When St. Louis Blues defenseman Jake Walman rifled a third-period shot under the crossbar just beyond the reach of Marc-Andre Fleury, the city’s fan base finally exhaled. It had been a long time coming.
That goal, Walman’s first in the NHL, took a tight-checking 2-0 game and made it 3-0 en route to an impressive 3-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights at Enterprise Center. The Blues’ defense was peppered with shots all evening, as Vegas pummeled goalie Jordan Binnington with 51 shots on the night. In all, the Golden Knights had 88 attempts on the Blues.
Still, St. Louis snapped a 7-game losing skid behind Binnington and an early goal by Vladimir Tarasenko. Sammy Blais, previously a healthy scratch in the previous three games, added an important second goal that gave Binnington a little breathing room.
“Yeah, we’re coming,” a confident Binnington told Bally Sports Midwest following the game.
The loss comes after a soul-crushing 6-1 loss to the Golden Knights on April 5. That loss was the proverbial straw that broke general manager Doug Armstrong’s back. Within the past week, Mike Hoffman, Tyler Bozak, Vince Dunn, Jaden Schwartz — even Tarasenko, the all-star — have all been mentioned as trade pieces as the deadline approaches. The upcoming deadline is April 12 at 3 p.m. E.T.
Out of the Doghouse, Into the Lineup
Not only did Blais’ goal come at a fantastic time for the team, it came at a great time for him. He has been a recent member of coach Craig Berube’s revolving doghouse.
A sixth-round draft pick by the Blues in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Blais’ effort and passion has come into question. (‘Blues updates: Berube wants better play from Blais,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/28/2020) He scored four goals and has four assists, playing in 24 of the team’s 39 games. He is averaging 11:24 of ice time this year.
Berube, the tough-as-nails former enforcer, has had to muscle down on his young stars like Binnington and Blais. He’s called out his entire squad in postgame press conference, citing lack of effort and an unwillingness to go hard into the corners, for example. Their net-front presence has been almost non-existent during the recent 7-game slide. Dunn has also been a frequent resident of said doghouse, and Hoffman has been a healthy scratch now twice. (‘Blues notebook: With trade deadline looming, Hoffman a healthy scratch,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/8/21)
But for Blais, breaking into the lineup has proven to be difficult under Berube.
“For me, Sammy’s gotta be a straight-line player,” Berube told the Post-Dispatch in February. “He’s gotta get into the offensive zone and get the puck. That’s his game. When he has the puck in the offensive zone, he’s a dangerous player. Moving it, hanging onto it, you know, things like that. He’s a good player that way.”
As for Binnington, who played lights-out in the 3-1 win over Vegas, he was awarded the game’s top star — and deservedly so. The Golden Knights pelted shot after shot at Binnington during a frantic third-period finish. Berube needed to see that swagger from his $6 million man.
Grading the Blues’ $6 Million Man
“He played great,” Berube told reporters after the game. “When you play Vegas you have to play well, everybody has to play well, they’re a very good team and ‘Binner’ led the way.”
“Binner’s just gotta be himself in my opinion,” Berube told the Post-Dispatch. (‘Blues Game Day: Husso gets another start in goal; Parayko in lineup,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/5/21) “He’s gotta be an aggressive goalie, and he’s gotta have an aggressive mindset like he had before.”
“I think the swagger in Jordan, and what he brings there, that’s what makes him a real good goalie. He’s gotta find that again.”
On fan groups sites, Blues fans are starting to murmur about Berube’s approach. David Perron dismissed that notion following a disappointing 6-1 loss to Vegas on April 5.
“Those guys are a part of our team, and we are going to stick together,” he said of the coaching staff.
Another bright spot was Tarasenko’s goal, which came just 48 seconds into the 3-1 win. It was the fifth time this season the Blues scored on their initial shot on goal.
That goal was significant in that it gave Berube’s beleaguered team a sorely needed lead. In the previous meeting with Vegas, the Blues went down 2-0 early and were chasing the game the entire night. Similarly, against the Colorado Avalanche on April 2, the Blues fell behind early on a Brandon Saad’s 11th goal, just 3:28 into the game. The Blues last scored first in a game on March 28 — they fell 3-2 in overtime to the Anaheim Ducks — when Ryan O’Reilly scored 2:27 into the game.
Coming up next is the Minnesota Wild (24-12-2), fresh off a big 8-3 win over the division-leading Avalanche. The Wild (50 points) currently sit in the third of four playoffs spots available in the Honda West Division. The Arizona Coyotes currently possess the final playoff spot with 43 points.
Stretch of Home Games Will Determine Postseason Berth
The Blues need the points, Perron said. They will have a chance against teams who sit above them in the standings in the coming weeks.
During the 7-game slide, the Blues (40 points) lost footing in the division, slipping to fifth place. While fans and Berube are applauding the effort that helped snap the losing streak, it does not diminish the fact there was an awful streak of really bad, really one-sided hockey being played. The Blues had not registered a home victory since Feb. 18 when they topped the San Jose Sharks.
So, is the end of this losing streak just a mere mirage, or will it be the launching pad that lifts the St. Louis to the playoffs? Whether the Blues stay true to Binnington’s prediction of going on a championship-level run in the Honda West Division remains to be seen. One game does not change an entire season.
For Berube, his team would enjoy the win, but must get back to work in the morning as they prepare for a crucial three games against the Wild. The Blues can gain ground in the standings, or they might continue their free fall.
Are the Blues coming, as Binnington claimed? Or, are they going?
That has been the Blues’ dilemma all season. And like Forrest Gump’s famous chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1