Saturday, April 24, 2021

Blues finally got angry, finally got big-ticket win after falling behind early

2-0 deficit against tough Avalanche, Blues battle back to 
earn 5-3 win behind O'Reilly four-point game, including hat trick

ST. LOUIS -- Finally, some anger.

And for the Blues, it's been long overdue.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Ryan O'Reilly (left), who scored his second hat trick this season, battles
with Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon for a puck Saturday.

The start wasn't great against the surging Colorado Avalanche, who continue to mash opponents without their No. 1 goalie (Philipp Grubauer), top goal scorer (Mikko Rantanen) and realiable 15-goal third-liner (Joonas Donskoi), but for a change, the Blues dug deep into the energy tank.

Falling behind by two three minutes into the game is typically a death knell against the Avs, who came in with one regulation loss their previous 21 games (18-1-2) and have been feasting on the opposition and a killer instinct to boot.

Ryan O'Reilly had enough. His teammates hopped on the captain's shoulders and the rest is history.

O'Reilly's second hat trick this season and third of his NHL career, all with the Blues, capped a four-point night and fueled the Blues' 5-3 win over the Avalanche at Enterprise Center to vault the Blues (20-19-6) back into the hot potato spot of fourth place that nobody seemingly wants in the West Division.

All it took -- finally -- was some pushback, some enough is enough attitude. The Blues finally got pissed off.

And it's about time.

Colorado (31-10-4) could have blown the doors off early, and against a team that had lost three in a row and 10 of its past 13 (3-9-1) that their coach had called fragile multiple times in the past, it could have been another lost day, another lost game the Blues had in hand against the Arizona Coyotes, who they leapfrogged temporarily pending Arizona's game against the Los Angeles Kings late Saturday night.

But after the Blues fell behind 2-0 on goals by Cale Makar during a 5-on-3 after Brayden Schenn and Robert Bortuzzo, who was in the lineup for the first time since April 5, took minor penalties, and Gabriel Landeskog and there was the sense and hush in the crowd of 'here we go again.'

"Yeah, it was frustrating," O'Reilly said. "The second goal, I lose a face-off and try to help out on the play. I lose my guy and my guy ends up scoring and it’s frustrating. I thought we had good energy to start and then we end up down two. And if it wasn't for 'Binner,' it could have been a lot, lot worse. But you can see on the bench, guys knew there's a lot of hockey left. And guys got angry. I felt it myself. Just decided to leave it out there every shift. Get lost in the game. Just be relentless. And you can just feel it, we just kept going at them, and got a good bounce on the first goal. It sparked us a bit, to get it going. That’s how it happens sometimes."

They did get going, with O'Reilly getting a big break on the first goal when his centering pass was inexplicably put into the net by Avs defenseman Devon Toews, a break that seemingly had been eluding the Blues for some time, and then O'Reilly scored on a beautiful backhand goal to tie the game before Ivan Barbashev capped off a wild first period with a goal himself driving the net and scoring in his third attempt.

It could have been ugly. It could have been the start of another lost opportunity. Instead, despite losing the lead in the second on a Nathan MacKinnon power-play goal, it was a team finally showing the moxey that there is something meaningful to play for, something to fight for, something to show some pride in.

Yes, there were a litany of mistakes. The second period wasn't all that good, again, and was it picture-perfect? No. But at this point, wins is all that matters, no matter how they come.

"Our guys did a great job," said Blues coach Craig Berube after earning his 100th regular-season win behind the Blues bench (100-57-22). "Get down quickly 2-0, but I thought that 'Binner' made a huge save at, I don't remember the exact time, and then we just responded. O'Reilly gets a goal and we're right back in it. Guys, they stayed positive on the bench. That's the key. I thought our team really inspired each other tonight to go get a win."

There was really no other choice here, was there?

Did the Blues really want to drop another game? Drop another opportunity? Drop another hint to the competitors around them (Arizona, San Jose and even Los Angeles) that they will keep those teams' hopes alive with each passing loss? This was a team at the start of the season picked to be the ones to bust up the party for the Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, clearly the class of the division, that was touted as a three-headed monster and everyone else.

Well, it is a three-headed monster, but it's not the Blues in the monster setting. It's the Minnesota Wild, and the Blues are in a fight for what is the lone remaining playoff position in the division.

"There’s lots of hockey game left," forward Brayden Schenn said. "Obviously when it’s not going your way. Previous before this game, you can kind of go one or two ways about. You can pack it in for the night or you can try and come back. Got a bounce there on the first goal, gave us some momentum to get back in the hockey, and kept on fighting from there.

"It feels good to win a hockey game. We played hard. We still have to figure out our second periods. We forget how to play correctly sometimes, and that’s when we get playing a lot of defense and running around in our end. At the end of the day, 'Binner' made a lot of saves. 'Factor' was an absolute beast for us again tonight and it’s nice to win."

The same 'Factor' who played nearly 24 minutes (23:57 to be exact), had four points, was plus-2, had five shot attempts (three on goal) and won 59 percent of his face-offs (16 of 27).
It was obvious someone on this day didn't want to go home losing a hockey game again.

"Yeah, he was excellent obviously," Berube said of O'Reilly, who collected his 600th NHL point on his first goal. "Three goals, but he brings the same work ethic every night. He happened to score three goals tonight. Obviously he stepped his game up, but he's been a solid player every night for us. He wasn't the only one. We had a bunch of guys step up for us tonight, I thought really competed hard, did a lot of really good things."

The question looms is do the Blues need more anger from them, more passion like what they showed after falling behind knowing the meaning of the last remaining 11 games?

"Absolutely," O'Reilly said. "You see when we do it, we can compete with anyone. It's just being consistent with it -- even tonight in the second, again, we get away from it. We get thinking again about making the right plays and not just engaging and going after them and forcing them to make mistakes. If we do that, if we have a better second, we put ourselves in a better spot. It’s nice to see (the anger) at times, but if we want to win, and compete with these top teams, we have to have that mindset the whole time."

So then why don't they? 

Good question. Or else they wouldn't be in the predicament they're in. 

But such is the case, and with so many formidable opponents remaining, the Blues will have to channel their inner anger more often. And sustain it for more than just a game here or a game there.

And it has to come from the leaders.

"Absolutely, we know that it's got to be on the guys, it’s got to be on (our) core," O'Reilly said. "We absolutely know if we want to make playoffs, it's got to be on us -- and then everyone else follows. So it's good we stepped up, found a way. A lot of work left, a lot of things to clean up."
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Mike Hoffman (right) gets congratulated by the bench after his third-period
goal turned out to be the game-winner in a 5-3 win against Colorado.

The Blues will have to channel this one more time Monday against the Avalanche, who will be in an ornery mood. They don't lose often. They don't like to lose, and they could care less about the meaning of these games for the Blues. But in competing with Colorado all season despite winning just two of the seven games, the Blues showed they can trade punches with the big boys when they want to.

"I mean they’re the so-called best team in the league, one of the best teams in the league, so anytime you’re going against a team like that, it’s not an easy task," said forward Mike Hoffman, whose power-play goal at 11:19 of the third period with a two-man advantage proved to be the game-winner. "At the start of the game, it didn’t go our way, obviously how we wanted it to but we fought back, we battled hard. We never (gave) up. It can get negative at times when things aren’t maybe going your way, but you know, you've got to stick with it and be prepared for that next shift, next period, and I thought that was the mentality that we had tonight."

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