As has become tradition in the Gateway City, the St. Louis Blues squandered a two-game series lead in the playoffs (this time against the Winnipeg Jets) and now find themselves tied at two, with the series returning to Canada on Thursday night.
The team’s play was uninspiring in both of their home defeats, and there are a number of alterations they need to make to improve their chances of capturing the series. Three of those rise above the others.
1) Pietrangelo & Parayko Must Play Forward
The Blues’ defense did not look particularly good in either of the home losses, but what was especially noticeable was how deep they played in the offensive zone. For most of the second game, the defense was playing against their own blue line, unable to jump up and affect the attack.
This is significant because, when the Blues have been at their best this season, their defense is a significant part of the offensive pressure. This is the first season in franchise history where three separate defensemen (Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Vince Dunn) scored 10 goals or more, and even Jay Bouwmeester added 17 points, his highest total in three seasons.
In fact, this trend dates back as far as at least last season, as the Blues’ red-hot start to the 2017-18 season was largely driven by the defensive press. Early in the season, Pietrangelo was widely considered a Norris Trophy favorite for his contributions in both the defensive and offensive zone.
All of that makes it more vexatious why the Blues have chosen to play such a deep defensive line on offense. It leaves the three forwards on an island, and the Blues have not been good enough at establishing zone time (they have the third lowest offensive zone start percentage in the playoffs) to make that system work. It shows in the team’s 5.3 expected goals for (xGF), a number which puts them second to last ahead of just the Washington Capitals.
The Blues need to generate more offense in games five and beyond if they want to have a chance of winning the series, and to do that, they need to take bigger risks with their defensive stars. Pietrangelo and Parayko specifically need to pinch more, join the attack, and stop playing such an overly cautious position in the offensive zone.
2) Power Play Must Perform
Simply put, the Blues’ power play has not been good enough during this series. Statistically, they are three for 14, giving them a 21.4 percent success rate, good for eighth amongst postseason teams. But those numbers do not tell the whole story.
Of the three goals the Blues have scored with the man advantage, only one has been the result of extended zone time. Consider the above goal, where Dunn has to make a ridiculous mid-air deflection to keep the puck in the zone. Tarasenko scored that and another of the Blues’ power play goals with his laser wrist shot, a weapon the team needs to use more.
The Blues have taken 12 penalties in the postseason, which ties them for the fewest with three other teams. The Jets have taken just 16. As this series moves into its final games, things are likely to get more physical and its possible there will be more penalties. If there are, the Blues must improve that part of their game (as well as their penalty kill, which has been successful only 70 percent of the time).
3) Schwartz Must Sit
It won’t happen, but the Blues would likely be better off with Jaden Schwartz out of the lineup. We have argued in the past that the deeper metrics supported Schwartz, and that his poor results were the product of misfortunate rather than inability. Unfortunately, advanced metrics are good for very little in the playoffs; the team needs results.
In four games this series, Schwartz has just one point (an assist) and is an even plus minus; however, in the last two games he is a minus-two. He has looked consistently lost, lacks confidence in the offensive zone, and seems to be disinterested in possessing the puck, all clear signs that he is not at his best. St. Louis fans are starting to take notice, and even some of the more notable Blues’ voices are calling for Schwartz to sit.
It is highly unlikely that Schwartz does sit, particularly because Blues’ Interim Head Coach Craig Berube has shown little willingness to sit veterans in the past. But if he plays, he must play in a diminished role. the Blues cannot afford to give 16-plus minutes of ice time in a must win situation to someone who has no confidence in his own game. The playoffs are not the time to let someone “figure it out,” they’re the time to make drastic and decisive changes when things are not working, and right now, things are not working for Schwartz.
Game Five is “Must Win” for Blues
Any way you slice it, game five of this series is pretty much a “must win” for St. Louis. Their recent history of six game series losses suggests that if they come home trailing, they may never make it back to Winnipeg for game seven.
If the Blues are committed to doing what it takes to win, they need to make these three changes to their structure and their game. Two of them may be risky, but in the playoffs, taking risks is a virtual necessity for victory.
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.