By Lou Korac
When the fourth Vancouver goal went in, their third of the second period in a 5:57 stretch and signified the end of Jordan Binnington’s, and for all intends and purposes the Blues’ season, all one could think of was Tony Burton yelling, “Throw the damn towel!”
It was the sight of Ivan Drago pummeling a poor, defenseless Apollo Creed.
It was that kind of night for the Blues. They had no answer, and their fight for survival and hope to repeat as Stanley Cup champion came to a crashing halt in the Edmonton bubble.
The Vancouver Canucks made sure of it when they staked themselves to a four-goal lead, chased last year’s Cinderella goalie from the game and cruised to a 6-2 win Friday in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round, winning the best-of-7 series 4-2.
It was evident from the drop of the puck the Blues, who throughout their Cup run in 2019 were able to overcome all obstacles, were not going to be able to survive this.
By the midpoint of the first period, the Blues had already surrendered 13 shots, they were down 1-0 and had 12 giveaways; they finished with a whopping 23. It was a microcosm of just how they played throughout this whole process and the moment they stepped inside the bubble on July 26.
It started with a 4-0 exhibition loss against Chicago on July 29, continued through three round-robin games, all losses, and even though they found their game at times in this series, the Blues just couldn’t seem to get out of their own way, making mistake after mistake after mistake and the young and vibrant Canucks, who advance to the second round and a date with the Vegas Golden Knights, waiting to pounce.
And in the aftermath of it all, the most disturbing thing of it all came from the words of veteran David Perron, who summed it all up rather succinctly.
“It didn’t seem like our energy was coming from everyone,” Perron said, “but it was tough. We had a couple of bad bounces right away and in the back of our net. Honestly, I can’t really even think about this whole thing right now that it’s over. It’s very frustrating, very disappointing. That’s my thoughts right now.”
Blues coach Craig Berube agreed with Perron’s comments, saying, “Yeah, I think there was a few games where I didn’t find the energy was there. We need more, we need more from more guys, that’s the bottom line. You know I don’t have the answer why the energy wasn’t there. If I did, I’d tell you, but I don’t. But David Perron is right. It’s not good enough. You can’t win in this league unless you have every guy ready to go and give you his best. In the playoffs, you have to have that. Our team was successful last year because we had everybody on board every night.”
That’s disturbing that a player and coach were essentially insinuating that not everyone was on board. Perhaps it’s understandable considering this is an entirely different setup, one played in front of no fans, and not played in front of your home crowd. But this was a harsh reality for a team that had just raised the holy grail, the Stanley Cup, a little over a year ago.
“We didn’t play like we normally did,” said Blues center Ryan O’Reilly, last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner. “There were times when we did, where we were hard to play against, put the puck in right areas and made it difficult on them, but we weren’t consistent with it, and then we’d let them get momentum back. It was just too difficult.
“At times, we looked like a junior team out there the way we were just turning the puck over, not playing the right way. It came back to bite us. Give them credit, they played smart. When they had momentum, they used it and we dug ourselves too big a hole to get out of.”
Berube was a master at making decisions that went the right way for the Blues last season, including inserting Binnington in as the starting goalie. In a do-or-die game, Berube went back to Binnington, who struggled allowing nine goals on 47 shots in losing Games 1 and 2 before Jake Allen would get the starts for Games 3-5.
The move backfired, as Binnington was replaced by Allen again, but this time, it came mid-game after Binnington allowed four goals on 18 shots.
For the series, Binnington was 0-3 with a save percentage of .800; he allowed 13 goals on 65 shots.
“Well, the decision, really, Jake played three in a row and obviously lost the third one,” Berube said. “‘Binner’ has been a big-time goalie for us for a long time, and he had some practice in there and worked on his game. It’s a gut feeling, I go with him. He’s done a lot for us and won a championship with him, so that was my decision.
“I think ‘Binner’ was a lot like our whole team. I think at times, we didn’t play at the level we needed to play, that’s just the bottom line.”
It started quickly, and for the fifth time in six games, the Blues began the game chasing it. They fell behind 1-0 when fourth-line center Jay Beagle took advantage when Jacob de la Rose stepped on a puck in his own zone trying to move it up ice, fell to the ice and turned it over, and Beagle was able to get into the slot and wire a shot to Binnington’s glove side just 3:45 into the game.
“Early on, I just thought we didn’t execute very well with the puck,” Berube said. “I thought that we got going a little bit, got some good shifts together. But in the end, we just weren’t good enough.”
Antoine Roussel scored 2:09 into the second, Troy Stecher scored at 6:49 and Brock Boeser’s power-play goal at 8:06 was all she wrote for Binnington, and for all intends and purposes, all she wrote for the Blues.
“It’s disappointing the way we played in front of him,” O’Reilly said. “One of the reasons why we’re here in this position is because of him and the way he is and we did a terrible job of helping him out. We have to defend better, we have to have jump in front of him and it’s on us, it’s on the guys in front of him. It wasn’t good enough for him. It’s embarrassing by us.”
It all falls back to when the Blues had a 3-1 lead in Game 5 and fell apart for a 10-15 minute span and lost that game 4-3. They never recovered.
“Well, that’s a tough loss, up 3-1 and let that one slip away,” Berube said. “Like I said, we gave Vancouver those goals in that game. I don’t think that they outplayed us in that game by any means, but we made mistakes that cost us and we let them back into the game. It deflates your team. The team is deflated. I felt like when that second goal went in tonight, we seemed deflated again. I don’t have all the answers. The bottom line is we didn’t play good enough.”
And the Blues didn’t play again with a full lineup. Already missing Vladimir Tarasenko, who flew back to St. Louis to have his surgically repaired dislocated shoulder looked at by team doctors again, Alexander Steen was out of the lineup again as was veteran forward Tyler Bozak, who took a shot off his right foot, skated in pregame warmups, but Berube said he couldn’t go. Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson missed his second straight as well.
So the lineup that won the Cup in Boston on June 12, 2019 was missing seven players from that lineup. It just wasn’t the same team whose ship went down on this night.
“Last game, we had five minutes where we fell asleep and they took advantage,” said Pietrangelo, who now goes into a short off-season wondering where he’ll be playing next season, if it’s here or someplace else since he can become an unrestricted free agent. “I don’t think we did it for long enough. I think we had spurts in this round that we did things the way we wanted to, but it wasn’t good enough for long enough stretches. We all know that. It’s on all of us, especially us guys who have gone through this before. Just didn’t piece together the way we wanted to for longer stretches.”
During Pietrangelo’s last few shifts, the emotions were pretty evident. It’s only natural to have a range of emotions, especially when you know the season is coming to an end, but this is different for him going into an unknown situation for the first time in his career.
“More so when the game’s over,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s not a fun situation to be in, especially when you’ve been somewhere your whole career, but it is what it is. I guess really my only thought was just to get home, see my kids and see where the future takes us.”
The Blues avoided the shutout by finally solving Jacob Markstrom, who was a difference-maker in this series throughout, when Jaden Schwartz scored twice.