Friday, October 25, 2019

Blues didn't wilt after losing Tarasenko; in fact, they elevated their game

5-2 win over Kings was proof that defending Stanley Cup champs have 
the kind of intestinal fortitude necessary to overcome first bit of adversity

ST. LOUIS -- It was set up as another one of those 'oh-no' moments, the kind where the Blues would have wilted under the pressure in the past.

Not this time, not now. Not the defending champs. 

Maybe in another time, but this time, this team. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
(From left) David Perron, Alex Pietrangelo and Tyler Bozak celebrate a goal
against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night.

When sharpshooter Vladimir Tarasenko left with 6 minutes 1 second remaining in the first period against the Los Angeles Kings with an upper-body injury, it was sudden, and without much hype.

And when the announcement came down quickly at the end of the first period that Tarasenko would miss the remainder of the game, it put the Blues in one of those 'what are we going to do?' moments.

It was a tie game at the time, and when the Blues fell behind early in the second period, that was the moment. Were they going to fold? Would they crumble?

Not a chance. 

Instead, everyone to a man basically said, 'Let's each pick up the slack. Everyone give a little more than what they brought to the table.' It resulted in a 5-2 win, and showed what good teams can do when thrown into some adversity.

After all, Tarasenko and linemates Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz were on an offensive tear (19 points the past five games) and starting to drum it up at both ends of the ice.

But it meant Robert Thomas, who scored his first goal of the season moments after drilling the cross bar, pick it up; it meant Zach Sanford, back in the lineup for the injured Sammy Blais (thumb) after being a healthy scratch for the past four games, pick it up and be a factor; it meant Schenn, who scored twice, and Schwartz, who extended his point streak to five games (one goal, six assists) with two assists, elevate whoever would jump on that line with them; it meant Ivan Barbashev, Oskar Sundqvist, Alexander Steen, Ryan O'Reilly, David Perron, MacKenzie MacEachern and Tyler Bozak, each forward, pick up the slack left by their injured teammate.

"The way he started the game, he was flying out there," Schenn said of Tarasenko. "Hopefully it's not too serious. Obviously he's a huge piece for us, scores a lot of goals, makes a lot of plays. Hopefully it's not too serious.

"That's a tough hole to fill, no doubt about it. He's a lethal sniper in our game. We'll see how long it is, but it's another opportunity for another guy, whether they're power play minutes or some minutes with me and 'Schwartzy' so we'll see what we can come up with."

The Blues (5-2-3) came up with a plan, and it was to get to their identity of forechecking, being relentless on pucks, being responsible with it and not giving it away, occupying zone time, not allowing the Kings, who came into the game as the NHL's top-shooting team with 38 per game, to come at them with speed and filtering too many pucks (shot attempts were 64-44 in favor of the Blues) at the net and occupy the zone with their heavy forecheck.

Every player to a man stepped up his game, and outscored LA 4-1 when Tarasenko went down by putting their stamp on this one, and they did so by rising to the occasion instead of wilting under the adversity.

"Any time you lose a player, it sucks, and a player like Vladi, it's even worse," Thomas said. "I thought we came together nicely and picked up for him when he was gone. Hopefully he's back soon. I think as a forward group, we responded really well.

"We know our formula now to win. We know what it takes for us. We've got to play strong together and when we do that, it looks really good. When we try and be individuals, it doesn't look good at all. Just before that Colorado game, we had a meeting and we just kind of talked about that and snapping back into what makes us successful. We did that the last two games."

And last but not least, along with 17 skaters elevating their respective games, it meant Jordan Binnington elevating his game. Maybe he meant it, maybe he didn't, but what appeared to be a harmless skate into the corner on a delayed penalty call before stirring it up with Kings forward Kyle Clifford that resulted in Clifford bumping into Binnington, and Barbashev and Sundqvist coming to his defense, that's team unity. It's a powerful tool, and it's hard to beat. It's hard to penetrate. It's hard to disrupt.

"I don't think anyone liked that," said Barbashev, who would get into the Blues' first fight of the season in the third period with Austin Wagner. "You always have to step up for your goalie because he's a big part of our team. That's what we've got to do and I'm pretty sure everyone's going to do the same thing.

"I didn't know what happened. I turned around and I saw he kind of cross-checked 'Binner'. I just didn't like it, so I had to get in there."

Alex Pietrangelo scored the second of the Blues' three power-play goals (Schenn and Vince Dunn had the others) to tie the game 2-2, and the Blues kept elevating their game after it.

"We had a good jump after that. I think he got us going," Thomas said of Binnington. "Obviously you don't want to see him getting hit at all, but if he wants to mix it up a bit, then we can get a good laugh at that."

Binnington, who was sharp with 33 saves, was asked what happened.

"Nothing," he said. "We were competing out there. We were getting a power play. I was skating to the corner and we just crossed paths."

Asked if Binnington said anything to Clifford, he said, "No. I don't know, did you see it?"

When told yes, Binnington said, "Well you can make your own review on it then."

Clifford was asked about it, and said, "I don't know what he was doing. He's a mute. Didn't say a word."

Binnington took a good bump from Clifford but wasn't surprised.

"No, I expected that when you're staring at a guy for over five seconds," Binnington said. "Something's going to happen. But it's hockey and they play hard and they like that kind of game. We responded well. Throughout the whole game, we played a pretty solid game."

Whatever works, right?

"Whatever gets him going," Schenn said with a grin. "He even shot for an empty net tonight, so let him have it."

The Blues let the Kings have it instead, in all facets.

"I thought at the time we were playing well," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Vladi was playing well. It happens. Guys were ready to play tonight, played a solid hockey game. I don't think that had anything to do with it.

"We had good cycles and good puck movement tonight. We really moved the puck well tonight, all around, even from our own end out."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
When Vladimir Tarasenko went down with an upper-body injury, Brayden
Schenn (right) stepped up and scored twice against Los Angeles Thursday.

That comes with an attitude. It comes with some sass. The things that winning can bring to a club goes a long way. This group won a Stanley Cup. There's no greater pressure and adversity than that, and when the Blues needed a reminder last week from Berube that they needed more mental toughness following a tough loss to Montreal, they've responded accordingly.

No individual will replace Tarasenko's production. It will take a collective group effort, and the Blues got it Thursday. Whether they'll need it beyond Thursday, if Tarasenko misses much/if any time, is yet to be determined.

"After losing four in a row there, we've responded as a team," said Schenn, who has 11 points (eight goals, three assists) his past nine games. "We know what it takes to win. Sometimes it's hard and it's not flashy, but we know it's successful."

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