The St. Louis Blues playoffs have not gone as hoped for. They entered the Edmonton Bubble as one of the favourites to win the Stanley Cup. Their journey so far has quickly turned them into underdogs. Now more than ever, the Blues must find a way to flip the switch and find another gear against a young, skilled team chomping at the bit to dethrone the champions.
St. Louis Blues Playoffs in Trouble
Vancouver’s Success Against the Minnesota Wild
From the outside the Vancouver Canucks seem like a weak, inexperienced team with no business being in the playoffs. They were trending in the wrong direction on a 4-5-1 skid before the pause, lost the first game against the Minnesota Wild in their best-of-five play-in series, and looked like they were going to disappoint their passionate fanbase once again.
But the Canucks found another gear in their game against the Minnesota Wild. After inserting Loui Eriksson and Jake Virtanen for Game 2, the Canucks shifted the momentum and rallied to a 4-3 victory. Their young core carried this momentum into Game 3 as Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson combined for 7 points in a 3-0 statement victory. They finally topped it off with a 5-4 overtime winner by Chris Tanev in Game 4.
A common theme emerged in all three victories – a young team complemented by grizzled veterans using special teams to take over games. In Games 2, 3, and 4; the Canucks had a combined 22.2% powerplay and 94.4% penalty kill rate. By effectively converting on their powerplay and suffocating the Wild powerplay, the Canucks trampled their way to a series victory.
Blues Playoffs Started With Round Robin Struggles
While the Canucks dominated their 10th seed opponent, the Blues played their own share of games to decide seeding for the first round. Coming in as champions of the west with 94 points in 71 games played, the Blues playoffs should have gotten off on the right foot. They stood as favourites to clinch the number one seed. However, it became apparent that these Blues were not picking up their game where they’d left it in March. Instead of playing a hard, chippy offensive game, the Blues playoffs started sluggishly.
Their new style was lazy and it eventually bit them as they gave up third-period leads in all three of their games. All aspects of their game were uncharacteristic of a championship team. They had an 8.3% powerplay, took 23.7 shots per game, had 38 shots against per game, and were outscored in the third period 6-0 over the three games. After going 0-2-1 in the round-robin games, the Blues landed the 4th seed. The stage was set for a matchup between two teams that were ironically headed in opposite directions before the pause and after play resumed.
History was certainly not on St. Louis’ side as the Blues started their Stanley Cup defence against the Canucks. Not only were the Blues trying to pull off a successful Stanley Cup defence that only one team has been able to do since 1998, but they were also trying to beat a team that they were 0-3 against in three previous playoff series. While these Canucks were certainly different than 1995, 2003, and 2009 Canucks that had beaten the Blues, their young talent came out fast in Game 1.
The Canucks converted on their lethal powerplay twice. However, the Blues kept up and headed into the second intermission tied at 2-2. However, the Blues’ third-period woes would continue and this time, Jordan Binnington uncharacteristically allowed a quick wrist shot by Troy Stecher under his blocker. Then, it was Bo Horvat scoring after absolutely undressing Vince Dunn with a slick deke. That also wouldn’t be the last time he’d embarrass the defending champs. Rattled by two quick goals, the Blues were unable to answer and sank to a 5-2 defeat. After the game, Craig Berube and the players said all the right things. We all waited to see if words would turn into actions in Game 2.
Unfortunately for many Blues fans, Game 2 only furthered the frustration. Yet again it was Bo Horvat – this time shorthanded – dangling his way past Jaden Schwartz on a one on one and scoring an absolute beauty. Next, it was Tanner Pearson on the powerplay to make it 2-0 Canucks. But the Blues were playing much better 5-on-5. Dominating with offensive zone time, it was only a matter of time before they’d score. On a lucky call by the refs, the Blues got their sixth powerplay of the game and FINALLY, they’d convert to make it 2-1 Canucks.
With a renewed sense of life, the Blues came out sharp in the third period, only to give up a powerplay. The Canucks would score on a bounce off of Pettersson to make it 3-1 with under 15 minutes to go. The Blues countered and with some help from the refs, Sammy Blais scored to make it 3-2 Canucks.
Unrelenting, the Blues continued to pressure on a 6-on-5. As the Canucks continued failing to get the puck out of the zone, the Blues set up their formation. With 15 seconds left on the clock, the puck came to the captain, Alex Pietrangelo, who just snapped one towards the goal. With tons of traffic in front of Jacob Markstrom, the puck hit David Perron‘s stick and went in. Tie game with six and a half seconds remaining!
As overtime loomed all people could think of was how this game gave Game 5 vibes against the Winnipeg Jets in which the Blues had a remarkable third-period comeback. An overtime winner for the Blues could seriously shift the series momentum back. That shift was almost there as Perron had a wide-open net, but it was blocked. Still, the Blues continued to pressure in the offensive zone until a mishap – the Blues gave away the puck while Horvat snuck behind the defence. On a breakaway against Binnington, Horvat found a spot in the five-hole and buried it! Game over, 2-0 series lead for the Canucks.
The writing is on the wall, the Blues are down 2-0 in their first-round series and must win four of their next five games to advance. How do they do it when they haven’t even won a single game yet in Edmonton? The answer is that they simply play their game. The game that lifted them up from the basement of the NHL, the game that won them the Stanley Cup, and the game that powered them to a Western Conference Regular Season title.
That game is a rugged, unrelenting, and hard-hitting game that wears down and suffocates the opponent. It’s a defensively-sound and offensively-heavy style that is so hard for teams to reproduce and fight. We’ve seen this team fight through adversity, find another gear, and turn it on when their backs are against the wall. There’s no reason why they cannot do it again.