It’s no wonder that on the eve of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and in a series against the Presidents’ Trophy winner no less, that the familiar injury bug would rear its very ugly head for the St. Louis Blues. As they face a 1-0 first-round playoff deficit against the Colorado Avalanche after a 4-1 loss in Game 1, the Blues have an uphill climb ahead of them and might be without their top star.
But as been the case with coach Craig Berube’s crew of rowdy lumberjacks, the Blues will rely on the infamous “Next Man Up.” With points leader David Perron on the NHL’s COVID protocol list and no clear timetable for his potential return to this series in sight, this unexpected downpour has washed out the team’s championship parade plan.
Perron’s injury comes on the tail end of a long line of injuries Blues players have suffered this season. Some injuries were season-ending; others were career-ending. But surviving these injuries is nothing new for St. Louis.
Who is the next man up? Mike Hoffman, Mr. Trade Deadline, figures into the mix, with his deadly sniper shot incredibly effective on the power play and at six-on-five. Hoffman’s name was floated around as a potential trade piece, but general manager Doug Armstrong stood pat at the deadline, which kept Hoffman in the fold. There is also Vladimir Tarasenko, the star of so many Blues’ playoff runs of years past. A goal from the feisty Jordan Kyrou stood as St. Louis’ only offensive marker in Game 1, and he will be a player the Avalanche must deal with to be successful in this series. You cannot sleep on captain Ryan O’Reilly, who led the team in goals this season, nor Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, or Robert Thomas — all legitimate scorers in their own right.
No Answer to MacKinnon Line
The story of Game 1 was the Blues’ inability to neutralize Colorado’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Had it not been for the spectacular, acrobatic saves by goalie Jordan Binnington, the damage could have been a lot worse, O’Reilly said after the game.
“If it wasn’t for Binner, it would have been messy early,” he told Blues insider Lou Korac.
“We’re skilled and fast, but I also think we’re a tough team,” Landeskog told the Associated Press. “I thought we showed that tonight.”
Landeskog recorded a “Gordie Howe hat trick” with a goal, assist and a fighting major, which he earned in the first period by sticking up for a teammate following a big hit, the AP reported.
St. Louis has just been decimated by injuries long before the playoffs began. Stanley Cup champion and the heartbeat of the Blues, veteran Alex Steen, would be ruled out for the season and eventually led to his unofficial retirement. The playoff-tested Jay Bouwmeester would also not play this season after a frightening cardiac episode in Anaheim in the days before the pandemic shut down NHL play across North America. Fellow Cup champion Carl Gunnarsson suffered a lower-body injury and would be lost for the season, and the slow healing of Vladimir Tarasenko has kept the Russian star in and out of the St. Louis lineup most of the campaign. They sure did miss his goal production this year.
Avs Exploit Blues’ Defensive Weaknesses
Defensively against the Avalanche, defensemen Justin Faulk and Torey Krug, along with Marco Scandella and Robert Bortuzzo, served as doormen welcoming Colorado into their zone. The Blues struggled mightily to clear the puck out of their end, but the speed of MacKinnon and Rantanen proved to be too much for Berube’s Blues to handle. That line chalked up eight points in Game 1 alone.
In Game 1 against the Avalanche, the Blues got strong ice time from Hoffman and Kyrou, but the scoring punch was severely limited by the loss of playmaker Perron. Extended scoring slumps by Schenn, Schwartz and Tarasenko continued on Monday. For the Blues to prevail, they’ll need more offensive production in this series.
The Blues entered the playoff series against the Avalanche as clear underdogs. The Athletic said the series was so lopsided that they gave the Avs an 88 percent chance of advancing out of this first round.
Odds Stacked Against St. Louis
“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen such a lopsided series probability,” wrote Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic prior to the series. “Usually, anything close to 80 percent is crazy enough as it is, but approaching 90 percent? That’s NBA-level certainty. Last March/April when I was bored in the house bored, I reworked my model to look at the last decade of playoff series. The highest series probability belonged to the 2013 Penguins at 84 percent in the second round against the Senators, one of two series north of 80 percent. This is the third, and it completely obliterates the previous high.”
“It honestly feels a little uncomfortable to have one team favored this heavily in a sport as chaotically random as hockey where anything really can happen,” he wrote (from ‘2021 NHL playoff preview: Avalanche vs. Blues,’ The Athletic, 5/14/21).
Few people outside of St. Louis give the Blues much hope in this series. And the way Monday’s Game 1 unfolded, it would be hard to blame them. However, based on five-on-five scoring, the Blues have certainly hung with Colorado every game they’ve played this season.
The Blues went 3-5-0 in the eight regular-season games against the Avalanche. St. Louis had been outscored in those games 26-21 and had a 3.25 goals against average against Jared Bednar’s mountain men. In the team’s second meeting of the season — the seasons second game — the Blues got thrashed 8-0 in a game that saw the Avs score five times on seven power play opportunities. The power play has been a source of pride for Bednar’s team. The Blues, conversely, are one of the worst teams statistically on the penalty kill. In all eight games, Colorado peppered St. Louis’ goalies 30 times or better each game.
In the eight games the two teams played this season, three of those eight games were decided by one goal. A fourth close game was a 4-2 Colorado win on April 22. Andre Burakovsky scored twice, and Brandon Saad added another, while Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added an empty-netter. Schwartz scored both St. Louis goals in that game.
Penalty Kill Woes Continue for St. Louis
It was the power play that led to Colorado’s first goal in Game 1. O’Reilly was whistled for tripping at 14:04 in the first, and a minute later, the Avalanche celebrated an early lead. Cale Makar took Rantanen’s feed and ripped an absolute laser past Binnington. Kyrou tied it in the second, but the third period was all Colorado. MacKinnon had two goals and an assist in the third period, including an empty-netter in which he nearly shredded the netting. Landeskog also had a goal and two assists in the third period to lift the Avs to the 1-0 series edge.
For his part, Binnington asserted his stature as a top goaltender in the league by facing 49 shots and making at least three highlight-reel saves. His stop on Rantanen with the back of his pad while flopping to the ice was quite impressive by anybody’s standards.
However, Binnington has been known for his sometimes tedious theatrics, and in the moments following the final whistle, he made his way toward Avs goalie Philipp Grubauer in a threatening manner. The on-ice officials had to intercept Binnington and escort him away from the Avs goalie. Earlier this season, he challenged then-San Jose Sharks goalie Devin Dubnyk — who is now with Colorado ironically — to a tussle during a game in which he was pulled.
A few positives from the Blues’ Game 1 loss — they hit the crap out of the Avalanche. Their heavy, bruising style could play as a factor as the series grinds along. The Blues have certainly handed the Avalanche a calling card. They may have just squeaked into the playoffs, but they are dangerous and they are hungry.
Should O’Reilly, the captain, Binnington, the goalie, struggle, it will be time for Berube to look to his Next Man Up — whoever that may be this time.