Thursday, March 4, 2021

Finally, specialty teams prove special for Blues in 3-2 win over Ducks

Power play and penalty kill each go 3-for-3 in helping earn third straight win

The Blues knew the personnel they possessed entering the season and felt that the special teams could really be a difference-maker for them.

But when things got off to a rough start, to say the least, and the power play especially hadn't been generating nearly enough for them, or as they say, creating momentum even when they don't score on it, it makes the rest of the game tough to build on.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Justin Faulk (right) and Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg 
race for a loose puck at Honda Center in Anaheim.

It took 23 games, but the power play finally made all the difference in winning and losing in a 3-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on Wednesday.

It was a power-play that entered the game a woeful 28th in the NHL (13.4 percent), one that boasted several quality players, then added Mike Hoffman and Torey Krug to the mix, two power-play specialists in their own right, that was supposed to help fuel a unit that was third in the NHL last season (24.3 percent).

However, it went 3-for-3 against a Ducks unit that's been in the top 10 all season, and still is at No. 10, but after an oh-for night, the Blues put a dent in that. The Blues are 6-for-10 against the Ducks with the man-advantage, 6-for-60 against everyone else in the division that they've played thus far, excluding Minnesota, who they've yet to face.

Oskar Sundqvist, Brayden Schenn and Zach Sanford all notched man-advantage goals, and the penalty kill, which has progressively gotten better after a horrendous start of its own (22 for its last 26, or 85 percent), was 3-for-3 Wednesday.

"PP was great, special teams all around was good," said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, who made 27 saves after being pulled from his last start last Saturday at San Jose. "The boys were blocking a ton of shots, big blocks on one-timers. The bench was loud too and just good energy. Good special teams tonight."

Let's start with the power play, which needed just 2:28 to execute.

The first one, in which the Blues were able to keep a puck in at the blue line, work it around to the left and David Perron fed Sundqvist down low and he was able to spin and whip a puck past goalie John Gibson at 14:45 of the first for a 1-0 lead, needed just 42 seconds to execute.

The second one, when Brayden Schenn scored with a nice wrister from the top of the right circle after the Blues won a face-off and worked it to the right, with Schenn using Sundqvist and Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler as a screen at 10:02 of the second for a 2-0 lead, needed all of seven seconds to execute.

And the third one, which needed 1:39, came when Sanford crashed the net and collected the loose change after Jordan Kyrou made a speed move off the left wall at 13:08 of the third to make it 3-1, sealed the win.

"Monty (assistant coach Jim Montgomery) and the players really broke down how we're going to attack Anaheim's penalty kill," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "It's been very good all year. These low plays and things around the net were open and they did a good job and took advantage of it."

Krug, who assisted on the Sundqvist and Schenn goals, had to feel some relief after coming over from Boston this off-season and the league's No. 2 power play from a season ago.

"It's been a long time coming now, but obviously that's the job of the PP and the PK is to do the job that you're asked and push your team into a position to come out with a win and that's what happened tonight," Krug said. "It was good. Hopefully, we can keep this momentum going."

One key to the power play was winning the offensive zone face-off on each occasion. O'Reilly won the first face-off, but the puck departed the zone twice, only to have the Blues re-enter a third time and be able to keep it in at the blue line and work it down low. On the second one, it was another O'Reilly face-off win, a Krug keep-in, and Schenn scored quickly, and on the third, O'Reilly wins the face-off again, and even though they didn't score right away, they create positive momentum by working the zone.

"That's very important," Berube said. "I think our face-offs have been very good all year. We're top five or six in the league I think. You're not chasing the puck down the ice. You're winning the draw, you set up a face-off play. You create o-zone time with it and attack right away. We attacked right away on the one and scored a goal. A lot of good things when you win draws."

"The likelihood of you scoring drops way down if they win the first face-off and you have to go back and break the puck out," Krug said. "Obviously any time we have our centermen out there, they do a great job of winning face-offs and giving us a first crack at it. If we're doing that more often than not lately, then we'll get a chance to score."

And another positive aspect to the execution is the net-front presence. Both Sundqvist and Sanford scored from close-in range, and even though those plays don't always have to come from tips or redirections, just being around the net to receive pucks can create chaos. 

"I think we're attacking more now and we're going a little bit more downhill and trying to attack the net more often," said Sundqvist, who scored his first career power-play goal. "And we're winning puck battles. Last couple games, we've been outworking the penalty kill. That's what we need to keep doing and the goals are going to keep coming I'm sure."

The Blues (13-8-2) jumped from 28th to 24th with their perfect night at 17.1 percent, and on the road now, it's seventh at 27.6 percent (8-for-29). Even though they're far from perfect in that area, it was a good sign to see the life come from it.

"I think it was just our attack mentality was a lot better, get the puck on and off your stick," Krug said. "If we know where the puck's going towards the net, then we can converge, that's just been the key, just switching up our mentality a little bit. Nothing really X's and O's wise. No special plays or anything, just a mentality."

The PK was equally as impressive, especially late protecting a 3-1 lead when the Ducks played with an extra attacker after pulling John Gibson from goal. There were four shot blocks by Sundqvist, Niko Mikkola, O'Reilly and Justin Faulk that prevented Anaheim (6-12-5) from gaining any momentum and limiting the Ducks to four shots on three man-advantage situations.

"Like I said on the power play, and the same for the PK, it feels like we're outworking them and we're all on the same page," Sundqvist said. "We're going as a four-game unit every time. It's a nice feeling for sure to have both PK and power play going here."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Zach Sanford (12) celebrates after scoring a goal 
against John Gibson and the Ducks.

"They got a lot of guys laying it on the line there, blocking shots, great to see," Berube said. "Penalty kill was really good tonight again. Penalty kill's been good for a while. I think guys have done a really good job. It just shows our guys are dedicated and they want to win. They're a real tight group, a real tight team. When you lay it on the line and block shots like that, that shows."

It helped the Blues win their third in a row and they hope to carry that momentum up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles against the Kings Friday and Saturday, and they needed it to be especially since the even-strength game produced only 18 shots on goal.

"I didn't think that we were great with the puck tonight," Berube said. "I thought that Anaheim probably had the puck more than us at times. We had some good o-zone time, but not enough, not consistently enough. We had to be good defensively because they had the puck a lot."

No comments:

Post a Comment