Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Blues began their final stretch of games against playoff-bound Vegas and fell flat, 5-1 surrendering three more goals

No Pietrangelo, no Pacioretty as Golden Knights don't 
skip a beat in beating St. Louis for third straight time.

Going into their game Monday against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Blues had 25 games remaining in this regular season.

They had just passed the halfway mark of this different 56-game season playing strictly against divisional opponents, and in the Blues' case, the West Division.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Captains Ryan O'Reilly (left) of the Blues and Mark Stone (61) of the
Golden Knights battle for a loose puck Friday.

Of those remaining 25 games, 19 of them were against the Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.


There's no Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks to feast on anymore. 

Well, the Ducks come to St. Louis four more times, but we all know the Blues' home record, which leaves little to brag about.

But talk about a finishing stretch when 76 percent of your remaining games were against the teams directly ahead of you. So that means the easier part of the schedule, if one want to call it that, has been parked in the rear view mirror playing against the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings. 

Judging by Monday's 5-1 collapse in Vegas, in which the Blues (16-11-5) allowed four third-period goals in as many meetings against the Golden Knights (22-7-1) in the third period, this could be an arduous and painful road for the Blues just to survive the top four and get an invite into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead of buckling up and being ready for a bumpy ride that the Blues would have to weather and make better with their own good, solid play, they turned the initial bump ride into muscle-flexing for a Vegas team without two of its stars (old friend Alex Pietrangelo and leading goal scorer Max Pacioretty).

And if Monday's taste of what the final 24 games are going to be like, this could be a ugly ride that can't be fixed.

"Very disappointing, it really is," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I agree, we won two games in San Jose, played some good hockey there and just came here and didn't look like a confident hockey team tonight.

"... I guess I didn't prepare them good enough. We've got to all be better. We're in this together. I'm included and we've all got to be better."

That's certainly an understatement, even when the Blues were tied 1-1 after 40 minutes and the two points were up for grabs.

The Blues, facing a team that had to play the previous night in Los Angeles, were outshot 15-3 in the third period and outscored 4-0, including a pair of Vegas power-play goals.

"It's the third period and we got caught on our heels. That can't happen," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "Start to finish, it wasn't a great game. We were a lot of one-and-done's. We didn't really build it. Going into the third period, we were 1-1, we've got to find a way to build some momentum and we didn't and they got one and another and it's frustrating, it's very frustrating. I think everyone's upset right now. We have to kind of self-evaluate and regroup here."
He's right, it wasn't a great game, even if the Blues were in a 1-1 tie after the second.
They just camped out in their zone too many times, once again, getting caught on their heels, flat-footed, turning pucks over, succumbing to the Vegas forecheck. It didn't serve the Golden Knights well early. It did in the final 20 minutes when it mattered.

"Even up to that point, we hadn't played that well in my opinion," Berube said. "Basically it boils down to they wanted the game more than us. They dug in more they won more puck battles, made more plays, skated better. That's why they won the game."
So the big question is how does this happen when you're playing against the team you hoped to catch -- no chance that happens now -- for the division crown. A win would have put the Blues two behind Vegas for the top spot -- albeit Vegas has games in hand, but this was the chance for the Blues, who were swept by Vegas less than a month ago at home, that they have what it takes to compete at the highest level.
Instead, they fell flat on their faces.

"Not really much to explain," said defenseman Vince Dunn, whose second period goal tied the game 1-1. "I definitely think we were on our heels in the third and I thought our compete level definitely wasn't good enough overall in the game. We got a couple lucky bounces, but I definitely as a whole we were a little bit too spread out and I definitely think we could have done a better job possessing the puck."
Vegas played the night before, in Los Angeles, and lost 3-1, while the Blues were in Las Vegas waiting for their opponents to arrive, which means the fresher legs, particularly down the stretch, should have been for the visitors.
Instead, Vegas held a 15-3 advantage and it was game, set, match after nemesis Mark Stone made it 2-1 just 1:20 in.

"We kind of fed their transition a bit, their momentum," O'Reilly said. "They got good o-zone possession and we then exhaust ourselves. I got stuck out there a few times and you're just trying to get off the ice and you don't set up your next lines to succeed. We didn't have enough of that tonight. There wasn't enough of building the game for the next line, setting them up, giving them the opportunity to get their game going a bit. It was very sporadic. It's frustrating. They're a team that they play loose when they're connected, they're making plays and we just have to respond better."

Not only were the Blues outshot 15-3 in the third period, the more exhausted team, at least on paper anyway, outshot the Blues 35-16 for the game. The Blues generated more blocked shots (18) than actual shots on goal (16).

"The last three games we played them, we really didn't dictate anything in the three games in my opinion," Berube said. "We hung in there. All the games were tight going into the third period. You have an opportunity tonight. In my opinion, we didn't play well the first two periods, but we hung in there, it's a close game, it's right there and we get outshot 15-3 in the third period. That's just not good enough. There's nothing more I can really say about it. We've got to be better, I've got to coach better and they've got to play better."

It was hard to develop any kind of forecheck when the puck was in your end the majority of the game, whether it be from an errant clearing attempt, pucks getting poked off sticks, losing wall battles, the whole kit and caboodle.

"I know for myself, did not establish a forecheck and get some o-zone time," O'Reilly said on the heels of an 11-point game at San Jose for his line with Jordan Kyrou and David Perron. "We didn't have opportunities to get some shots and kind of get some momentum that way. It's not just chucking the puck on net. It's got to be worked for the right way. I know myself, my line, we have to be much better at it and as a group, we have to establish that part of our game. It's such a big piece and we didn't tonight.

"The exits weren't great. We weren't strong on the walls. We were leaving guys out to dry. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes teams are going to forecheck hard and I kind of reflect on it, as I myself, you have to come in there and stay tighter to the battle and break it out as a unit. We were just kind of hoping the guy would make the play on the wall instead of supporting it and finding a way to establish that part, get the puck out together. It was kind of individual. We didn't see much of our team tonight, but we know it's there. We know it's there. We just have to find a way to be consistent with it."

"I think he's right," Dunn said of O'Reilly. "Our forecheck as a whole wasn't good enough and the D were backing out a little bit and we were kind of one-and-done all over. Against a team like that who's so good off the rush, not only making plays but getting into the o-zone and starting their cycle game, we need to put ourselves in a better spot to be successful and that starts with coming out of our own end as a whole. It's not always going to be a pretty play coming out of our own end. We might not always get a rush opportunity, but just getting the puck and establishing our forecheck is the strength of our game, so we need to do a better job than that."

The end of the game's shot clock read 35-16 in favor of Vegas. And who was the supposed more lock team again?
"We definitely didn't get to the forecheck good enough," Berube said. "What it boils down to me is we spend too much time in our end because we get a puck, we don't make a play under pressure, no composure, don't win enough puck battles. I'll say it again, don't win enough puck battles, so you're going to spend time in your end. That's a good team over there. They do a lot of things right. They come at you in waves, and we were just overwhelmed. I felt we were overwhelmed the whole game."

Ouch! Overwhelmed the whole game, by a team missing two key pieces and the Blues getting Robert Thomas, who missed 19 games with a broken thumb, back.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Offense was tough to come by for center Brayden Schenn (10) and the rest
of the Blues Monday after being outshot 35-16 by the Golden Knights.

"We were playing pretty well in the first two periods," Dunn said.

No Vince, you weren't.

"Even that second goal that came in, it's off my foot," Dunn said. "It's not that much of a defensive breakdown, I guess you'd say. Even then we're still in the game. We've got to find a way to pick each other back up and get ourselves back in the game and we didn't do a good enough job as a whole doing that.

"It's all about us right now and working on our game. It's going to get really hard, especially approaching playoffs and we want to give ourselves the best chance at getting in there and putting ourselves in a good seed. These teams are very good, everyone's playing good hockey right now, so it's about us and making sure our game was better than what it was tonight."

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