Friday, April 30, 2021

From fragile to confident, Blues finding their stride after fourth straight win

Despite allowing two-goal third-period lead to slip against Minnesota, team 
finds way to boost lead for fourth in West Division; O'Reilly comes up clutch 

A couple weeks ago when their coach felt the team was "fragile," perhaps the Blues would have lost that game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.

But lately, not these Blues. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Tyler Bozak (middle) gets congratulated by Blues teammates (from left)
Marco Scandella, Ryan O'Reilly and Justin Faulk after scoring a
shorthanded goal Thursday against the Minnesota Wild.

Not when the guy wearing a 'C' on his crest. Not the guy who could probably rip open his jersey these days and find a big 'S' draped on his chest.

The Blues had built themselves a nice three-goal lead in the second of back-to-back games against the Wild, but found themselves in a tie game late when Minnesota did to the Blues what the Blues did to the Wild on Wednesday.

But Ryan O'Reilly came to the rescue again, scoring twice, including a slick backhand top cheese goal off a great read by Jordan Kyrou at 3:43 of overtime to get the Blues the two points and their fourth straight win, 5-4, at Xcel Energy Center.

A few short weeks ago, the Blues (23-19-6) would find themselves in these predicaments of allowing momentum by the opposition to overwhelm them, and in the end, find themselves empty-handed when it came to points on the table.

Not these Blues, who have seemed to find that next gear in the push for the fourth and final spot in the playoff push inside the West Division. They lead the slumping Arizona Coyotes by five points with two games in hand and lead the San Jose Sharks by seven points and Los Angeles Kings by 10.

Is that fragility gone? Likely.

And it's been replaced with confidence, with the Blues winning seven of their past 10. 
They're winning with key guys out of the lineup in recent games (Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn and Thursday, Vladimir Tarasenko).
"I think you go through ups and downs with that throughout the season, depending on the situation with what's going on with your team at the time," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "But right now, the guys are feeling good and we're a pretty confident team, really doing a good job. Like the guys are really playing together as a team out there. You can see (Robert) Bortuzzo getting in there and taking care of a kid that gets hit (Kyrou). Guys are really backing each other up and cheering each other on. We've got real good team spirit right now."

O'Reilly took a back seat on Wednesday and some of the secondary guys like Kyrou, Robert Thomas and even Mike Hoffman, who should be considered among the top-tiered guys with the offense he's provided since those healthy scratch games, took command to provide the necessary components for a win.

"Yeah, it was nice," O'Reilly said of the OT winner. "I thought I was struggling a little bit early on in the game, wasn't really creating much, but to be able to come through and get one to kind of seal the two points for us, it definitely feels very good."

They're finding different ways to get the job done, albeit Thursday's third period wasn't what they wanted, allowing a 3-1 lead to slip away into a 4-4 tie, but the bottom line is finding a way to get the two points and squeezing the life out of those chasing them for that playoff spot.

Wednesday, they fell behind 3-1 and found a way. Last Saturday, they were down 2-0 merely three minutes in against the Colorado Avalanche before O'Reilly went all-in on the revival and willed his team to a 5-3 win.

"To get a win the first night and then be able to have a point in the bank going into overtime, we're happy about that," said forward Tyler Bozak, whose second-period shorthanded beauty gave the Blues a 2-0 lead. "Obviously you want to keep the lead, but again, they're a great hockey team. They keep pressing and they scored a couple of goals and we found another way to win, so that's huge.

"... Yeah, definitely a lot more confident now. I've always said when you're confident, you know the game just seems easier out there. The plays seem to happen, you seem to get more bounces, I don't know what it is. It's not easy to get confidence, you have to work for it, and it's pretty easy to lose it. So we've got to keep working hard, keep improving, and can't take any steps back."

"I don't want to say we were tired," O'Reilly said. 'It's just, you know, when they come that hard with that much momentum, we just get on our heels and we're trying to play a little too safe. Guys want to do the right things out there, but when they come that aggressive, they're going to force turnovers. We all know we've got to find a way to close that out. Having that lead, we have to be harder and maybe force them to play in their end a bit more. We found a way to get it done, but yeah it is an issue. We have to make these good plays, get the puck off the wall and find a way to get it out."

But instead of wavering, the Blues are regrouping when things begin to sour. Thursday was a perfect example as the Wild (31-14-4) began their push, just like the Blues did Wednesday in overcoming a 3-1 third-period deficit to win 4-3.

"Yeah, absolutely and I think more than anything, it's just our confidence and willingness to play any type of hockey," said defenseman Torey Krug, who had two assists Thursday. "We obviously know it's tight-checking. We're playing some teams with some firepower and some teams that lock it down defensively and make you work. I think it's just our confidence and comfortability to play in any type of hockey game right now."

Ahh, those days of that 0-6-1 stretch that found the Blues five points out of fourth place and dangerously sinking into the black hole are a distant memory.

"Yeah absolutely. It's nice to see," O'Reilly said. 'There's not a guy in the lineup that's not making an impact. Every guy is working hard and using the structure and playing for each other, and it's nice. We get rewarded. We find ways to win games. This is the time. We're trying to get into the playoffs and we need everyone. If we keep beating teams like this, it gives us confidence, and we're going to be a dangerous team down the stretch here.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Brayden Schenn (10) battles with the Wild's Marcus
Johansson during the Blues' 5-4 OT win at Minnesota Thursday.

"... We know that it's going to be tough to get into the playoffs and, yeah, I think the focus for us is one game at a time. We're trying to get two points each night and not worry about the big results, just really sticking to one game at a time and our structure and trying to outcompete teams. That is kind of like playoff hockey, where it is one game at a time and you go from there."

And the captain has broadened his shoulders to leave space for the rest of his teammates, should they need a boost.

"I played with a guy (Patrice Bergeron in Boston) that he reminds me a lot of, and that's one of the greatest compliments in the game," Krug said of O'Reilly. "I matched up against Ryan in the finals a few years ago and I saw it first hand on the biggest stage and now I get to see it every single night. He's a very special hockey player. More than anything, he drags his team into the fire, into the battle, and I think in moments like this, it's important, especially in these games down the stretch to get into the playoffs. It's important to have your leader do that, so he's obviously a tremendous player and his work speaks for itself."

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