Thursday, May 20, 2021

Blues couldn't overcome COVID errors, slow start, injuries to defensemen in Game 2 loss to Avalanche

Day starts with Binnington, Tarasenko in limbo due to errors in lab testing; 
spot Avalanche three goals; lose Faulk, Bortuzzo to hits to head in 6-3 defeat

DENVER -- The Blues finally started to get some things right in their series against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 2 of their first round series Wednesday night.

Problem is, it took way too long to get those things going.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brayden Schenn (10) and the Blues couldn't quite complete the comeback
in Game 2 against the Avalanche, falling 6-3 on Wednesday.

It's not wise to spot the Presidents' Trophy winners a three-goal lead before turning it back around, but that's what the Blues did.

They did turn it back around and made a game of it, only to see it slip back the other way in a 6-3 loss at Ball Arena to fall behind 0-2 in the best-of-7 series.

It was a game of what ifs regarding the Blues, if they did this or did that right from the drop of the puck, and then there's Colorado, which could be looking at two players (Nazem Kadri and Tyson Jost) each getting a call from the NHL's Department of Player Safety for hits to the head of Blues defensemen Justin Faulk and Robert Bortuzzo (more on that later).

But first, it started during the day for the Blues, who were caught in a whirlwind of COVID testing when goalie Jordan Binnington and forward Vladimir Tarasenko each received positive tests that eventually would later be determined by the league that came back as lab errors and the players were allowed to play in Game 2. But they weren't allowed to participate in the morning skate, which players are creatures of habit of, and could have thrown their routines off.

So they had to first and foremost deal with that.

"Maybe at the beginning, but once you get the results back, we got them back after morning skate, you're probably messing up more so the guys that didn't skate with Binnington and Tarasenko," said Blues forward Brayden Schenn. "One of them's vaccinated and you just hope that it's not going to go into a positive and thankful it was a mixup on testing and seemed to happen around the league lots."

"This whole season, there's so many unexpected things, that's what happens," Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "It's stuff like this has happened before and we just have to not be affected by it and keep moving, so it is what it is, it's unfortunate, but it is what it is."

As for the game, the Blues, who said they would be better, didn't play the part, at least in the beginning.

It started with a Gabriel Landeskog crunching hit on O'Reilly behind the Blues' goal, with the puck eventually winding up at the left point, and Ryan Graves' shot was deflected in front by Joonas Donskoi, one of two redirections by the former San Jose Shark, and was a theme for Colorado on its first three goals, and a 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the game.

The Blues were playing much like they did in a 4-1 loss in Game 1, throwing pucks back to the Avs, not generating much of a forecheck/physical presence early on, and the shots reflected it: 19-6.

And a 1-0 deficit turned into 2-0 when Robert Thomas inexplicably hoisted a puck into the stands from the right wall in the d-zone for a delay of game penalty that Nathan MacKinnon turned into a power-play goal at 18:05 and a 2-0 lead, a shot from the left circle through Bortuzzo and with Landeskog camping out in front of a helpless Binnington.

"The one power play goal, MacKinnon's, we got to get on him quicker," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We've got to hammer the edge there and not let him get that shot so quickly. I get there's traffic, there's going to be traffic. We've got to fight through it, and we've got to block shots or box people out of there, but in part, you're not going to box people out if they have position on it, so we need to step in front of it, block the shot."

As for the better start?

"Just a mindset more than anything," Berube said. "I think we've got to be more ... I won't say patient, but we've got to understand that we have to play a certain way against this team and we can't wait until the second period to do it. Pucks got to go in deep, they got to go 200 feet, we've got to be a good forecheck team and then we've got to shoot pucks. I thought we passed up shots again in the first period, and then we allow them to come out of their zone way too easy and they get these rush attacks against us and they get opportunities off of it. It's just a matter of forechecking smarter and harder."

A second Donskoi goal came as a result of another power play by the Avalanche when Ivan Barbashev was called for hooking MacKinnon, moments after he left a puck off for Cale Makar and picked Barbashev off the play, that the Blues were irate it wasn't called (it should have been). But the goal came when MacKinnon, at the top of the point, wired one towards the net and Donskoi, again camped out in front of Binnington, got his body on it and it deflected into the net at 3:15 of the second period for a 3-0 lead.

"They were doing a good job of moving screens," Schenn said. "We've got to do a better job of grabbing a man, boxing out. Binner's making a lot of saves and shooting lots from the top. We've got to try and make it easier on him in front.

"We just got to be more ready. I think we need to go out there and score the first goal and not get from behind. Obviously they're a good team. They play hard, they skate hard, they don't give up much. I think the second half of that game of the two periods, we started to grab some momentum and try to figure out in how to play them. Obviously they're a great team and you've got to keep on moving your legs, moving your feet and even though we didn't get the win tonight, we did some good things."

The Blues lost their first player of the night (Bortuzzo) when he took an elbow from Jost with 10:55 remaining in the second. No call was made.

"It's a greasy elbow there by Jostie," Schenn said. "I understand he's going into the battle, but you've got to know how to control your elbows and not get it up into the d-man's face. One guy's 6-foot-4, one guy's 6-feet. It's a pretty gross elbow and it's tough to lose a guy like Bobbo."

So for half the game, the Blues were down a defenseman, but got back into the game when they started forechecking better and forced a turnover when Sammy Blais scored at 16:17 of the second to make it 3-1.

Then the Blues lost Faulk to a cheap shot from Kadri, known for his goonery in the past, when he came through the slot and picked off Faulk's head at 6:30 of the third. Officials immediately called for a five-minute major and video confirmed it to be a match penalty for an illegal check to the head.

"And then a guy like Kadri, guy can't control himself," Schenn said. "In the playoffs, he's a repeat offender, bad hits, greasy hits and he got a guy in a vulnerable position and picks nothing but the head. Last time we seen one of those hits, it was Oskar Sundqvist getting hit by (Tom) Wilson and that was years ago in Blues hockey (during the preseason). Hopefully the league's taking care of it and we need to now focus on Games 3 and 4 and the league will take care of those guys' hits."

O'Reilly concurred.

"That's a very dangerous hit," he said. "It's got to be a suspension, it's dangerous. He's a repeat offender. That's completely uncalled for and it's awful to see."

So the Blues finished the game, the final 13:30 with four defensemen.

"I don't have an update and you're down to four D," Berube said on the d-men's status. "That's in a playoff game. That's difficult, but I thought guys did a good job."

Schenn did get one during the major penalty to cut the score to 3-2, potting a rebound of Tyler Bozak's shot off the pads looking for a rebound play at 10:07, but the Blues could have conceivably gotten more.

"Yeah, we had some zone time, some possession," Schenn said. "They did a good job of fronting pucks with Graves and (Patrik) Nemeth and whoever was on the back end there. They blocked a lot of shots. (Philipp) Grubauer made a few saves. I think we had some pretty good looks and obviously it would have been nice to get a couple, but we kind of hung around and made a game of it."

They did by doing the things that make their game successful.

"We just started to forecheck and compete," Berube said. "I thought we competed, but the forecheck and controlling play in the offensive zone, I thought we did a good job in the second and third period of it and fought our way back into the game."

MacKinnon's second of the game was a killer goal, and it came from distance, near the blue line, straightaway, with traffic so Binnington again couldn't see the puck coming in, at 15:25 to make it 4-2.

"I thought that we were the better team (the second half of the game)," Berube said. "They scored two even-strength goals tonight. We've got to kill those power plays. Those are defendable and the fourth goal is, too. That's a shot from the blue line, a wrist shot. We've got to block that, we've got to do a better job there."

Mike Hoffman made it 4-3 just 15 seconds later on a good rush up the ice and shot from the left circle, but with Binnington pulled, Brandon Saad and MacKinnon scored empty-net goals at 17:51 and 19:48 to ice this one.

"Again, the goalie's out, we have an opportunity," Berube said. "We've got to do a better job with the goalie out in that situation, made it way too easy for them to get  an empty-net goal, way too easy. That play needs to be challenged hard and killed. That would give ourselves a chance to tie the game up."

Unlike Game 1, in which the Blues were blitzed and outshot 50-23, they actually outshot Colorado 29-16 the final two periods, including 15-7 in the third and finished even (35-35) for the game. 

But now faced with an 0-2 series deficit, the Blues have to find a way at home, and with the uncertainty of two defensemen, it could propel Vince Dunn back into the lineup, who Berube called a "maybe" but Jake Walman, Berube said, will not be available.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Sammy Blais (middle) got the Blues on the board Wednesday in a 6-3
loss against the Colorado Avalanche.

"We've got to go home and win a game," Berube said. "That's the way we're looking at it."
"At the end of the day, you lost the hockey game," Schenn said. "Momentum's on their side. That's not breaking news by any means, but I think we did some good things. We forechecked better, we played with the puck better, we made some plays and you have to do that against a team like that. If you're not going to make any plays and you're going to flip pucks out and chip the puck and not support each other, you're going to be playing a lot of defense and I think we did that through the first four periods of the series and hopefully we can gather what we did in the last two periods of that game and try to keep building our game.

"We've been dealing with injuries all year. Next man up mentality. It's the playoffs. Anything can happen. We feel the last two periods, we kind of started to build our game a little bit and we like playing in front of our fans and home ice in the playoffs and we can't wait to get back to Enterprise and try to make this a series."

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