By Lou Korac
When David Perron scored late in the second period, the Blues had finally overcame the hurdle.
A lead, you say? Yes, Perron’s goal finally gave the defending Stanley Cup champions a lead in their Western Conference First Round series against the Vancouver Canucks. It took Game 3 to finally accomplish it, but a lead is a lead and something to feel good about and something to continue to build on.
Well, that lead only lasted a whopping 37 seconds after a mishap on communication between Colton Parayko and Marco Scandella saw the two Blues defensemen bump into one another, a turnover ensued and Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson scored.
It could have been dejection for a team searching for any positive momentum, but the intestinal fortitude of the Blues has not only been tested throughout this series, this Edmonton bubble setup that yielded zero wins, but they can draw back on their experiences of a year ago and what it took to overcome a number of mental and physical obstacles.
But staring a potential 0-3 deficit in the best-of-7 series, the Blues stayed on course, remained vigilant and found a way when Brayden Schenn scored on a breakaway in overtime of a 3-2 win against the Canucks on Sunday night at Rogers Place.
Schenn’s OT winner came when he was able to grab a loose puck at center ice and beat Jacob Markstrom with a quick snap shot high glove side at 15:06 to get the Blues back in the series and give them a chance at leveling it with Game 4 today at 9:30 p.m. (FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM).
Carl Gunnarsson had played a puck around the boards, and Ryan O’Reilly was able to push it into the neutral zone by Quinn Hughes, and Schenn raced past Troy Stecher before beating Markstrom with the Blues’ 49th shot of the game.
“Schwartzy came off, he was a little tired so I jumped on kind of the backcheck,” Schenn said. “The puck squeaked out to me. Lucky bounce, kind of popped right in the middle. Markstrom’s playing well and I just tried to get a quick shot.”
It was the culmination of a game in which the Blues, who trail the best-of-7 series 2-1, continued their trend of building their game to the pace and tone that they want, which is heavy-hitting, hard-checking, grinding, cycling hockey.
They did it playing without three of their veteran forwards, including Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, who were deemed “unfit to play” and are day-to-day, and coach Craig Berube made the boldest of moves, inserting veteran Jake Allen in goal after Jordan Binnington, who backstopped the Blues to all 16 wins last season en route to the Cup, allowed nine goals on 47 shots in Games 1-2.
Allen was brilliant, making 39 saves and followed up his terrific performance when he made 37 saves against the Dallas Stars in a 2-1 shootout loss in the round-robin.
“He was excellent,” Berube said of Allen. “We hadn’t got a win yet, so change it up. Jake’s been a really good goalie for us all year and again he was tonight.
“He’s extremely prepared, works extremely hard. He doesn’t take much time off. He’s always out there practicing, whether on the ice or video and just staying prepared. He does a real good job. He’s a real good pro.”
The Blues know they have two quality tenders, and even with the change, perhaps because of the back-to-back setup for Games 3-4, they know either guy can get the job done.
“Came in, was solid right from the beginning,” Schenn said of Allen. “He’s been good for us. Both goalies have been really good for us all year. It doesn’t really come as a surprise or a shock and (Allen) obviously stepped up tonight with a huge win.”
“We expected him to play great, and he did,” veteran forward Tyler Bozak said of Allen. “It’s a pretty good luxury to have two goaltenders with that caliber on your team. That’s huge for us, and he stepped up big for us tonight.”
Perron added, “(Allen) was exceptional. We have two really good goalies. It’s up to the coach to decide who’s going to go and play and with a back-to-back, we see other teams around the league are going to backups and then playing both guys. We were really happy with his performance. He’s been solid for us all year and it was great to see.”
The Blues, in a must-win, inserted Jacob de la Rose, Mackenzie MacEachern and Jordan Kyrou into the lineup. Kyrou, who finished with 12:59 ice time and seven shot attempts in the game.
“Might have been the most competitive game I’ve seen him play,” Berube said of Kyrou. “When I put him in the lineup, that’s the conversation I had with him. It’s not about if you score a goal or make a play, it’s about doing the right things, playing the right way and being a highly competitive player. I thought he was really competitive tonight.”
And speaking of unsung heroes, it’s one game, but the Blues and their fans finally got a glimpse of arguably the best game defenseman Justin Faulk played since they acquired him last September.
Faulk, who tied the game 1-1 by knocking in a backdoor pass from Robert Thomas at 8:16 of the second period, was a wrecking ball. He finished with 25:36 ice time and had 11 shot attempts (four on goal), a team-high eight hits and three of the Blues’ 12 blocked shots.
“He just looked like he was really skating well, moving the puck well, jumping up in the play really well,” Berube said of Faulk. “He has those abilities and I thought he really took advantage of it tonight. I saw him up in the play a ton tonight shooting pucks. He did a great job. He was very good tonight.”
But even as they got high marks for their performance, the Blues were at times their own worst enemy, including taking a too many men penalty when Sammy Blais jumped over the boards. It led to a J.T. Miller goal to give Vancouver a 1-0 lead, and when Pettersson scored at 18:39 following Perron’s snipe, it made it a 2-2 game and zapped momentum from the Blues. And then the power play, well, it was 0-for-2 with no shots on goal, including one in the final two minutes of regulation and one in overtime.
But this group has been through a lot. Remember where they were on Jan. 3, 2019? Looking up at the rest of the league? Yeah, that’s rock bottom. And if they can climb out of that black hole, they can certainly climb out of the dicey situation they’re in in this series.
“I think most guys in the room have playoff experience and we’ve been through a few battles before,” said Perron, who scored a beautiful goal to make it 2-1. “There was nothing to worry (about) at that point obviously. We wanted to keep the lead. Even when I scored there, I’m already focused on the next shift right away. … It didn’t matter. It’s going to happen in games and it’s great to see that we were resilient and we found a way to win.”
The Blues are not short of resiliency, even though it may not have looked like it much in the bubble.
“Obviously experience always helps,” Bozak said. “We know a seven-game series is long. It’s not over after two games. We knew we had to come out hard and have a big game tonight and we’ve got to keep trying to wear them down. They have a ton of skill players over there that can make you pay, you’ve got to take away their time and space as fast as can be, you’ve got to be hard on them. The series is long so you’ve got to keep grinding, wear teams down and play as much as you can in the o-zone.”
It’s only one run and it’s a race to four, but the Blues have made it a series. A win tonight makes it a best-of-3.
Winning a game for the first time in 156 days can certainly implement a dose of much-needed confidence.
“Each game we’re getting better and hopefully still a long series and we’re going to keep building our team game,” Schenn said.
“The guys are resilient in here, in this locker room,” Perron said. “It was a pretty good feeling to see Schenner score that one.”
“It feels good obviously,” Bozak said. “It’s a huge game for us. We knew we needed that one, and they’re a great team. They’re going to come hard again tomorrow. We’ve got to be ready for that. We’ve got to have our best and we expect a tough game again tomorrow, so we’ve got to be ready.”