Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Blues hope past lessons learned help with closing out Wild

Team can use last season as example of ending 
series; Stastny skates for first time with teammates

ST. LOUIS -- History is fresh in many of the players' minds for the Blues. 

It was only a year ago where the Blues, who have a 3-0 stranglehold lead of their Western Conference First Round series with the Minnesota Wild with Game 4 slated for today (8:45 p.m.; FS-MW, NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM), led the first two rounds with opportunities to close them out, didn't, and were pushed to the limit with Game 7 wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars.

The Blues led the Blackhawks 3-1 coming home for Game 5 before being pushed to a 3-2 win in Game 7; they led the Stars 3-2 in that series with a Game 6 at home but had to go back to Dallas for a Game 7 and smoked the Stars 6-1.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen will take his 0.91 GAA and .974 save percentage
in the series into Game 4 Wednesday night against the Wild.

But in having to exert an excess amount of energy in those two series, perhaps the Blues emptied the tanks and didn't have nearly as much as they needed in a six-game series loss to the San Jose Sharks in the conference final.

Now that they are on the brink of a series sweep of the Wild, it might be in the Blues' best interests to end this at home, where the crowd will be ready to blow the roof off the building and not have to make any more necessary trips and allow the bodies to recharge and refuel.

In seven previous times holding a 3-0 series lead, the Blues have swept such series five times, the last coming in 2001 against Ken Hitchcock and the Stars, and a series has never gone past five games.

"I think experience goes a long way in playoffs," Blues right wing Ryan Reaves said. "You've got to have experience knowing how to stay even in games where you haven't played as well as you should have or in games where you dominate, you've got to make sure you come back the next day and it's a clean slate. 

"I think our group right now has done really well in the game, especially when you get down or they're pushing to have our push back and we've got to apply that to the game tomorrow. We're in a good spot, but the job's not done. We're playing a really good team, so we've got to make sure we stay even and finish the job."

The experience the Blues have gained in closeout games is that the team with its back against the wall -- in this case Minnesota -- will come out with a huge push. It'll be up to the Blues to come out with the energy they had to begin Game 3 and try to force the Wild into playing catchup again.

"It's always tough because you know you're going to get their best push," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "They're hanging on here and we're trying to move on. Every game's been tight. We know what's at stake.

"A few years before (2016), we lacked that killer instinct. It's never over until it's over I guess. That game against Chicago last year, it took until the third period with, what was it, eight minutes left to get the goal? We've learned to just keep pushing regardless of the situation. All it takes is that one goal to get that lead."

"They're tough games,” Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said. "The teams are kind of fighting to stay in and stay alive and it's an opportunity for us to obviously advance, but it's the same opportunity for them to stay alive and play the best game. It's tough hockey for sure, but that's what makes it so fun is when we can come together as a team and continue to push."

The Blues have not trailed in this series, and that's been one of the positives. But coach Mike Yeo knows the Wild has outshot the Blues, out-attempted them, has a decisive edge on the dot and will not go away quietly. He just wants the Blues to get better, and if they do that, they will be in good shape.

"We just need to play well," Yeo said. "Ultimately, that's what we want. We want to win the round and we want to advance and we want to keep competing here, but the reality is that's not going to happen unless we play really well. That's got to be our mindset coming into the game tomorrow. The focus on us, the focus on the things that we need to do better, the things that we've done well and the things that we need to keep continuing doing. When you do those things, you give yourself a great chance.

"We still have a great deal, a ton of respect for the team that we're playing against. We know how good of a team they are, we know how close the games have been. We're not trying to think about the next round or anything else right now. What we're trying to make sure we're focusing on is to be at our best tomorrow and that's all we can do right now, and obviously if you can do that, then you give yourself the best opportunity."

"Those are the kinds of sentences that are different than guys were used to hearing here before," Blues right wing David Perron said. "He's all about the process and things like that. That's a good example right there."

The Wild, an argument can be made for Game 1 for sure, has played some of its best hockey. The Blues on the other hand, feel like their 'A' game is still there to be had.

"I still think we've got a couple more gears," Reaves said. "We're not getting as many shots through as we should, we're not getting to the net as much as we should, we're not penetrating the middle as much as we should and we're not scoring as much as we should. Those are all areas that we need to improve on. I think our defending has been the best part of our game so far. We're taking away the middle and keeping everything to the outside, but I think we need to click a little more on offense and put a couple more in the net."

Which is precisely one of the things the Blues worked on Tuesday, funneling pucks towards the net, and working on puck possession.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Colton Parayko (left) said closeout games are "tough."
Closing out the Minnesota Wild and Jason Zucker (right) won't be easy.

"Yeah, I think just making sure we're getting pucks on net and finishing plays around then net," Reaves said. "I think that's got to be an emphasis going forward."

Or is shot volume that important?

"You know what, we have to be careful," Yeo said. "I feel in the first three games, some of the times we've been in such a rush to shoot a puck that we end up missing a net and breaking out, or shooting one into a shin pad and losing zone time. So we definitely need to have a shot-first mentality, but that said, we can't be reckless and turning pucks over because of that. Sometimes you're in such a rush to get one shot you lose the opportunity to get three. And I think that when we've been on top of our game, certainly we're shooting pucks, we're recovering pucks, but there's an element of poise in our game and confidence to our game where we know that we can hang onto the puck and wait for a better opportunity if it's not there."

* NOTES -- The Blues welcomed center Paul Stastny to the ice for practice Tuesday.

Stastny hasn't skated with the team since sustaining a foot injury after getting hit by a Vladimir Tarasenko shot on March 21 against the Colorado Avalanche.

Stastny, who was unavailable to speak to reporters, was skating in the spot vacated by Alexander Steen, who is nursing a lower-body injury but Yeo said he would be available for Game 4.

Stastny, who has been working out on his own, is questionable for Wednesday.

"Paul is day-to-day, same as what he was the other day-to-days," Yeo said. "I thought he had a good practice.

"I thought he was skating well, I thought he was involved in every drill and conditioning didn't look like an issue and timing and execution didn't look like it was an issue either."

When asked if he could be available Wednesday, Yeo said, "Well, every day is a new day. I'm running out of things to say."

Just the sight of Stastny, who is the Blues’ best faceoff center and an area the Wild have dominated this series (60 percent to 40 percent), gives teammates hope.

"Well he plays in every situation," Pietrangelo said. "Obviously he's in that first PP, big on faceoffs too. Obviously 'Sobe's come in and helped in that department, but Paul's a big guy and takes a lot of big faceoffs in a lot of situations. We're waiting on his return. I don't know the situation either, but we're excited to see him out there with us."

Perron agreed.

"It's amazing, one of our best players all year ... as far as doing those little things, faceoffs, grabbing guys' sticks, getting guys some more (time) with the puck the way he passes the puck," Perron said. "It's obviously great for sure.

"Obviously that's one of the bigger parts. On the left side, he wins a lot of draws. It would take pressure off other guys, too. I think their team is really good, their four centermen, they even have a couple of guys on the wing that can win draws. It's tough on our guys right now but they're doing their best."

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