Saturday, May 8, 2021

Blues fall in OT, clinch playoff berth for 44th time

4-3 loss to Vegas, a potential first-round opponent in the playoffs, underlying 
story as team clinches fourth spot in West despite plethora of injuries

The road to get to this point wasn't always easy for the Blues.

In fact, it was downright arduous.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Ryan O'Reilly has 17 points (11 goals, six assists) the past 13 games to 
help the Blues clinch a playoff berth.

But here they are, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 44th time in their 53-year history after a 4-3 overtime loss Friday at the Vegas Golden Knights -- who the Blues could very well see in the first round -- securing a vital point and coupled with the Los Angeles Kings' 3-2 loss in regulation to the Colorado Avalanche, the Blues completed the final piece to the West Division's puzzle.

They're in, and only the Original 6 Teams have qualified more often than the expansion Blues of 1967.

"Good obviously. That's the goal," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "Now we give ourselves a chance in the playoffs, right?

"Guys did a good job. We found a way to get a point. That's all we needed."

Center Ryan O'Reilly found out as he was taking off his equipment after the game that the job had been done, and likely let out a huge sigh of relief.

"Yeah, that's great news, especially after tonight's outcome," O'Reilly said. "Wasn't what we wanted, but yeah, it's good, we're in the playoffs. It's something guys worked hard for. It hasn't been easy, but yeah, it's exciting. We've got to keep going, we've got to keep tweaking our game, but yeah, guys worked hard and it's good to see.

"I didn't know until a couple of minutes after I kind of took my gear off and then someone came up and said we were in. Yeah, it's nice to hear. It's going to be a lot of hard work still going forward, but we're in the dance and that's all that matters."

So do the players soak up the fact that they made it or that they coughed up another 3-1 lead in a game for the third time the past five games? At least it wasn't all in the third period this time.

"Obviously that's the first goal is making the playoffs, but yeah, as for tonight, I think we just made too many mistakes and they're a very good team," said Blues center Tyler Bozak, who had two assists, including one on Ryan O'Reilly's shorthanded first-period goal. "They're going to capitalize when you make mistakes and there's a few things we need to clean up.

"Obviously it feels good. You play this game to get in the playoffs and try to win the Stanley Cup so obviously getting in is the first step and it's obviously a testament to our group. You've got to play good hockey for a lot of the year too to make the playoffs. I'm happy for our team and the guys, but this is when the fun starts and the hard work starts. We still got to keep building. I know we clinched, but these last however many games we have left are important to keep our good habits, keep building our game and go into the playoffs on a strong note."
Coming into the season, the Blues were touted as the third wheel with Vegas and Colorado as the teams that were locks to make the playoffs, with the remaining teams (Minnesota, Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim) fighting for that lone remaining berth.

It was in fact a three-headed monster and remains the race for the top three positions, but the Wild had other ideas, and the Blues had to scratch, claw and scuffle just to earn their spot among the top four.

It started with injuries, one after another, day after day, game after game, key injuries to players playing big roles. It was taking its toll despite the Blues' ability to plug and play guys that normally wouldn't see roles that kept the boat afloat.

Through May 6, only the Chicago Blackhawks (348 man-games lost) had more than the Blues (339), and the Hawks aren't going to the playoffs.

But it all started before the season got underway when the Blues lost captain Alex Pietrangelo to free agency (he signed with Vegas), and Alexander Steen, an inspirational leader and driving force of that 2019 Stanley Cup-winning team, called it a career due to back injuries, and Jay Bouwmeester obviously retired after a near-death scare late last season.

"I think that our team, obviously injuries have been a big thing this year," Berube said. "We still have a number of guys that are out with injuries. Our team's battled through a lot of injuries this year. I don't know where we rank in the league with injuries but we've had a lot of guys out with a significant amount of time and we had guys step in and do a good job and play and contribute and win games. I'm proud of our guys. They competed hard all year in my opinion. I know we went through a couple tough stretches, but we rebounded from them, I thought, both times, especially the second time. We went on that losing streak, seven games I think (0-6-1) and then we've gotten points in the last eight or nine games. Our guys rebounded really well and did a good job."

Imagine the feeling after April 5, the night the Blues suffered an embarrassing 6-1 home loss to these very Golden Knights that left them five points behind Arizona for fourth place. In fact, the Blues were tied with San Jose with 38 points having played one more game and were in sixth place at the time.

"It's never fun to get embarrassed in a game," Bozak said. "Obviously that was probably just a wakeup call for us that we need to be a lot stronger, bear down more, play a better team game. Sometimes little moments like that actually help you in a season. It was probably just a wakeup call for us that game."

It was the end of an 0-6-1 stretch that left little wiggle room for general manager Doug Armstrong to either blow it all up or allow this group, as he did during the 2019 Stanley Cup title run, to run its course and bank that this group can get the job done.

They were 16-16-6 at the time. They've gone 8-3-3 since, including 5-0-3 the past eight games.

"It's not just one thing," O'Reilly said. "I think it's a bunch of different things we had. There was a stretch not too long ago where we kind of really got together as a team and really just came closer. Knew we were going to be all right if we come together and start working for each other. We kind of trusted that and trusted the work and guys started investing in each other more, and you could see we found ways to win games. And once we got a few there, we started to get a lot more confident. Yeah, it's great to see us achieve getting into the playoffs. But again, we've still got work left that we have to do, and a few games left, we've got to prepare and do things the right way. We could be seeing these guys, so tomorrow is a huge game to show them that. It's not going to be easy if we do end up facing them."

Things just slowly started to come together, from goaltending on out, according to Berube.

"I think 'Binner,' his play's been outstanding and (Ville) Husso," Berube said. "Husso's come in there at times when we needed him and he's done a good job and has won games. That stands out for me. I think getting Colton Parayko back in the lineup on a consistent basis, getting him up to speed more of his play. Justin Faulk and (Torey) Krug, logging all the minutes they've logged for a whole year, done a great job and our veteran players stepped it up. Ryan O'Reilly's led the way in my opinion. He's had a tremendous second half of the year."

Even though the Blues are 2-3-2 against Vegas this season, and the three regulation losses are pretty lopsided (6-1, 5-1 and 5-1), they have shown when playing at or near their best, they can compete with whoever they face in the playoffs.

"I think there's a belief in our room that no matter who we play, we think we have the ability to win if we play our game and do things that make us successful," Bozak said. "I think we got away from it at times tonight and they capitalized on that. They're a very good hockey team. They play really well transition and you can't turn pucks over. They've got a lot of speed, their D make good plays up to their forwards and they come at you in waves if you turn the puck over and they have a lot of motion in the offensive zone that can kind of ... I think we got mixed up a little bit with who we were taking and which guys we had. We just need to communicate a little bit more, but it's always fun playing these guys, especially in this building. It's exciting out there. I felt like there were 40,000 fans in there tonight just with how little it's been all year. That part's a lot of fun."

The Blues are 3-5-0 against the Avalanche but have played them very competitively, and they're 4-1-1 and have been in each and every game against the Wild, so the confidence in whoever they play won't be shaken.

"Oh absolutely. Yeah, we've played some good hockey against these teams and we know what it looks like when we do things the right way and we think it gives them a lot of issues," O'Reilly said. "We're confident no matter who we face, we're going to give ourselves a chance to beat them and, yeah, it's nice to feel that way."

With four regular-season games remaining, including one more in Las Vegas tonight, the Blues have nothing to play for other than keeping their momentum going, perhaps, but with guys playing beat up and needing some rest before charging it back up and ramping up for the playoffs, what does Berube do?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Justin Faulk has averaged more than 25 minutes of ice time in
the past six games.  

Well for one, he'll certainly rest Jordan Binnington and likely give Ville Husso at least two if not three of the remaining games.

"That's not that easy to do with the rest part of it because call-ups and stuff," Berube said, referring to being cap-compliant. "There's a lot of that's been involved in it. We're going to try to do our best to get some rest for some guys, but I'm not sure. We've got some injuries. We'll see about getting injured guys back and getting them some games in before the playoffs start. It's kind of up in the air right now."

With the regular season ending Thursday at home against Minnesota, might 2017 first-round pick Klim Kostin, who is in quarantine in St. Louis, be an option?

"Maybe the last game of the season," Berube said.

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