It would be easy to focus on the negatives of the St. Louis Blues’ performance in their exhibition game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday. The power play struggled, the defense was porous at times, and, well, the offense was held scoreless in a 4-0 defeat.
But the negatives are obvious. What positives can Blues fans draw from the defending Stanley Cup Champions’ return to play? There are three clear victories for the Blues in the midst of an embarrassing defeat.
1) Tarasenko Looked Healthy
The biggest news for the Blues is the health return of Vladimir Tarasenko. The superstar forward missed most of the regular season due to a shoulder injury, and he was just preparing to return to the ice when the NHL paused the season. Had there been no interruption, it would have been a tight window for the Russian to regain his strength, warmup, and build chemistry with his teammates.
If there was any benefit to the extended break in the league’s season, it is that we will see the first playoff in history into which almost every team enters fully healthy. Tarasenko is no exception. The four-plus month layoff allowed him not only to recover “enough,” but to forestall any concerns about rushing back to action.
And in Tarasenko’s first game in over nine months, he looked strong. He did not hesitate, taking four of the team’s 21 shots, tied for the lead. And his shot looked as lethal as ever, as he delivered some of the Blues’ best chances.
The opportunity for the team’s top goal scorer to return after plenty of rest and rehabilitation, enter a de facto training camp, and then play several “warmup” games (counting the round-robin which will determine team seeding) is invaluable. If the Blues win back-to-back Stanley Cups, Tarasenko will be a primary reason why.
2) Binnington Looked Sharp
Because the Blues’ 2018-19 season ended in Stanley Cup glory, it can be hard to remember that despite Jordan Binnington’s meteoric rise, his performance throughout the playoffs was mediocre. His phenomenal showing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final sealed the victory for St. Louis, but in total, his .914 save percentage (SV%) and 2.46 goals-against average (GAA) paled in comparison to his regular-season statistics, as did four uncharacteristic “Really Bad Starts” (RBS, a start with a SV% below .850).
Calling that performance mediocre may seem like a harsh standard to hold Binnington to, but it’s the bar he set for himself. With that said, if the Blues went through the 2019-20 playoffs with a truly electric Binnington at the top of his game, they would be an incredibly tough team to stop. And early returns are promising.
The goalie played just two periods in the exhibition game, and did allow two goals. But neither of those goals could be reasonably blamed on him. Binnington was alert and aggressive, especially in the first period, guarding his crease and stopping one Blackhawk breakaway dead in its tracks.
Two strong periods are hardly enough to draw conclusions on, but the break must have been welcome for Binnington. There was not a lot of time to rest in his rise from American Hockey League backup to Stanley Cup superstar, and at times during the regular season he looked fatigued. If he’s rested and at the top of his game during the playoffs, he will be a nightmare for the opposition.
3) It’s Over
It may seem silly, but it is certainly a positive that this exhibition game is over. First, it means that against the odds of a global pandemic, the NHL has managed to return to play. The extremely positive early results of COVID-19 testing are a promising indicator that there may well be a Stanley Cup awarded this season.
More importantly for the Blues, though, the embarrassing performance in a meaningless exhibition game is exactly that: meaningless. St. Louis conclusively proved last season that they are no longer a disappointing franchise doomed to underdeliver. They are top contenders, and while fans would love to see a better performance against the archrival Blackhawks in the first game they’ve played in months, it is not a significant issue.
Now, the real fun begins. The Blues enter the round-robin in a game against the Colorado Avalanche Sunday evening, but even those games can serve as a warmup. While seeding is important, the games are just as valuable for getting teams up to speed while their future opponents play meaningful games in the qualifying round. It was not a great performance in game one, but there are three Blues hockey games in the Blues’ hockey games in the next ten days, and that is a positive for every fan.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.