The St. Louis Blues could easily have crumbled in the wake of the hand pass controversy that ended Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. That kind of outcome, coupled with 50 seasons-plus of playoff disappointment, might well have been enough to topple even the stoutest of teams.
And yet, from the moment the game ended, the Blues insisted that while they felt the call was wrong, they were moving onto Game 4. Whether that was believable at the time or not, they backed up their words and are now in control of the series. It is a testament to the leadership of interim head coach Craig Berube and the tenacity of the 2018-19 Blues.
Berube’s Strong Response
When the referees skated off the ice after Game 3, escaping the questions of the Blues players and the fury of their fans, the players on the ice were livid. Brayden Schenn smacked his stick into the glass and rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who is usually placid, smashed his against the boards as well. There was nothing but anger inside that arena.
By the time the media reached the players in the locker room, though, the tune had changed. The frustration remained, but the anger had been replaced with resolve.
Captain Alex Pietrangelo said that he wouldn’t be discussing the play in detail: “I really didn’t get an explanation other than I guess there’s a different set of rules for two different teams, so I’m sure they’ll lose some sleep tonight after looking at it. But that’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Forward David Perron said the hand pass was apparent, but that it was in the past: “Did it appear [to be a hand pass]? Well, yeah, it was, but let’s move forward and that’s what we’ll try to do here in the next 24 hours.”
Later, Perron would be among a chorus of players who credited Berube for their response. He came into the locker room, insisted that the team needed to move forward, and demonstrated his commitment by his own actions.
Instead of lingering on the illegal play, Berube expressed his frustration and then moved on resolutely. Game 3 was a thing of the past, and the Blues needed to move forward. A misstep in Game 4 would mean a 3-1 series deficit and an almost certain playoff elimination.
Blues Control Games 4 and 5
From the very start of Game 4, it was apparent that their promises about looking forward were more than words. The Blues dominated the play from the very beginning, scoring the opening goal just 35 seconds in. They would add another before the period ended, and despite the San Jose Sharks’ best efforts (they dominated play in the next two periods), St. Louis held on for the win.
Game 5 was a different story: though the Sharks started hot and hit the goalpost just seconds into the game, the Blues dominated the rest of the play. They finished the game with a shutout, a 5-0 victory, and a number of impressive franchise records, including more playoff victories than they have ever collected.
On top of that, the Sharks ended the game as the walking wounded. Erik Karlsson, captain Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, and Tomáš Hertl were unable to finish the game, some after controversial hits. They now have a mountain to climb to come back from St. Louis’ most convincing win of the postseason.
Were the Blues contented with their victory? Not entirely. Once again, they showed that their focus was on the future. Jaden Schwartz, who scored a hat trick in the game, explained it simply: “everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game. … We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”
One Win Away
Game 6 will take place on Tuesday night in St. Louis, with the Blues searching for their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970. If they continue to show the resolve and focus that they have since the hand pass ended Game 3, the Sharks may be playing their last game of the season. But if the Blues’ words and the unpredictability of these playoffs are any indication, nothing is settled yet.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.