By Lou Korac
How often is the phrase spoken or heard when a team is in total control of a game and allows it to slip away: “We took our foot off the gas.”
If it’s not “we took our foot off the gas,” then it’s “you have to play a full 60 minutes.”
So when dissecting the Blues’ 4-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks Wednesday in Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round at Rogers Place in Edmonton, a game in which the Blues, who now are on the brink of elimination down 3-2 in the series, had complete control over leading 3-1, literally and figuratively took their foot off the gas, and they certainly didn’t play a 60-minute game.
Some of that credit goes to the Canucks, which frittered away a 2-0 series lead and handed momentum right back to the Blues. A lot of that credit goes to Jacob Markstrom, who made some saves in that game when the Blues were ready to step on the Canucks’ throats leading 3-1, but it’s very disheartening when the defending Stanley Cup champs, who know better than anyone else what it was like putting games away when leading in last year’s playoffs other than one blip in Game 1 of the Cup Final against Boston, a chance to take a hammerlock lead in the series and really put the Canucks in a bind, don’t close the deal.
When Zach Sanford scored a power-play goal at 5:51 of the second period, it gave the Blues a two-goal lead and seemingly the game, or at least that’s what they thought.
And by thinking that over the final 10-12 minutes of that period cost them dearly.
Vancouver would score three times in a span of 6:23 to grab a 4-3 lead, a lead the Blues wouldn’t really threaten consistently again until the final minutes of regulation.
“A hundred percent. We fell asleep there for whatever, 10-15 minutes of that period,” said Blues forward Brayden Schenn, who scored the tying goal in the first to make it 1-1. “Quit moving our feet, quit playing hard in our d-zone and made some mistakes and before you know it, it was 4-3.”
The Blues won Games 3 and 4 by smothering the Canucks, particularly in their own end. After Vancouver opened the game with some jump and led 1-0 on the first of two goals from Tyler Motte, a shorthanded goal after Alex Pietrangelo broke his twig on a point shot, the Blues began taking the game over and led 2-1 after one on goals by Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly. And then Sanford scored the Blues’ third power-play goal the past two games and all seemed destined for a third straight win.
“We’re doing a lot of good things, except in that second period, we didn’t have our best 15 minutes, but we’ve been here before,” forward Jaden Schwartz said. “… Today is frustrating, but we’ve got a resilient group and guys have been here before. We’ll be ready for that next game and that’s all we’re worried about.”
The Blues actually had some good shifts after the Sanford goal, and even prior to it. Jacob de la Rose got a fortuitous bounce off a linesman and was starting at an empty net. He fired the puck with a 2-1 lead but Markstrom’s acrobatics kept that puck out of the net, and after Sanford scored, Robert Thomas had a golden opportunity in tight but couldn’t elevate a puck, and Markstrom kicked that chance out.
If it goes to 4-1 there, game over likely.
“Markstrom out-competed us on some plays, I thought,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “We had goals and he was down and out, but we didn’t elevate it and we didn’t put it in. Those saves rally a team, they give them confidence and they demoralize our team. We’ve got to bear down on them. We’ve got to put them in.”
The Blues didn’t, and the Canucks came back.
J.T. Miller’s fourth goal of the series, off a goalmouth scramble as the puck trickled through Jake Allen’s pads after Allen initially made a right pad stop on Miller, gave Vancouver life at 3-2 at 11:54 of the second.
And then Allen, who made 26 saves in the game, allowed a shortside goal from a bad angle to Jake Virtanen at 16:08 to tie the game at 3-3, and then Motte’s second of the game on a break-in alone when Sanford had a puck knocked off his stick on the Vancouver zone, Thomas had a puck in the neutral zone stripped and Vince Dunn was flat-footed defending it made it 4-3 at 18:17.
Instead of going into the third and protecting a lead and keeping the pedal to the grindstone, the Blues were chasing the game.
“No, I don’t think we were (tight defensively),” defenseman Justin Faulk said. “I think we gave them a little bit too much time in the d-zone. We’ve got to play a little bit tighter as a group of five and break the puck out a little bit cleaner. Obviously it showed the most there at the end of the second period. But it’s nice that we’ve got another day tomorrow and then the game on Friday. We’ll get back at it and be tighter the next game.”
And chasing the game, the Blues didn’t generate a ton in the third even though the Canucks were playing a defenseman short after Alexander Edler got hit in the face by Jordan Kyrou’s errand skate blade.
“Not making any plays. We didn’t make plays,” Berube said. “We gave the puck back to them. We had a few in-zone plays and chances and some zone time, but not nearly enough. Took two penalties, unnecessary penalties on both of them so had to kill penalties and we just didn’t make any plays out of our end.”
Those penalties came on Ivan Barbashev, who returned after missing the first four games for the birth of his son and having to quarantine for four days, and on Sammy Blais.
The Blues peppered Markstrom with 39 shots, but the Canucks goalie made some of those key saves when it was 2-1 and 3-1 stand up. They were those “remember those saves if the Canucks come back” type of saves. Markstrom stopped 36 for the game.
“He made some good saves tonight and we had some chances,” Schenn said. “We had a couple chances to make it 4-1. Obviously we didn’t and then we took our foot the gas. Their goalie’s playing well. We’ll find ways to be better next game, but we’ve got to tighten up defensively. That’s how we play, that’s how we win hockey games and scoring on our chances. Obviously their goalie’s playing well. We’re throwing a lot of pucks at home and he’s making a lot of saves. There’s always ways to find ways to score goals and we’ll look at it and make some adjustments for Game 6.”
They better, or their season’s done.
“We didn’t win enough puck battles in certain parts of the game today,” Berube said. “There were times when it was good, but not good enough. You’ve got to play for 60 minutes and we didn’t do that tonight and we lost the game because of it.
“Our puck management tonight was not very good. We’ve got to do a better job of that first of all. There’s a lot of missed passes and just didn’t move our feet enough for me. We’ve got to skate and attack and put people on their heels. We did at times but not enough. We need to do it for 60 minutes and we didn’t do that. We need to get to our game for 60 minutes and we didn’t do that tonight. There were pockets of it but not nearly enough.”
As for Allen, Berube said, “He was fine. I think he’d want the one goal back from the side of the net maybe. Motte walked in twice and scored on breakaways basically. Jake wasn’t the problem.”
Post-game interview with head coach Craig Berube:
(Post-game audio by Mike Reeves)