Friday, November 22, 2019

Next man up mentality has Blues winning despite key players missing

Thomas, Sundqvist, Sanford lead way with nine points, providing depth as third 
line in 5-0 win against Flames; St. Louis winning without Tarasenko, Steen, Blais

ST. LOUIS -- Next man up.

It sounds cliche-ish and it can be heard around coaches in all shapes, sizes and forms. From hockey to soccer to basketball and baseball and football, injuries happen and someone will have to step in and be effective in whatever role they're placed in.

The Blues are minus three key forwards due to injury with Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and now, Sammy Blais. Each has and will be missing significant time, and in one form or another, Craig Berube has to march a lineup out on a daily basis.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Zach Sanford (right) had the first four-point game of his NHL career with
a goal and three assists in a 5-0 win over Calgary Thursday.

Counting on your go-to guys is one thing, but for a second straight game, the production and chemistry of Robert Thomas centering Oskar Sundqvist and Zach Sanford is something worth noting. Their production in a 5-0 blitzing of the struggling Calgary Flames is worth noting, and out of someone else's misfortune, maybe something developing and good can come to another.

The trio combined for nine points (three goals, six assists), with Sanford leading the pack with his first four-point game in the NHL (one goal, three assists) and Thomas (three assists) and Sundqvist (two goals) all helping the cause.

That line was a menace for the Flames, who are 0-5-1 their past five games and have been outscored 23-5, including being shut out in a franchise record three straight road games.

And making the difference is Thomas, who has been thrust into his natural position of center when the Blues drafted him with the 20th pick in the 2017 draft. Thomas has been primarily used as a wing, but with the Blues in dire need of a change and some shuffling around in light of some recent goal struggles, Blues coach Craig Berube moved some parts around and may have found themselves a little gem here.

"It's two games, but so far, so good," Berube said. "They're all working pretty well together. Good chemistry. Sanford and Sundqvist are hard workers and they forecheck. They do a good job at that and you've got Robby Thomas, who's a quick player and makes good plays. It's been a good combination."

Each player was a plus-4 Thursday, and each is making the kind of plays that provides the necessary scoring needed from a top-nine.

The first goal by Sanford was a perfect example of everyone chipping in. When the Blues gained the zone, Thomas had the puck on a string, was able to cut on a dime before finding Sanford in a soft area for a one-timer. 

"Yeah, I think so," Thomas said when asked if playing center is bringing out his best. "I think it allows me to kind of control the play, exiting the zone, and controlling it coming into the zone a little bit more. For me, I'm just trying to make clean exits, so that [Sanford] and [Sundqvist] can get some space off the rush. We're really finding each other and staying connected, and it's shown the last two games."

Sundqvist was doing the necessary forechecking and creating space, and Thomas and Sanford were doing the rest.

"Very impressive," Sundqvist said. "[Thomas] seems like he;s not losing any speed when he's doing his cutbacks there back to the forwards. It's impressive to see. Me and Sanford just need to get open.

"He's doing almost everything out there. We're trying to get him the puck to carry it up and me and Sanford are trying to create some space and get open. You saw he's a really good passer and he showed that tonight. Just try to get open and he will find you."

Thomas said recently that playing the middle allows him to touch the puck more, from the d-zone to the o-zone, and it enables him to make plays and distribute more rather than me the go-to finisher, which was obviously something he was having a hard time adjusting to when they tried him on a wing with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn.

"He's getting on the puck," Berube said of Thomas. "He's skating more because he's in the middle of the ice. A little more freedom for him there. He's a good skater, strong skater, he gets there, he's quick and he can make plays in the middle of the ice."

Sundqvist has been usual checking, hounding, sneaky scoring self that is making another line go. Wherever the Blues put the Swede, he gives it a fresh, strong look.

"They were really good with the production they got," Berube said. "They made some nice plays and scored some nice goals."

Sundqvist's breakaway came off Sanford's backhand dump out of the d-zone that Sundqvist got a strong read on and jumped the defenseman with a chip and go. He would score again in the third period when both Sanford and Thomas went to work behind the net to forecheck the puck to the slot.

"They supported the puck well," said defenseman Vince Dunn, who benefited from a Thomas pass to score his fourth of the season in the third. "It wasn't just off the rush. They cycled the puck down low and they took care of our own end. That's something that we really talked about is making sure we do our job there and I think our offense comes when we're reliable and responsible defensively."

The look of Sanford, Thomas and Sundqvist is a good look for a third line, and Mackenzie MacEachern, Jacob de la Rose and Klim Kostin provided good minutes off the fourth line because the Blues moved Ivan Barbashev off the fourth line and added him to Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron.

They tout their depth often, but it's more evident now that it's there, and it's enabling the Blues, 9-1-2 in their past 12 games and 14-4-5 overall, to persevere without some of their top guns and being led by young guns.

"It's really tough. Guys go down and that's part of the game, and it's not always easy to fill in those roles, but I think we've done a pretty good job so far," Dunn said. "Goalies have been playing great and forwards that have been up in the lineup and guys that have came into the lineup have done a great job."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Oskar Sundqvist (left) moves in to defend Flames forward Derek Ryan in a
5-0 St. Louis win on Thursday. Sundqvist scored twice.

Berube added: "All the young guys are coming along. They've got more experience now and they're doing a good job now, that's how I look at it right now. We've just got to keep building and keep getting better. Whoever's in there, you've got to do the job. That's basically how we look at things. We've got Troy Brouwer sitting still here now when he's ready to go, so that's a good thing. We've got depth. It's important to have depth. We've got guys in the minors, good players down there that could be used. It's good that we have a lot of depth.

"They were a different group of guys last year that were used as depth guys and it's a different group this year. Our organization has done a great job with young guys drafting and all that. You need them, you need them in today's game. You need young guys to step in and play and do a good job. They've been doing that."

The Blues are finding out that teams will be quick to focus on Schenn, O'Reilly, Perron and Schwartz but have others that can step into needed roles.

Winning a Stanley Cup can do that, even to the lesser experienced skaters. 


  1. Lou, I'd enjoy your thoughts on Zach Sanford, as well as Oscar Sundqvist.
    For Sanford, he seems like a Patrik Berglund in that he seems to be pretty good at many different roles, but never good enough to stick to one role. At times, great passing, or great shooting/scoring; at other times, expected to be a solid checker. Like Bergie, Sanford seems to be the whipping boy of fans.
    On Sunny - here's a guy as a throw-in on a trade for first rounder (Kostin); was not visible his first season with Blues; almost waived if not for Tom Wilson's hit in preseason. Then, something changed that's he now a really good 3rd liner or even 2nd line as a fill-in. What changed there?
    Thanks - love your work, Lou.

  2. At some point, if he keeps playing like he has the past two games, I'll do something on him. I've written stories on him in the past. It's all about consistency with him. If he can play consistently like this, the Blues have themselves a player. That's been his issue.