By Lou Korac
In Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference First Round series against the Vancouver Canucks, the Blues experienced what playing in the middle of the ice and not being connected as a five-man unit does to their game.
For one, it feeds into the Canucks’ transition game and enables Vancouver to thrive using their speed and quickness. It resulted in two wins for the Canucks and put the defending Stanley Cup champions in a bind.
In Games 3 and 4, the story was different, and so were the results.
Led by a three-point game (two goals, one assist) from Ryan O’Reilly, who along with linemates David Perron and Jaden Schwartz have been lights-out since coach Craig Berube put them together the past two games, the Blues throttled, bottled and smothered the Canucks in a 3-1 win in Game 4 on Monday at Rogers Place in Edmonton to even the best-of-7 series at two games apiece.
And you want to know how the Blues got back into this? Instead of free-wheeling and playing right into the Canucks’ hands, the Blues, who have claimed all along that they were building their game the right way despite the uncharacteristic mistakes and lack of discipline that led to penalties and giving opportunities to Vancouver’s potent power play, put pucks in right places, started playing more as five-man units and were connected on the ice.
When you get a team that doesn’t necessarily want to engage along the walls and fight for pucks in board battles, the will becomes an imposition and begins to weaken it, and the Blues, as this series moves along to a critical Game 5 Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. (FS-MW, NBCSN, ESPN 101.1-FM), play as well and as strong as anyone in the game of attrition, one that takes grit and energy. It takes a mindset to want to continuously go in and play the ground and pound game. But when the Blues do it well, they do it better than anyone.
“I think that first game, we were feeling it out a lot, trying to do things the right way, but their speed kind of gave us a lot of issues,” O’Reilly said of the Canucks. “When we stay connected and kind of stick to our structure, you could see that it’s more difficult on them. So definitely these last two games, we’ve done a much better job of that and not feeding their transition. We’re slowly finding our game.”
O’Reilly, Perron and Schwartz in particular. That line paved the way with shift after shift of grinding and forechecking and keeping the Canucks from turning on the jets and afterburners, instead, making the Canucks scrap and battle for pucks.
“Well, I think all series we’ve been doing a lot of it,” Berube said. “But I didn’t see in the first two games waves of it, if that makes sense. Line after line, on the same page, doing the same thing, along with the ‘D’. Tonight was probably the best of it I’ve seen where one line after another, five guys on the ice were involved together on the forecheck, in the offensive zone, tracking back, defensive zone and that’s what we need to be. That’s a strength of our team, and the team game.”
And when the Blues had to work in the neutral zone and in their zone defending, it was much more of the same. Keep pucks out of high danger areas, work those walls and boards and have a good flow transitioning pucks.
“As a five-man unit, I think we’re getting up and down the ice a lot better,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, whose 5-on-3 goal in the second period gave the Blues a two-goal cushion. “They got guys that can play high-skill through the neutral zone. We’ve seen that, they’ve made some plays. We’re connected as five into the neutral zone, that leads into the d-zone and we’re getting out a lot quicker. We’re playing a lot more simple and that’s leading to a little more success in the d-zone.”
The Blues went with the same lineup that netted a 3-2 win in overtime when Brayden Schenn scored on Sunday night to get them back in the series. That meant veteran forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen (both players ruled unfit to play) were out of the lineup for a second straight game.
“Well, we’ll just see,” Berube said when asked about their availability. “They’re unfit to play right now and we’ll see what happens if they become ready to play.”
Ivan Barbashev, who returned to Edmonton last Friday, could return as early as today, provided he produced four straight negative COVID-19 tests.
But there was no need for Berube to change anything, including goalie Jake Allen, who didn’t see as many shots as he did in Game 3 (41) but still was called upon to make 22 saves and provide the netminding needed to get back in the series.
Allen is 2-0-1 with a 1.20 goals-against average and .961 save percentage in three starts in Edmonton, stopping 98 of 102 shots.
“Yeah, obviously this year is a unique situation,” Allen said. “I knew I had to be ready. You don’t have 82 games to prep yourself for the playoffs, so it was just working hard and being ready. I got a chance and, you know, try to make the most of it. The guys have played really hard the past couple of nights and hats off to them. It made my job not overly difficult and it got us right back in the series here. So it’s good to be battling with the guys. It’s been awhile, but it’s been fun.”
Berube said after the game Sunday he’d think about what he would do. The choice was obvious.
“We always think about (the goalie decision),” Berube said. “We’ve got two really good goalies, so … Jake felt good and he played a strong game. I had a gut feeling and just went with him. He was excellent again.”
The Blues penalty kill, which had been shoddy at best through three games, killing just five of 11 Vancouver power-plays, got in plenty of work on Monday, going 7-for-7.
And the power play was 2-for-5. Win the special teams, you normally win the game.
“We’ve been making adjustments as we go just based on what they do,” Pietrangelo said. “I think last game, they scored the one on the rush, but I thought we did a better job. More of the same. Big thing for us is clearing the puck when we have an opportunity. We were much better with that tonight. It’s not fun when you’ve got to keep breaking the puck out. I think for us, the clears are the number one thing that we’ve really been a lot better at.”
Bottom line is the Blues simply are wearing the Canucks down, physically and probably emotionally. It’s no fun playing the game in the style that they want and relish playing in. Vancouver is finding that out the hard way.
“I think we’ve built our game,” O’Reilly said. “When we take care of the puck, it’s effective and it’s hard on them. I think it was obviously and emotional win last night, feeling good coming back into the rink again today and getting right to our game again today. That was a big factor. Obviously a lot of work left. We’ve got to stick to our structure.”
“We’ve been building since Game 1,” Pietrangelo said. “I know we didn’t get the results in the first two games, but we had a lot of offensive zone possession. Last game we had the same. They want to play with speed in the neutral zone, but it’s tough when we’re playing in the offensive zone. We’ve done a much better job. We’re a lot tighter as five-man units. That’s our game, that’s what’s been giving us success. I think more of that will bring us some good fortune.”
As for the scoring, O’Reilly helped the Blues score the first goal on the power play at 16:43 of the first period, and after J.T. Miller scored Vancouver’s lone goal on a redirection 40 seconds into the second period, O’Reilly restored the Blues’ lead for good with a beautiful backhand goal from the slot at 6:52 of the second for a 2-1 lead after the line went to work and won the puck in the corner. And Pietrangelo scored the Blues’ first 5-on-3 goal since Game 5 of the Western Conference Final against San Jose last season at 15:47 of the second.
Forwards Sammy Blais and Robert Thomas each missed a portion of the game Monday stemming from separate incidents.
Blais was involved in a scrap with Vancouver’s Antoine Roussel late in the first period when he took a punch to the chin. He missed the entire second period but returned to play in the third, and Thomas was the recipient of a Oskar Fantenberg boarding penalty in the offensive zone late in the second that gave the Blues their two-man advantage, but he would return as well.