If you were asked to write a script that characterized the 2020-21 St. Louis Blues recent two-game set against division-leading Colorado Avalanche, you might title the piece “The Good, The Bad and The (very) Ugly.”
As the Blues battle with the Arizona Coyotes for the fourth and final playoff spot in the West, head coach Craig Berube’s team has to flip the script and find its winning ways. The first two games of a three-game weekend set at the Enterprise Center against the Nathan MacKinnon-led Avalanche provided a sample chapter in what has been a box-office dud of a Blues season so far. Parts of this two-game set were very good – highlight reel type of stuff. A hat trick, a one-timer laser, and spectacular goaltending highlighted a come-from-behind win before a nationally televised audience.
Other parts of the series were pretty bad – like coughing up an early two-goal lead. Some parts were just downright ugly – like some questionable personnel moves that resulted in constantly shifting lines and the benching of some players.
Both teams wrap up their regular-season series on Monday in St. Louis. The Avs have dominated the Blues in those seven games, winning five of them. The Blues allowed 25 Colorado goals in the season series. In a 4-1 win to open the season, Oskar Sundqvist scored two goals, and Kyle Clifford and Jordan Kyrou added a pair.
Fast forward to more than three months later, to Saturday’s 5-3 winner, where captain Ryan O’Reilly was the hero for St. Louis with a hat trick. The win was timely in that it broke the Blues’ three-game skid. The losing streak was one of several the Blues have suffered this year.
“In a season filled with inconsistencies, Ryan O’Reilly has been the one consistent on the St. Louis Blues,” The Hockey Writers wrote of O’Reilly. “When he’s in the lineup things happen.”
Looking at the Good
The good includes a few highlight-reel missiles from Mike Hoffman, which will be helpful in his upcoming free agent marketing blitz in the offseason. There’s the passionate play of David Perron and O’Reilly, who took the team on their backs and carried them through some choppy waters in the Honda West earlier.
“It gives us belief and shows us that we can compete with these guys and beat these guys,” O’Reilly told ESPN.com following Saturday’s win. “It’s hard work and it’s the little details that do it.”
Saturday’s game was a thriller, as the Blues battled back from a two-goal deficit to get the win at home and break a three-game losing streak. But the inability of the Blues defence to contain MacKinnon was highly evident. He was playing without linemate Mikko Rantanen, starting goalie Philip Grubauer, and Joonas Donskoi, among others.
All eyes were on MacKinnon and O’Reilly on Saturday – an afternoon tilt that was broadcast nationally by NBC. The game was hyped as another MacKinnon joint, but the Blues’ captain stole the show. He scored on a deflection off a skate for the 600th point of his career. He added two more goals – one an empty-netter – to close out the Avs and give the Blues a much-needed sigh of relief.
“We know that it’s got to be on the guys, it’s got to be on (our) core,” O’Reilly told the Post-Dispatch following the slump-busting win. “We absolutely know if we want to make playoffs, it’s got to be on us — and then everyone else follows. So it’s good we stepped up, found a way. A lot of work left, a lot of things to clean up.”
“The first goal was all about effort. Battling in the corner, O’Reilly stripped the puck from MacKinnon, basically passed it to himself through the legs of (Cale) Makar, and then sent a net-front pass to Kyrou,” the Post-dispatch reported.
The Post-Dispatch added, “Before it got to Kyrou, the puck deflected in off Avs defenseman Devon Toews and past goalie Devan Dubnyk, who was making his eighth start of the season against the Blues. (Three with the Avalanche and five with San Jose.)” (From ‘Blues rally past Avs, 5-3, with O’Reilly getting a hat trick,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/24/21.)
Hoffman’s missile was the difference-maker on Saturday for the Blues, and his one-timer came as the season was seemingly on the brink amidst another losing streak. Signed in the offseason to provide scoring punch to the team’s listless power play, he has been streaky this season, the ultimate hot-and-cold goal scorer. When he does score, his one-timers are a thing of beauty. Ask Dubnyk, who never saw the howitzer that Hoffman blew past him to give the Blues a 4-3 lead before O’Reilly’s third goal closed it at 5-3.
It’s been a strange year for Hoffman, who was the subject of trade rumors earlier this month. He also needed to deal with the stigma of being Berube’s healthy scratch. The coach indirectly questioned the player’s effort in several postgame interviews this season (From ‘Blues notebook: Berube sits Hoffman, wants more effort,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3/28/21).
But the proof is in the pudding, and Hoffman is fourth on the team in points with 28 this season. He has scored 14 goals and added 14 assists, and is plus-5 for the Blues. Three of his goals have been game-winners for the Blues, and he’s contributed four goals on the man advantage. He has been a clutch performer for Berube.
Hoffman was clutch once again with 8:21 left in the third to help the Blues (20-19-4) snap their five-game losing streak against the Avs (31-10-4).
“You go up against the best, beat the best, you feel good about yourself,” Hoffman told the Post-Dispatch. “So hopefully that gives us some momentum moving forward.”
“They’re the so-called best team in the league, one of the best teams in the league,” Hoffman was quoted in The Washington Post. “It can get negative at times when things aren’t maybe going your way, but you know, you’ve got to stick with it and be prepared for that next shift, next period, and I thought that was the mentality that we had tonight.” (From ‘O’Reilly’s hat trick leads Blues past Avalanche 5-3,’ The Washington Post, 4/24/21).
Berube and the Blues sure hope Hoffman finds his niche and adds to the St. Louis scoring attack, which features Vladimir Tarasenko, Perron, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Robert Thomas, Kyrou and Ivan Barbashev.
More good that came out of the weekend series was the return to the scoring sheet of Barbashev. He has four goals and five assists this season, which saw him only suit up for 21 games due to an injury. The 25-year-old center is strong on the forecheck, something the Blues sorely need this year. When he was out, along with other key players, the Blues went into a tailspin in the standings.
He converted his own rebound for his first goal since April 9. In the 2019 Stanley Cup-winning season, Barbashev became an important player on that roster, as his forecheck and ability to put the puck on the net and scrape up rebounds helped rally St. Louis to the title.
Now, onto the bad. Spoiler alert: It’s pretty bad.
Here’s the Bad
The Bad? Well, there’s plenty of that. Here’s where the arguments start. Binnington’s $6 million a year contract is still being hotly debated on fan boards because his production has been spotty. He was unbelievable in the 5-3 win over Colorado on April 24. But that’s not the worst of things.
The moodiness of Berube, once hailed an icon of the franchise, is also being called into question on other fan boards for his ability/inability to lead the team. That’s a familiar script for Berube, who had problems in Philadelphia with Flyers star Steve Mason and ended up costing Berube his job there. Perron gave Berube a vote of confidence relier this year. More bad: crucial mistakes by Zach Sanford and newcomer Jake Walman cost the Blues critical games in early April – games they could ill-afford to let get away.
What could be worse than that? The Avalanche’s dominance over the Blues this year has kept Berube and general manager Doug Armstrong up at night.
The Avalanche learned some valuable lessons since that first game, a 4-1 Blues’ victory on January 13. Behind MacKinnon, Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and young Cale Makar, the Avs have compiled an impressive 31-10-4 record this year and clinched a playoff berth with the win on Friday. Their name is routinely mentioned as a serious Stanley Cup contender in 2021.
Meanwhile, the Blues have stumbled along all season, compiling a frustrating 20-19-6 record. But in nearly all of the games against the Avs, the Blues have been competitive, except for an 8-0 thrashing in the second game of the season. The teams have played in three games that were decided by just one goal.
Try as they might, the Blues just cannot seem to solve the Avs. That is bad, mmm-kay?
“We have a recipe for success against these guys, but we have to be better at it,” head coach Jared Bednar told NHL.com. “We got to be more disciplined. Their power play is really starting to go, and they’ve got some dangerous guys there. It’s a matter of commitment, discipline and execution. I believe our guys will bounce back. We did some things tonight that we probably could have won the hockey game, but like I said, we left it to chance. We definitely don’t want to do that come Monday.”
MacKinnon has done considerable damage to the Blues.
His 13-game streak is the longest active run in the NHL and is tied for the second-longest of the season, with only the Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton having a better run at 14 games, NHL.com reported. It was the third time in MacKinnon’s career that he has recorded a point streak of 13 games (as he did in 2013-14 and 2019-20) and one shy of matching his personal best of 14 that he set from Feb. 24 to March 22, 2018, and tied during last season’s playoffs.
Friday’s weekend opener was marked by more horrific second-period play. The Blues lost in Friday’s weekend series opener 4-2 with an empty-net goal by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in what was a highly contested game. A costly mistake by Zach Sanford on a clearing pass need up in the back of the Blues’ net.
On Saturday, Berube came out with cries of his team’s fragility and the softness of his players. He called out his veteran leadership. Sanford did not escape the coach’s vitriol, as his ill-timed attempt at a through pass was knocked down and soon made its way past a stunned Binnington and the flailing Blues’ defense. It was a gut-wrenching way to lose.
The (very) Ugly Stick
The Ugly Stick has been a late arrival at Blues games this season. But it did arrive, and it has come out in the second period. That’s when the Blues play dismal hockey, but more importantly, have shown an inability to hold leads. They have been outscored in the second period 55 goals to 36 in the second frame. St. Louis is 3-15-1 when trailing after two periods and then 5-4-3 when tied after two periods. Overall, opponents have outscored the Blues 140-129 this season.
The Sanford incident has been particularly vexing for Blues fans to understand. Once considered to be a promising rising star in the Blues offense, he has sputtered this year in his offensive production, and he routinely draws fans – and Berube’s – ire with costly mistakes at the worst times. Sanford has scored five goals and added nine assists, and is minus-10.
Forced to lineup with seven defensemen, Berube made Sanford was a healthy scratch for the 5-3 win on Saturday.
“First period, good period, can’t make a soft play,” Berube told The Athletic following Friday’s loss. “We do. It’s in our net.”
Instead of going up the boards with the puck, he tried to squeeze it through, apparently attempting to make a clearing pass to Barbashev, according to a story in The Athletic. Colorado’s Tyson Jost knocked the puck down with his right glove, gained possession, and then backhanded a centering pass to Saad in front of the net, who backhanded one past Binnington.
“It’s not a play that you make with a 4-0 lead in the middle of a period, but you definitely don’t make it with a 1-0 lead in the final minute of the first period of a game you desperately need to win,’ the Athletic’s Jeremy Rutherford reported. “Push the puck up the boards — anything.” (From ‘Will Blues coach Craig Berube finally scratch Zach Sanford after his latest costly mistake? ‘He’s got to learn’,’ The Athletic, 4/23/21).
“You’ve got to understand the situation at the time more than anything: the period, the time of period, and really it’s just about making a harder play,” Berube told Rutherford. “That’s all it is. He’s got to learn to do that, got to be better there.”
Sanford wasn’t, and so instead of coming out with some confidence and momentum in the second period, a period that has been disastrous for the Blues, they came out on their heels, Rutherford reported. Two ensuing minor penalties led to costly goals, one on a power play by Andre Burakovsky, who also added his 14th of the season in the third period. He can thank Sanford for the gift-wrapped gimme.
“Of the 28 players who have suited up for the team this season, Sanford is tied with Mackenzie MacEachern for the fewest turnovers per 60 minutes (0.37),” according to The Athletic. “But when Sanford makes them, as we saw a couple of times earlier this season, they are glaring and costly.”
The Blues penalty kill has been pretty ugly too. St. Louis ranks a dismal 29th of the 31 teams in penalty kill percentage with 75.9 percent. Those two minor penalties against Vince Dunn and Colton Parayko for clearing the puck over the boards were costly, as the Avs diced St. Louis’ defense with surgical precision to get Burakovsky’s power-play goal that gave Colorado a lead they would never relinquish in that April 23 game.
BONUS UGLINESS: Parayko left the game on Saturday after the first period and did not return. That is a big uh-oh for Blues’ fans. They saw the team struggle mightily as Parayko missed half the season with a back injury. The team medical staff is evaluating Parayko, but he and Dunn were not available for Monday’s game, according to Berube.
As Parayko goes, so goes the Blues defense. Tory Krug and Justin Faulk anchor the defense, with Marco Scandella, Vince Dunn, Robert Bortuzzo, and Walman seeing extended playing time this season. But the 6-foot-6 Parayko and his long reach are key cogs in the Blues defensive approach. He signed a new five-year contract worth a guaranteed $27.5 million before the season. This new deal would be part of the reason the team opted to let former captain Alex Pietrangelo walk away in free agency. Losing the alternate captain for the rest of the season and the upcoming playoff run would be catastrophic for the beleaguered St. Louis defense.
So as St. Louis prepares for its final showdown against Colorado on Monday evening, games against the hot Minnesota Wild and the phenom Kirill Kaprizov await. There are also a couple of games against the division-leading Vegas Golden Knights.
Despite piecing together a season of streaks, the Blues find themselves in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, they are in fifth place in the West, just behind the Arizona Coyotes. The Blues have three games in hand on Arizona, which could prove to be a huge factor in deciding the fourth and final playoff spot in the West. Blues’ killer Connor Garland has been out with an injury since April 21 and is listed as week to week. If he is unable to play in these important games down the stretch, the Blues hope to finally lock up the final playoff berth in the Honda West Division.
How will this story end? Will it be a comedy of errors? Are we witnessing a sad story that sees the Blues sink into obscurity amid sea of also-rans? Or, was this Colorado series a preview of a thriller that will be unfolding on a live stream near you?
The plot thickens.