Friday, June 7, 2019

Blues on the verge of first-ever Stanley Cup but taking things in stride

Up 3-2 in series with Bruins, St. Louis stayed level-headed with chance to 
clinch Sunday; Barbashev suspended one game; Binnington setting records

ST. LOUIS -- They're that close, they can taste it.

One more win. 

That's what the Blues need to hoist that elusive Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Goalie Jordan Binnington, making one of his 38 saves in Game 5, has the
Blues on the verge of their first-ever Stanley Cup. 

But first thing's first: winning that final game, and the Blues, as they have been throughout these Stanley Cup Playoffs, are guarded and even-keeled in their approach.

"We know what Sunday is, but the group is calm and we've done a really good job of refocusing after games," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "I don't really get a feel from anybody that the emotions are too high right now."

Nor should they be. But it would make perfect sense if they were, especially after that heart-palpitating 2-1 win at TD Garden in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final that gave the Blues a 3-2 lead in the best-of-7 series.

The Blues are that close, and the perfect scenario would be to close out the city's first-ever championship in front of their rabid home fans that will pack Enterprise Center on Sunday night. But there will be plenty of fight from the Boston Bruins, who were in the same situation in the Eastern Conference first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs before going on the road, winning Game 6 and then taking Game 7 at home.

"I'm really not getting excited or anything," said Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, in search of his first title too in his 16th season. "I think this whole playoffs, the focus is you've just got to stay even keel, not get too high, too low. Everyone knows what's at stake, obviously, but when you're this late in the season, it doesn't really change. We know they're going to come with a big push, and we've got to have our best game."

It was a bit of a similar situation when the Blues hosted Game 3, their first Stanley Cup Final game since 1970, and then promptly went out and got blasted 7-2 on the strength of four Bruins power-play goals.

Lesson learned?

"Yeah, we already talked about it, and we'll talk again tomorrow about it," Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. "I think our guys, they went through it already once, and I think they'll be more prepared this time.

"I think every round it's been difficult to get that fourth win. It's always hard to close a team out, and we're going to get their best game. A lot like last night, I thought they came out hard, like I said. They really poured it on in the first period. We hung in there, and we're going to have to be really prepared to go, and Game 6 we will be, and again, we're at home, so we've got to get after that team in the first period and set the tone."

Veteran players will be at the forefront to set the tone, like Alexander Steen, who has never won the Cup but played in big games.

"Oh, I think the way we've handled it throughout the course of the playoffs," Steen said when asked how to handle the emotions. "I think as you move along, you learn, as well, more and more. You rely a lot on your routines and what we do inside the locker room before games to kind of keep your focus on what you want to accomplish out there."

The Blues have been able to close out all three of their previous series on home ice, which hasn't been too kind to the Blues at 6-6, but they do have close-out wins over Winnipeg in Game 6 (3-2), Dallas in Game 7 (2-1 in double overtime) and San Jose in Game 6 (5-1).

"Even if those games were on the road, I think we just played the game we wanted to in those clinching games, so we're looking for the same recipe on Sunday," Pietrangelo said.

The Blues are 7-1 in Games 5-7 in these playoffs and outscored the opposition 25-10. Their ability to play physical, grinding hockey may be boring to some but effective to them. Just ask the Jets, Stars and Sharks, who eventually became physically worn down.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
David Perron (57) goes in for a check on Bruins d-man
Brandon Carlo in Game 5 on Thursday. Perron scored
the game-winner in a 2-1 win for the Blues in Game 5.

"I think so. I think we've wanted to do that in every series," Pietrangelo said. "We've wanted to build as the series goes on, and like you said, wear teams down. We've done a good job in this series of sticking with that game plan regardless of what the score was. It's a good recipe to have. But we know they're not going to be pushed over lightly on Sunday."

* NOTES -- Blues forward Ivan Barbashev was suspended one game by the NHL's Department of Player Safety on Friday for what they deemed to be an illegal check to the head of Bruins forward Marcus Johansson, which went unpenalized at the time.

The video explanation, for what it's worth, can be seem and heard here:

Barbashev had just thrown a puck along the wall in his defensive zone before it was picked off by Johansson. As Johansson was skating in to fire off a wrist shot, Barbashev's principle point of contact was not the head but got enough of it. Neither referees, Kelly Sutherland nor Steve Kozari, called a penalty on the play at 5:24 of the first period.

It's the second time the Blues have had a player suspended in the series. Oskar Sundqvist was suspended one game and missed Game 3 for a check from behind in Game 2 on Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who has yet to play in the series.

"Yeah, well, somebody is going to have to step in and go do the job, for sure, a lot like Sundqvist with the suspension there," Berube said before the Barbashev verdict was handed down. "Somebody will come in and do the job for sure."

Barbashev has been a key component on the Blues' fourth line with Sundqvist and Steen shutting down the Bruins' top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who got away with a low bridge hit while trying to take out Vladimir Tarasenko's right knee in Game 5 (yes, Tarasenko was rightfully angry). And of course, there's the "glorified" hit by Torey Krug on Robert Thomas, who by the way hasn't played since Game 1, that the DOPS has ignored.

"Obviously very competitive guy, plays with a lot of intensity and passion, both sides of the puck," Steen said of Barbashev. "He's really intelligent, so a good player for us."

* Blues goalie Jordan Binnington tied an NHL playoff record for most wins by a rookie goalie in a playoff year with 15; he tied Patrick Roy, Montreal, 1986; Ron Hextall, Philadelphia, 1987; Cam Ward, Carolina, 2006 and Matt Murray, Pittsburgh, 2016). 

Binnington also became the sixth goalie in NHL history with at least nine road wins in a playoff season. The record is 10 held by four different players, most recently by Braden Holtby of Washington last season).

"He had lots of early questions, and I think that's kind of the response," Bouwmeester said. "Nothing really surprises us now. He's been with us for a long time. He's a big part of our team, and any team at this point, the goaltending is huge in the playoffs."

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