line to play with Blais and Robert Thomas.
It’s just tough getting what the Blues want when they’re chasing the game throughout.
“Well yeah, both games, we’re getting scored on first so we’re consistently … obviously the first two games chasing it,” Berube said. “But I thought the lines were good. They seemed to get some good production. I thought those three lines had good chances, all three of them, all game, so I was pretty happy with the lines. Like I said, there was a lot of good things, but we’ve got to limit our mistakes and we’ve got to kill penalties better, or just kill them off and I think we’ll be in better shape.”
Easier said than done, it seems. But there also should be more of a focus to contain Horvat.
“We’ve got to be harder on him,” Pietrangelo said. “The power-play/PK goal he scored, we’ve just got to be harder on him. It’s as simple as that. He’s a strong player, gets up the ice well. We’ve just got be harder on him. We’ve been hard on the other guys, we’ve got to find a way to take away his space. I think we all know that it’s got to be a collective effort. We’ve done a good job on some of the other guys, we’ve just got to keep an eye on him.”
The Blues never got behind by more than a game during their Cup run last season. Now they’re two games away from seeing their chance at a repeat end. There will be doubters cast that the Canucks are simply better and have executed better.
“I don’t know what to say, to be honest,” Perron said. “It wasn’t our year last year up to January. We found a way to turn it around. It doesn’t matter what people say on the outside. What matters is how we play and what we believe in this room and the way we played in this game is exactly the way we need to play for the most part and then we gave them a couple breaks. If we put 40 shots on net and the pressure that we did tonight, I’m confident that we can win the next couple games.”
Games 3 and 4 will be Sunday and Monday, with both starts at 9:30 p.m., and the Blues are still in search of their first win in Edmonton.