Friday, April 19, 2019

Blues hope to eliminate Jets instead of being in survival mode thanks to personnel changes

Berube's line changes help set stage for third-period 3-2 comeback 
win in Winnipeg, give St. Louis 3-2 lead instead of facing 3-2 deficit

ST. LOUIS -- Craig Berube stuck to his guns, and it was hard to let go for good reason.

Consistency has been a theme for the Blues' interim coach, and with the way the team played through much of the second half of the season and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Berube wasn't about to tinker with what wasn't broken.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Craig Berube decided to change his lineup around, and it
helped them to a rally in the third period of a 3-2 win in Game 5 at Winnipeg.

But as this Western Conference first round series with the Winnipeg Jets progressed, and with the way the Blues' top line was producing (or not producing would be a better way of putting it), Berube had to try something different.

"'Otter' came up to me, but you really had that feeling," Blues forward Brayden Schenn said of assistant coach Steve Ott regarding a change.

And "that feeling" is what has the Blues sitting in the position they're in right now, with a 3-2 series lead after that frantic third-period comeback, down 2-0 before rallying for a stunning 3-2 win in Game 5 Thursday at Bell MTS Place.

Not to overlook the goaltending of Jordan Binnington, who made saves on the final 20 shots faced after falling behind 2-0, and the penalty kill that had to turn away a Winnipeg four-minute power play, but the calculated changes proved to be vital.

The Blues, who can close the Jets out instead of having to fight for survival on Saturday in Game 6 (6 p.m.; FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM), were left for dead down two with 20 minutes to go. But Berube decided to finally move some pieces around, and it started before the game when he inserted Carl Gunnarsson into the lineup on the blue line in place of Robert Bortuzzo, and then in-game, pulled the plug on the Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-Vladimir Tarasenko line. 

Berube flipped Schenn and David Perron, moving Perron to the left wing on O'Reilly's line and moving Schenn back into the middle and shift Oskar Sundqvist to the right and reunite Schenn with Jaden Schwartz, who potted the gamer-winner with 15 seconds remaining in regulation to complete the comeback.

"You’re always thinking about changes and stuff," Berube said. "I guess you look at our top line not producing 5-on-5 enough. Even though I thought the first period was pretty good -- they had some zone time, had some opportunities, but if you don’t score, you’ve got to change it up a little. So it was a good time to make the change."

Boy was it ever, and knowing that Schenn and Schwartz have had success together before made it an easier choice to make.

"A lot of the forwards have played with each other," Schwartz said. "'Schenner' can play the wing, but he’s actually a center, so he likes getting speed through the neutral zone. 

"We just needed to make a switch. We were getting chances but they weren’t going in. The switch paid off and like I said, the PK was huge, the PP was big and then, we just kept going from there."

The underlying key point here is that perhaps Berube was seeing the affect of playing the wing had on Schenn and the way he was wearing down in games sparked the change. Playing the wing, Schenn is the first forward in and using his body more on the forecheck instead of skating with the puck through the neutral zone and using his speed. Schenn seemed to be fresher later in the game and was more apt to creating plays instead of sacrificing his body.

"It's a game of inches and chances and I don't think I've had as many chances as I would have liked earlier in this series," said Schenn, who had his first two points in the series Thursday with a goal and an assist. "I got back to the middle and I felt it got me back around the puck more, got a little more speed to my game and I was able to make a few more plays.

"If it's not going for us at the time, you've got to make the switch, and we did, and all lines got going really. Perron did a great job with Vladi and 'O'Ry' and they had a ton of chances. Me and 'Schwartzy' and 'Sunny' and 'Steener' ... all lines were cycling, grinding. ... We feel comfortable with each other (Schenn and Schwartz). We're looking for one another out there. I think the team's extremely happy for him. He's worked hard all year, he's had chances all series. For him to get that goal is huge for us."

The Schenn-O'Reilly-Tarasenko line, when they were connected together for the start of that franchise-record 11-game winning streak on Jan. 23 and beyond, were fantastic. The Blues had not lost in 17 straight games when that trio was together, and they compiled 63 points (an average of 3.71 per game) in the process. But Winnipeg was ability to keep the puck off their sticks, and the Jets' top line of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler was having the better of that matchup, so Berube dug into the well and pulled out a familiar component.

And by the end of the night, the Jets' top line each was a minus-2.

"I thought when we put them together tonight, they looked more energetic and had more jump," Berube said. "I put Schenn back in the middle and he seemed to have more jump. He was pretty excited about it. And I thought 'Schwartzy' fed off him."

As did Sundqvist, who was getting beat up in the series from a physical standpoint but made  solid power move off the wing to help set up Schenn's tying goal that needed to be reviewed when the net was lifted off its moorings.

"I keep playing my game," Sundqvist said. "'Schenner' is really skilled, really physical, winning puck battles down low and creating offense for us. It was nice to play with him.

"It’s nothing, it’s just up and down the ice (on right wing). I’m trying to create space for 'Schenner' and 'Schwartzy'. It was nice playing them."

It's not as if moving Perron from the right to left wing was an anomaly either. It's his off side and he's played there with Tarasenko, giving O'Reilly two guys to distribute to on their off side.

"We’ve played with Schenn before and Perron played with those guys before, so everyone is used to playing with each other and we’ve played with each other before, so it wasn’t like it was that big of a switch for us," Schwartz said.

The jigsaw puzzle was in full swing, but when the pieces fit, as they did Thursday, Berube comes out smelling like a rose.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jaden Schwartz (17) celebrates with teammate Carl Gunnarsson after 
scoring the game-winner Thursday with 15 seconds remaining in regulation.

"It feels good," Berube said. "Honestly, I thought our team responded well to it. ... That's a good team over there. Its a competitive game all around. We got some fortunate bounces."

And a fortunate equipment issue when the left-handed Schenn had to leave the ice late for the right-handed Tyler Bozak, who was able to whip an airborne puck into the slot that Schwartz was able to bunt in past a stunned Connor Hellebuyck.

"'Bozie' came on, he was fresh, and probably knew there wasn't much time left so he just threw it on net and I kind of got lucky, it just hit my stick," Schwartz said. 

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