Monday, May 24, 2021

Bruised, battered Blues succumb to Avalanche, get swept in first-round series

The 5-2 defeat on home ice ends tumultuous season, begs 
more questions as Blues enter off-season with many uncertainties

ST. LOUIS -- The end was much like the start.

Unfortunately for the Blues, the story didn't start well, there was nothing g ood in the middle, and the ending was like the beginning of a nightmare.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Vladimir Tarasenko (right) scored both Blues goals on Sunday in Game 4
against Colorado but it wasn't enough in a 5-2 loss, ending their season.

The Colorado Avalanche, Presidents' Trophy winners, brushed the Blues aside in a four-game sweep after a 5-2 win at Enterprise Center on Sunday afternoon, thus ending the Blues' season swiftly and abruptly.

The bruised and battered Blues, who were outscored 20-7 in the series, were swept out of a playoff series for the first time since 2012 when the freight train that season, known as the Los Angeles Kings, did it to them, and it happened for the ninth time in 10 tries in franchise history that the Blues were swept when down 3-0 in a series.

It was a bitter ending to another COVID-laced season of a 56-game regular-season schedule, one in which the Blues were tested on a daily basis just to be able to field a regular lineup, and it worked until the very end when they finally lost three players (first, Jake Walman, then Nathan Walker and the final but fatal pill, David Perron). 

Injuries blasted the Blues throughout the season, and it got worse when the postseason started with guys going into it playing with injuries, then losing defensemen Justin Faulk and Robert Bortuzzo to head shots, one in which was punished (Nazem Kadri on Faulk) and one that wasn't (Tyson Jost on Bortuzzo), but the bottom line, the Blues simply got beat by a better, quicker, more skilled, more efficient team that found a gear more effective than theirs in each and every win.

"Oh clearly," Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "As you can see, we didn’t even give ourselves a chance. I feel bad for 'Binner' too, played outstanding for us. Clearly the better team won. We couldn’t even get one (win) out, which is just tough. That is very disappointing. There are a lot of things to talk about, but it’s just, it’s very, very disappointing.

"... You know it's tough to think about (injuries) because I do think we have some great depth and guys that did come on, especially on the back end, come in and play very well for us. But injuries are tough, you know, obviously we weren't the best team and it's something we can't control. But yeah, it is what it is."

Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored both Blues goals, his first points of the series and admitted that he has been dealing with a groin issue that kept him out of eight of the final nine regular-season games, was clearly not in the mood to discuss much from the lack of disappointment of losing.

"To tell you honestly, I'm not ready for (these) questions right now," Tarasenko said. "To answer all of those is there's no excuses. I can tell whatever I want to say, and say like we don't fight enough, but it is what it is. 

"This is embarrassing, always hard to lose in the playoffs, especially like this. There is no words, that much you can see."

This is a Blues team two years removed from reaching the mountain top of hockey glory, winning the Stanley Cup and supposedly being set up for the next so many years to challenge or even win it all again.

But this marks the second straight season the Blues are bounced in the opening round.

"In general, I think we, it’s two series now where we've lost," O'Reilly said. "We didn’t really represent the culture that’s here, that we built here. We didn't defend, like we know we have what's been seen in the past. And I feel myself, being the captain, I have to find a way to maintain that because that's what made this team and this organization so tough for so many years, is that culture of playing hard and playing as a team A lot of times you'll be out-skilled, like a matchup, but still with the work ethic and the way you guys can compete as a team, we'd give ourselves a chance and so that I think is missing and, you know, with myself and some others, the personnel is there, a lot of things go into it, but it has t be something I focus on to get that back and lead us to a better way."

And in this situation, Colorado's top players, namely tha Avalanche's top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, combined for 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) in the series.

"It really boils down to some certain situations in all the games," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "The games are pretty close, but we let it slip away at some point, and that's what is upsetting -- that we couldn't just stay with it and do a good against that top line (and) do a good job against everybody defensively and then go get that next goal. We just couldn't find a way to do that."

Even after getting their first lead of the series when Tarasenko scored at 4:25 of the second period, their first lead in 204:25, it was just a matter of time before the Avalanche, which advanced to the second round to face either Vegas or Minnesota, would turn on the afterburners and find a way. Whether it would be with their speed, their net front presence or simply their precise skill.

"We were sporadic, it wasn't consistent and clearly you see what happens," O'Reilly said. "They dominated us."

The Blues had an ailing Tarasenko trying to go less than 100 percent in this series, it was evident that forward Schwartz and defenseman Marco Scandella weren't themselves. Each had multiple maintenance days in the past week or so nursing an unknown ailment. Faulk and Bortuzzo didn't see the ice for the home games, and defenseman Vince Dunn (upper body) was never himself and wasn't comfortable moving around. 

"Yeah, but we went through it all year to be honest with you," Berube said. 'In saying that, we've got good enough players. I mean, you can use that as an excuse, but I'm not going to do that. They were better than us for sure in this series. We've got to get better. We've got to improve."

It was evident Tarasenko's groin injury bothered him. His skating just was too inconsistent for success, and now we know the reason why.

"I have some groin problems," Tarasenko said. "Basically, needs just time to heal while playoffs go on I feel more confident, but our season done now so I have a lot of time to figure it out. But our medical staff did a great job. There is credit to them. They help me be on the same page too, help me get ready to play.

"There's a lot of experts. Honestly, nobody knows what my injuries (were). Everybody think it's the same thing for three times surgeries (on his dislocated left shoulder), but this is not true. There is three different things that happen. Now shoulder is 100 percent, have no concerns about it. There's a lot of predictions, a lot of stuff, but you know, the time will show who is right and who is wrong and now time to answer all the questions."

The Blues, who were knocked out in six games by Vancouver inside the Edmonton bubble last season, could never forge an identity, something they clearly had two years ago when they won it all.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues players Ryan O'Reilly (90), Jaden Schwartz (17) and Ville Husso (35)
congratulate goalie Jordan Binnington (50) as the season ended Sunday.

"Yeah I believe at times it was," Berube said. "We were always fighting for that a little bit, trying to find that identity throughout the season. With so many guys in and out of the lineup, the chemistry wasn't quite there. But again, I thought our guys fought hard, we made the playoffs, they played really well down the stretch and then obviously some things happened before the playoffs that are unfortunate. But in saying that, we're better than losing four straight to them." 

And being a cap team losing so quickly in the playoffs, the Blues will likely have a different complexion to their roster in a few months when training camps open up and things get back to normal again.

The unrestricted free agents include Jaden Schwartz, Mike Hoffman and Tyler Bozak. Among the notable restricted free agents include Dunn, Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev, Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, Dakota Joshua and Jacob de la Rose.

"Yeah, it's always tough," O'Reilly said. "You never know what's going to happen. You do also know that we're here trying to win again and they're going to do whatever they can to put the best team out there. And it's nice to have faith in an organization like that. But yeah, it is. Again, we don't know what's going to happen. It’s tough right now, I’ve got to reflect more obviously in this next few days to see and such but yeah, it's part of the game."

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