Wednesday, May 18, 2022

For Blues to rebound in Game 2, puck play will need to drastically be better

Schenn said Blues "chucked too many pucks away" enabling Avalanche 
to control pace, play throughout a 3-2 win for Colorado in OT of Game 1

By LOU KORAC
DENVER -- It was a simple and succinct assessment from Brayden Schenn when asked about his thoughts about Tuesday's Game 1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Second Round.

"I liked our goaltending, that's about it," Schenn said Wednesday. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brayden Schenn (10) and the Blues will have to be better in Game 2 of their
second round series against Valeri Nichushkin (13) and the Avalanche.

"But I think from a team perspective, guys need to be a whole lot better," Schenn went on to say. "The skaters out there, we know we have to be better in front of him."

Undoubtedly.

It was a one-shot game that came down to overtime, thanks to Jordan Binnington's heroism with a career-high 51 saves, but needless to say, the Blues know it came down to a plethora of ingredients needed to enhance their chances of evening the series on Thursday or even extending it further.

"I think from just defending, last night we chucked too many pucks away, flipped too many pucks out and then you kind of let them keep on coming at you," Schenn said. "That's one way to defend is make better puck plays and you have the puck more, make them defend. I don't think we did enough of that last night, not at all. We know we've got to be a whole lot better with the puck. They come fast at you, they don't give you much time and space but that means the players out there have to be in good support for one another to support each other and gives you an option to make a play."

The Blues, outshot 54-25 in the game, were better in Periods 1 and 3 when they didn't have the long line changes in regards to throwing pucks away. Shots were 22-16 Colorado in Periods 1 and 3, 32-9 in Periods 2 and overtime, including 13-0 in overtime.

"Second period and overtime for sure," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "First period and third period were pretty good. 

"Executing, and composure with the puck and wanting to make a play more than anything. There's always adjustments and things we can do. We'll look at those tomorrow and show our team and things like that, but it boils down to wanting to make a play and using your feet a little bit more and more composure, and being connected. You can't be spread out, especially against this team."

"That was an issue last night with just our puck play," Schenn said. "You throw out pucks, you chuck pucks away, guys aren't able to get off. Obviously with the altitude and stuff like that, guys get tired and all of the sudden they keep coming at you. We got caught in a three-quarter ice game for probably 15 minutes of that second period and you can't do that against a good team like that."

The Blues will have to especially ramp up their forechecking game. It was too easy and methodical for the Avalanche to retrieve pucks and transition them. 

"It starts with the forecheck, 100 percent," Berube said. "Our forecheck was not very good last night. We didn't get numbers in there, we didn't stall pucks and when you don't do that, their D are up the ice and they're up the ice quickly.

"It was probably a little bit on our heels at times, too cautious. You've got to be aggressive still. You've got to be smart, but you've got to be aggressive. You can't sit back. They're going to go right through you.

"You play in our end and you just punt the puck out of the zone and they just look to quick-up it right away. You can't get people off the ice or if they are trying to change in the neutral zone, they catch you and they three-quarter ice you. That's the bottom line. They did that in the second and the overtime. It cost us the hockey game."

The Blues are going to need more from their top-end players, especially on the offensive side. 

Ryan O'Reilly (nine points on six goals, three assists) and David Perron (nine points on five goals, four assists) are doing a lot of the heavy lifting offensively, and Vladimir Tarasenko (five goals, one assist) has contributed although he had a hat trick in Game 5 at Minnesota, but they need more from Schenn (zero goals with four assists), Pavel Buchnevich (also no goals with four assists), Brandon Saad (one goal, two assists) and Robert Thomas (three assists) in seven games just isn't going to cut it.

It's why Berube is considering moving guys around to get some production and going to the customary 12 forwards/six defensemen as opposed to the 11/7 the Blues have been running out since Game 4 of the opening round.

"If you don't play in the offensive zone against them and you don't possess pucks and make them defend, you're going to be in your end all night like we were last night," Berube said. "... We have to play more as a team. We didn't last night. We were too spread out, we weren't connected and when we are connected and we're playing as a team, we're a pretty damn good team. We've shown that, okay. We're a hard offensive team. We forecheck hard, we possess pucks in the offensive zone, we compete on them, and that's what makes us a good team, and that's what I see we need to do."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Vladimir Tarasenko (91) has five goals in seven playoff games for the Blues
but will need to step up more against Cale Makar (8) and the Avalanche.

As for Binnington, who is 3-1 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .944 save percentage since he took over for Ville Husso starting with Game 4 of the first round against the Minnesota Wild, the Blues are getting the goaltending needed to succeed. 

"We know we're going to have to chip away all series long, and we're going to have to respond in Game 2," Binnington said. "... We're in the second round of the playoffs and this is where you want to be, right, out there competing. Like I said, it's going to be a long series. Not happy with that outcome, so we're going to have to respond here in Game 2."

Binnington was spectacular, Blues were not in 3-2 OT loss to Avs

Netminder nearly helps St. Louis steal Game 1 of second round series against 
Colorado, comes up short when Manson game-winner puts Blues in series hole

By LOU KORAC
DENVER -- With each acrobatic save Jordan Binnington was making, there was a sense the Blues might steal one.

They didn't.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jordan Binnington makes a terrific left arm save off an attempt
by Colorado's Artturi Lehkonen on Tuesday in Denver.

Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round was all in favor of the Colorado Avalanche from the second period on. Had it not been for the heroics of Binnington, who knows how badly this series-opener would have turned out.

But Binnington's NHL career-high shots faced (54) and saves (51) weren't enough to save the Blues, who fell 3-2 in overtime when Josh Manson scored at 8:02 to give the home side the win and the series edge.

Aside from Binnington, and we'll get to him in a moment, the Blues simply weren't good enough. 

Plain and simple.

As the old saying goes: their best players weren't their best players. Not even close. And in saying that, they had some very solid performances, namely from Ryan O'Reilly, who scored for the fifth straight game and was the only one remotely even close to winning a face-off despite winning only 43 percent (12 of 28).

But let's get to the real good for the Blues, and that's their Stanley Cup-winning goalie of 2019, who lost for the first time after reeling off three straight wins in the first-round series against the Minnesota Wild, doing so with a 1.67 goals-against average and a blistering .943 save percentage.

To call Binnington's performance stupendous would not be serving it justice.

Binnington was downright sensational, and had it not been for his heroics, including his best save of the night at 9:35 of the third period on a rebound attempt by Artturi Lehkonen with his left arm at point blank range, the Blues would not have been in a one-shot game.

They would have been in a dozen shot game.

"Yeah, excellent performance. He kept us in the game," Blues coach Craig Berube said.

"He did a good job," Blues defenseman Colton Parayko said. "He kept us in the game. Gave us a chance to win, that’s for sure. He made some big stops all night long. It was obviously a chance to get a game in the series. Obviously not the way it went."

O'Reilly was a factor again. He played 22:48 and had six shot attempts (five on goal) and was able to help keep the dangerous Nathan MacKinnon off the scoresheet.

But it was a number of glaring issues that didn't go unnoticed.

Let's start with the Blues' top-scoring line of Pavel Buchnevich, Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko. That trio combined for 84 goals and 235 points in the regular season, but produced little to nothing offensively in Game 1.

They combined for four shot attempts (two blocked and two missed the net) and none on goal. Thomas was blitzed on face-offs, going 4-for-15 (27 percent).

"Yeah, like again, it's all about work and competing, really it is," Berube said. "You've got to fight for space, you've got to fight for pucks, especially this time of year and especially against this team. That's it. It really boils down to that, and being connected. You've got to have numbers around the puck. They're a little bit too spread out, too 1-on-1 and they're not trying to possess pucks enough."

The Blues just didn't close enough plays out when given the chance. Colorado's speed was a problem -- where have you heard that before -- and the Blues offensively simply didn't sustain nearly enough zone time.

"Yeah, we've just got to be better on the forecheck and we've got to, like I said, break pucks out more, and that’ll help us sustain more O-zone time," said Blues forward Jordan Kyrou, whose goal with 3:14 remaining in regulation on the power play tied the game 2-2. "I think we've got to do a better job on the forecheck, trying to stop pucks more. I think we were backing off a lot. Obviously, that gives them room and they’re a fast team so they’re going to take advantage of that."

And face-offs in general? Pretty paltry.

The Blues were 19 of 53, good for 36 percent, which is their second-worst percentage of the season.

It helped the Avalanche fuel their 106-45 difference in shot attempts.

"No, not (good) at all," Berube said. "We'll be better next game."

They better be, because two of Colorado's three goals came directly off not winning a face-off and spending time in the Blues' zone.

"You've got to make plays and you've got to get to the offensive zone more," Berube said. "We didn't get there enough tonight. They come with a lot of pressure. I think our forwards, they've got to work harder, they've got to get on pucks more and get to the offensive zone.

"... The first period, I thought we were good. Pretty good first period and then second period we just didn't make enough plays. Talked about it before the game like if you just put it out in the neutral zone, they're going to counter and they came at us with a lot of speed and didn't kill enough plays in the D-zone."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly (left) scores in the first period on Avalanche
goalie Darcy Kuemper in Game 1 of the second round in Denver.

But in the end, despite all the deficiencies, it was a one-shot game thanks to Binnington. It was a very Jake Oettinger-esque performance, referencing to the Dallas Stars goalie who nearly helped his team steal a series against the Calgary Flames with a Game 7 performance of the ages.

"Yeah, we're right there," Berube said. "You're one shot away in OT. I mean, that's the bottom line. Saader's almost in on a breakaway, and that could have been the difference right there. It is what it is, we'll regroup and get ready for Game 2."

"Just a little bit of everything. I don’t know," Parayko said. "Obviously you go back and look at it, there’s a lot of things that we can improve on, which is good obviously. It’s a long series.

"Obviously they have a good team. They’re fast. We have a good team. Been a good team all season long. So I expect there to be a lot of close games. And it’s going to be a tight series, so just look at the positives, drop the negatives and move on."

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

(5-17-22) Blues-Avalanche Game 1 Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
DENVER -- It appears the Blues are going with the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' mode tonight, which means 11 forwards and seven defensemen in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Blues utilized it in winning the final three games against the Minnesota Wild, using Scott Perunovich as the seventh defenseman primarily used as a power play specialist and offensive zone draws.

Perunovich has an assist in each of the past three games he's played when he jumped into that first-round series, all on the power play, and was quarterbacking it again Tuesday morning at Ball Arena ahead of Game 1 today (8:30 p.m.; TNT, ESPN 101.1-FM).

Game 4 of the series against the Wild was Perunovich's first game since Jan. 15 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He would require surgery on his left wrist and eventually, was slowly but surely working his way back.

"Pretty surprising. Didn't know if I was getting in or not and then a couple injuries and that's just the bounces," Perunovich said.

"This was a little trickier one with this injury," he said. "I had a great doctor who took care of me and all the great trainers here who helped me get back as quick as I can. I definitely don't think I would have been back as soon as I was without the staff around me here.

"You always just want to stay focused, even when you're up top watching. You kind of have a bird's eye view so you can even see the game a little more and see what they're doing so that kind of helps a lot. Just try and pay attention and keep your mind in it as much as you can."

Perunovich has stepped into the spot vacated by the injured Torey Krug, who sustained a lower-body injury halfway through the first period of Game 3 in the Wild series. Perunovich has been flanked by Vladimir Tarasenko and David Perron on the half walls, Ryan O'Reilly in the bumper and Brayden Schenn down low that provide all the confidence the 2020 Hobey Baker Award winner needs.

"The guys around me, especially on the power play," Perunovich said. "It's kind of easy to have confidence when you're passing to those four guys and they're doing a lot of the work. The confidence comes from the staff and the trainers and them giving me confidence and my teammates helping me out.

"Our older guys are unbelievable and I think that's why St. Louis has success a lot. Even Kruger goes down with an injury and he's the first one texting me and giving me tips and letting me know I can reach out to him whenever I need, and I do it. He's a great player and a great role model. Everyone around me, all the older guys, they're always helping if I have a question. I can go up to anyone and they're going to give me an answer the best they can."

It was a situation coach Craig Berube felt Perunovich was ready to handle and without hesitation, inserted him into the lineup in the postseason against his home state team who Perunovich also faced in the 2022 NHL Discover Winter Classic.

"He's done a real nice job," Berube said of Perunovich. "It's tough. That's a tough situation, but I thought he handled it really well. Like I said before, he's got great ability with the puck and sees the ice real well. I didn't see any issues really in the first round. He's done a nice job for us. Our power play was a big reason we won."

What Berube was most pleased with as far as Perunovich was concerned was the timing.
"For sure, because he didn't get a lot of practice time either," Berube said. "He was always working on his own or with somebody else, but it wasn't a lot of team activity for him."

Perunovich has handled the 11/7 configuration well, and he feels it's gone well for the team. The Blues are 11-4-2 in the regular season and playoffs when going with a 11/7 formation.

"It's good," Peruonvich said. "We've had a lot of moving parts on the back end. We've had a lot of D, but I think we all just jell really good back there together. A lot of talk on the bench, everyone's always picking each other up and telling each other good play. It definitely makes you feel more confident, even if you're making a mistake. No one's really getting on you or mad at you. They're just trying to help you work forward through it."

- - -

Tonight's matchup will pit the 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner (Colorado defenseman Cale Makar) and the 2020 winner, Perunovich.

"He's a heck of a player, he's fun to watch," Perunovich said of Makar. "He's kind of changing the game. He can change the game at any moment. It's definitely fun to watch. I've played against him before. He's a great player and should be a good battle."

When Perunovich won the award, he received a text message from Makar, and the winners normally get together every year.

"Cale reached out, I'll reach out to these guys," Perunovich said. "We kind of have a little cult following and a lot of them will get together every year, so it's something I look forward to every year.

"(Makar) just texted me after I won it, just a nice message. I heard he's a classy guy and it sure seems like it."

- - -

After four days off for the Blues and eight for the Avalanche, which swept the Nashville Predators in the opening round, it's time to drop the puck.

The two teams have alternated days off for rest and practice days filtered in between in anticipation of puck drop.

"A lot of minutes played in the last series by a lot of guys, so rest was good," Berube said. "Everybody's banged up, so you get a little time there, which was good. We had good practice. The mindset's in a good place. They're ready to play."

The Blues won their season-opener here in this building to begin the season, 5-3 on Oct. 16, but dropped the only home matchup, 4-3 on Oct. 28 before falling 5-3 here in the final road game of the regular season April 25.

"We know their tendencies and we know the players very well, but then again, you still got to go out and perform at a high level," Berube said. "That's the bottom line. We've got to perform at a high level as a team and individuals got to perform at a high level, especially against their top players. When you're out there, you've got to do a good job.

"It's different. They're a different team, but matchups are matchups. You don't always get the matchups you want here on the road. We've got to just figure it out and other guys are going to have to do a job. You're not always going to get the match you want on the road. MacKinnon plays a lot, he's out there a lot. Kadri's going to play a lot, so we're on the road here with the altitude, we're going to need a number of different people to go out and do the job because if you don't, you're going to gas out a line because that altitude will kill you and it's a lot of minutes. They play high minutes."

Having played against the skill the Wild possess, particularly with Kirill Kaprizov, it should serve as a springboard for what the Blues will see in this series.

Only more of it.

"There's probably a couple more of them, I would say," defenseman Justin Faulk said. "I think if you look at their top two lines, there's plenty of them that can play at that pace and play with that skill, which makes it tough, right? That's why they've been successful. Makar on the back end, (Samuel) Girard, (Bowen) Byram, those guys all move well, (Devon) Toews. Their amount of guys that can play that way I think is what's a little bit different. That'll be the challenge for us." 

- - -

Last year is last year, and as far as the Blues are concerned, they've addressed Nazem Kadri's dirty hit on Faulk that knocked the Blues defenseman out of Games 3-4.

Kadri's open ice hit on Faulk gave him a concussion and the defenseman couldn't finish last year's first-round series, a sweep by the Avalanche against the battered Blues.

Schenn addressed it in the season-opener, and Faulk made his presence felt on the matter 12 days later in the home game.

"He's a good player," Faulk said. "There you go.

"We're here to play hockey and to play a series. That's our focus."

- - -

The Blues made a minor transaction Tuesday when they announced they've signed goalie Vadim Zherenko to a three-year entry-level contract.

The 21-year-old Moscow, Russia native was drafted by the Blues in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Draft; he spent this past season playing in Finland's SM-liiga with Ilves Tampere. The 6-foot-3, 196-pounder was 11-8-11 with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Brayden Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Pavel Buchnevich-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko

Brandon Saad-Ivan Barbashev-Jordan Kyrou

Alexei Toropchenko-Tyler Bozak

Nick Leddy-Colton Parayko

Calle Rosen-Justin Faulk

Niko Mikkola-Robert Bortuzzo

Scott Perunovich

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Ville Husso will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Logan Brown, Nathan Walker and Steven Santini, who was recalled from Springfield of the American Hockey League on Monday. Torey Krug (lower body) and Marco Scandella (lower body) are out.

- - -

The Avalanche's projected lineup:

Valeri Nichushkin-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen

Gabriel Landeskog-Nazem Kadri-Artturi Lehkonen

Andre Burakovsky-J.T. Compher-Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Darren Helm-Nico Sturm-Andrew Cogliano 

Devon Toews-Cale Makar

Samuel Girard-Josh Manson

Bowen Byram-Erik Johnson

Darcy Kuemper will start in goal; Pavel Francouz will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Jack Johnson, Alex Newhook, Ryan Murray, Logan O'Connor and Kurtis MacDermid. The Avalanche reports no injuries.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Blues go from one formidable challenge to another in second round

Will face West's best in Avalanche after disposing Wild in six games, should 
serve as a solid primer for what's to come in this series for underdog St. Louis 

By LOU KORAC
MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- From one tough challenge to the next, the Blues are ready to go up against the West's best in the Colorado Avalanche.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues forward Brandon Saad (20) will be facing his former team in Cale
Makar (8) and the Avalanche in the second round beginning Tuesday.

The Western Conference Second Round series begins Tuesday with Game 1 at Ball Arena (8:30 p.m.; TNT, ESPN 101.1-FM) after each advanced with wins in the first round.
The Blues knocked off the Minnesota Wild in six games and have been off since Thursday, while the Avalanche swept the Nashville Predators and will have gone eight days without playing.

"We've got another big challenge, but obviously we've got to take all the positives from the Minnesota series and keep growing," Blues defenseman Nick Leddy said.

The Blues were swept by the Avalanche in the first round last season, but that was then. St. Louis was without the services of David Perron, whose season was derailed right before taking off for Game 1 with a positive COVID-19 test. Colton Parayko was playing with a bum back, and among other issues, the Blues lost defensemen Justin Faulk on a dirty hit by Nazem Kadri that resulted in a concussion and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to a concussion. They didn't have Brandon Saad, who was with the Avalanche last season and scored three times against the Blues in that first-round series, they didn't have Pavel Buchnevich, Leddy, and Vladimir Tarasenko wasn't healthy with his shoulder issues of the previous two seasons.

"I think it's in the back of guys minds, for sure," Blues coach Craig Berube said of being swept in 2021. "They were not too happy about it. As was nobody in the organization. We have to look past that, too, though. And we've got to focus on now. Yeah, there's motivation for sure. But listen, you're in the playoffs. You're trying to win. What more motivation do you need? We don't need to look at the past to get motivation. We're taking on the Avalanche here. And we're trying to win."

And to do that, they'll have to stop a plethora of talent.

The Wild was a good opponent to try and contain, namely preventing Kirill Kaprizov and Minnesota's wealth of depth. The Blues weren't able to fully contain Kaprizov, who had seven goals and an assist in six games against them, but were able to limit the damage of players such as Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Kevin Fiala, Matt Bolby and the Wild's bruising line of Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway.

Now it's on to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Andrei Burakovsky and Norris Trophy favorite, Cale Makar.

"You saw what they did last series," Saad said. "They have a great hockey team. They're confident. A lot of skill, a lot of speed, but for us, it's just focusing on what we can do well with playing well defensively, getting in on the forecheck, hunting them down. We can't worry too much about what they're going to do and just focus on how we can play structured."

"They’ve got a lot of good players, we all know that," Berube said. "High end players with a very good D-corps with Makar leading the way. You’ve got to check well, it's important that you get to try to neutralize their speed as much as possible. And individuals have to do a good job on certain players, for sure. And, as a team concept, you've got to go in there and you've got to, as much as possible, be on the right side of things. 

"I think when you look at how they score goals, and the way they play, there are a lot of odd-man rushes, there are a lot of breakdowns and things like that. They pick you apart. And if you're not above people, and you don't have numbers, that's what happens. So we’ve got to do a good job there. But it really will boil down to playing on the right side of things, checking really well -- and when we have the puck, doing something with it. We’ve got to make sure that we keep trying to do the right things with the puck, and we're going to have to score some goals for sure."

The Wild doesn't have the kind of defenseman that can do that Makar does, which is fuel an offense; he led the Avalanche with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the four-game series against Nashville.

"Well, we've talked in a series about taking (Kaprizov) away as much as possible in certain areas," Berube said. "To do it to a D-man is a little different. It’s not something that’s normal in my opinion. It’s un-normal. We're going to be above McKinnon and do a good job on him through neutral zone and coming out of their D-zone. And it's kind of similar with Makar. He's always up the ice, he's always doing something up the ice and with a puck, so we're going to have to be tight on him. We're going to have to really be tight on him."

Not only tight on Makar but tight on everyone in an Avalanche uniform, and by doing that, it's either through proper play through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone, and by doing that, possessing the puck will be key.

"It's taking away their time and space, checking them well, try and limit their puck touches," Saad said. "That's something as a team, not only defensively, but us as forwards that we can help out with, being tight and checking well. That's something we'll have to do the whole series.

"Get as many bumps in as you can (on Makar). You know he's going to try and beat you up the ice, try and juke you, so I think it's try and be patient, try to eliminate his time and space with the puck and obviously not let him beat you up the ice and try and cheat for offense."
Facing Minnesota six times should serve as a nice springboard for what's to come. 

"I think both teams have a lot of skill," Leddy said. "Maybe Colorado has that more high-end skill and more depth than that, but I think it just goes back to that team defense and it'll be a great challenge for us."

The benefit of closing out the Wild in 6 was the Blues were able to get four days of rest in before playing.

"Yeah, I think so. We (got) some rest and (got) some guys that are banged up a little bit, they (got) some rest," Berube said. "Then we got a little skate in (Saturday). And then I think a little more rest (was) good. And then we'll get after it."

And get after it they'll have to do in altitude, which can present its challenges.
(Sy. Louis Blues photo)
Justin Faulk (72) and the Blues will be seeing a lot of Valeri Nichushkin
(left) and the Avalanche in the second round of the playoffs starting Tuesday.

"I think just keeping your shifts short," Saad said. "Sometimes if you get stuck out there, you get a littler winded and I think the recovery throughout your shifts might take a little bit longer. When you manage the game that way and you play well as a team, it shouldn't be an issue."
It will be on the coaching staff to make sure guys don't over-extend shifts and get caught on the ice longer than need to be.

"Oh for sure, we've got to keep guys fresh," Berube said. "It wears on you. It's important that your shifts are short and it's important that I do a good job with line changes."

And as far as that underdog role, the Blues are OK with it. They expected it. They dropped two of three regular-season games against the Avs but have played just once (April 26) in the past six months.

"Guys are going to be motivated, whether we're underdogs or not," Berube said. "We don't really look into that stuff. That's fine. (Colorado) had a great year, we should be. What did they end up with, 119 points? Pretty good team. They went stretches without losing. They've got a really good team over there. We're going to have to do a lot of things right."

* NOTES -- Defenseman Marco Scandella skated in practice and was paired with Scott Perunovich for much of the drills. Scandella, who sustained a lower-body injury in Denver on the final road game of the regular season before returning to play in Game 3 against the Wild, left Game 4 and did not play the rest of the series with the same recurring lower-body injury.

Defenseman Torey Krug, who left midway through the first period of Game 3 against the Wild with a lower-body injury of his own, accompanied the team on the trip, but Berube said it would be for rehab purposes, so unlikely he plays in Games 1-2. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Leddy's addition to Blues has proved to be invaluable

Defenseman helped shut down one of top stars in Kaprizov in first round; has 
helped stabilize position that was on shaky ground when acquired by St. Louis

By LOU KORAC
MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Imagine knowing as late as the middle of March that the Blues would be facing the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and wondering who would draw the assignment of patrolling the ice trying to contain Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Nick Leddy's ability to neutralize Minnesota star Kirill 
Kaprizov at 5-on-5 proved to be beneficial in the opening round.

Kaprizov is so skilled, with his precise shot, quick-burst first step with high octane speed and what was described by someone in the Minnesota organization as a player "built like a brick shithouse."

Sure, the Blues had Colton Parayko and/or Justin Faulk to man the duties. They've been pressed into these situations all season long, but during a month when the Blues were floundering a bit, going 5-6-3, it was evident that they would need some help.

It may not have been the splashiest trade on March 21, the NHL Trade Deadline, but think about what Nick Leddy has meant to the Blues already. 

Hampus Lindholm, Ben Chiarot and Mark Giordano were some of the defensive headliners that were dealt, but Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said at the time of the trade that Leddy was someone they targeted -- and wanted. 

Sure, the 31-year-old defenseman and first-round pick of the Wild -- coincidentally -- and defenseman Luke Witkowski cost the Blues the popular Oskar Sundqvist, Jake Walman and a 2022 second-round pick, who went to the Detroit Red Wings, but acquiring the experienced Leddy, coming in with a whopping 121 games worth of playoff experience, a 2013 Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks who helped the New York Islanders to back-to-back Eastern Conference Final appearances the past two seasons, has paid huge dividends in not only puck retrievals, puck advancement and smooth skating abilities but also playing a shutdown role on the game's top players.

"A guy who's won before and knows what it takes and just so calm out there, never seems like he feels like he's in a panic," Blues center Tyler Bozak said of Leddy. "He always is making the right play, smooth and just a guy that we're also really lucky to have back there."

Leddy came onto the scene and could offer a variety of elements that could complement the team system but chose to make sure he simply fit in and see what was best. With Parayko, Faulk, Torey Krug, Marco Scandella, Robert Bortuzzo and a defensive unit that was seasoned, Leddy wanted to be a complementary piece, not the piece.

"I think you've just got to kind of let things play out and kind of find your place," Leddy said. "I think this is the part of the season too where winning is everything and you just got to try to mold to that.

"I think just getting chemistry with everyone is probably the biggest thing in my book and tendencies of players, but everyone made it so easy. Everybody is so consistent and that helped out big time."

The Blues were 15-4-2 down the stretch of the regular season with Leddy in the lineup, and he helped stabilize a back six playing with Parayko and Faulk. Including the three playoff wins, it's 18-4-2 with Leddy in the lineup.

Maybe Leddy's playoff mojo has rubbed off on his teammates.

"I don't know. That's hard for me to answer, but just trying to do the same things every day, every game and go from there," Leddy said.

"He’s steady, he’s a guy that breaks the puck out extremely well and he does a lot on his own back there," Blues center Robert Thomas said.

If anyone knows how good a skater and player Leddy is, it's Faulk. The two Minnesota natives train together there during the off-season.

"He's an unreal skater," Faulk said of Leddy. "I don't think he gets intimidated by someone that is also a very good skater. He can keep up with anyone in the league, that's for sure. I've known that, since I’ve seen him skate forever."

It came to fruition that the Blues would face the Wild in the first round, and 'Kirill the Thrill' would certainly put up some impressive numbers on top of the franchise-record 108 points (47 goals, 61 assists) he established in the regular season.

Kaprizov scored seven goals and had an assist on the six-game series in which the Blues won, but according to naturalstattrick.com's numbers, when Leddy was matched up against Kaprizov in 5-on-5 situations, Leddy was a blanket; he held Kaprizov to zero points over three games (Games 1, 5 and 6; Leddy missed Games 2-4 with concussion symptoms) in 23:26 ice time.

Kaprizov, who scored three power-play goals and one empty-netter in the series, had four high-danger chances when Leddy was on the ice with him, but for the most part, it was slim pickings for the 25-year-old.

"It's a huge challenge," Leddy said. "That line especially, they've got great chemistry. They feed off him. I think that was a great challenge for the team and it wasn't just me, that's for sure. It was all six guys on the ice, forwards included.

"I think just taking time and space away as quick as possible. They're amazing players, they're going to get chances. I think you just got to try and limit them as much as possible."

What many players tend to do against the stars of the league is give them too much respect, which means time and space, more than they should get. Give those kinds of players that kind of space, and they'll more than likely torch you. 

Leddy made sure there would be no real estate in Game 1, and when he was ruled out for the next three, Kaprizov's talents were more noticeable. And when Leddy came back in Game 5, that time and space disappeared quickly.

"He does a great job of being tight on him and not giving too much room," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "He has the feet to stay with him and that’s important. Because (Kaprizov's) fast and he can spin off you easily. You've got to go at him hard but also you've also got to contain him, too, in certain situations because he’s the type of guy that you think you’re going to knock him off the puck and you don’t. He just spins right off you and creates separation."

And for Jordan Binnington, who stepped in for games 4-6 and earned the wins in each, communication is so important for a goalie and his defenseman in particular, and he's learned quickly how to utilize Leddy's abilities.

"He moves pretty smooth out there stride-wise," Binnington said. "He's always in the right spot. I think he's making strong plays. He's a smart defenseman. He's a great pickup. I think we've done a great job of playing hard together, all of us."

The reward for advancing past Kaprizov and the Wild is a date with the Colorado Avalanche and their plethora of weapons, including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Cale Maker and others.

There's more to contain there, but Leddy will be one of those called upon to at the very least, limit their opportunities.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Nick Leddy's addition to the Blues defense has proven to be invaluable
down the stretch and into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"I think it's not just a single person challenge," Leddy said. "I think it's going to be a team challenge. You look at the Blues all year, they play great team defense and we're going to have another big challenge ahead.

"They're both (MacKinnon and Kaprizov) very high-end players. I think they both have different tendencies, but I think at the end of the day, like I said, they're going to get chances. You just try to limit them the best you can."

A challenge Leddy is looking forward to.

"How could you not be? It's a great challenge obviously," he said. "They have a ton of skill, a ton of speed and they work hard. I think it's going to be a great team challenge."

Friday, May 13, 2022

Blues close out Wild with 5-1 win in Game 6

Team has come a long way since GM Armstrong's famous words of how to 
eliminate an opponent; Blues advance to second-round date with Colorado

By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Remember Doug Armstrong, when the Blues were always a good regular season team but could never quite put it together in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Blues general manager finally had enough?
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko (91) scored his fourth goal in two games
and helped knock off the Minnesota Wild, 5-1, in Game 6 Thursday.

Back in 2014 when the Blues had the Chicago Blackhawks down 2-0 in that first-round best-of-7 series before losing four straight and Armstrong's famous words of, "When you have a team down 2-0, you need to take the knife and jam it through their eye into their brain and kill them," still to this day resonate here?

Things have certainly changed since then, with the Blues obviously breaking that hurdle and winning the Stanley Cup in 2019, but the past two seasons, albeit them being very unconventional with COVID-19 throwing everything out of whack, they haven't won a playoff series since.

But going against a stout Minnesota Wild team, one that finished with 113 points, or four ahead of the Blues, this group, filled with grizzly veterans mixed with newcomers experiencing this for the first time, had the chance for a close-out game on home ice Thursday in Game 6. No way they wanted this series to head back to St. Paul for a winner-take-all Game 7. 

Not a chance.

An emphatic 5-1 Blues win in Game 6 sealed the deal when they won the series in six games, including getting wins in the last three games after falling behind 2-1.

And going into the playoffs of 2022, many felt this would be the toughest series to predict, and in many ways it was, despite the scorelines being a bit lopsided. But the Blues prevailed in the end and now get another strong test moving forward in the Colorado Avalanche.

They're now 5-1 in their past six close-out games.

"It was a tough battle," said Blues center Tyler Bozak, who scored the third goal in the second period to make it 3-0. "That's a very good team over there. It's kind of a shame we played in the first round of the playoffs. It was two of the top teams in the West and they deserve a lot of credit for the season they had. That was a really tough battle for us. Every game seemed like could have gone any way with a bounce here or there. We were lucky enough to come out on the winning end. That's a great test for us and should prepare us well for the next round."

And the second period was the difference.

The Blues knew the Wild, who made three personnel moves ahead of the game, including going to Cam Talbot in goal over Marc-Andre Fleury, to try and somehow help steal momentum away and get the series back on home ice, would come out with a vengeance. Minnesota in fact came out strong. 

The Wild outshot the Blues 10-4 in the opening period. It was relentless. It was pressuring. It was forechecking, skating and playing with a purpose.

Then came Nick Leddy. Out of nowhere, like he was shot out of a cannon, from the top of the left circle in the defensive zone, weaving his way through the neutral zone, then smelling blood when Wild defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Jon Merrill for whatever reason decided to back in, allowing Leddy to wire a wrister from the top of the offensive zone left circle that beat Talbot on the short side.

The 18,096 erupted and the Wild didn't know how to react.

The Blues did.

"We knew it was going to be tough to close these guys out," said Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly, whose second-period power-play goal made it 2-0. "A lot of emotion coming home, the building was electric. We were just kind of caught watching a bit (in the first period) and obviously 'Binner' did an amazing job shutting the door there early. 'Leds' makes a great play and a great goal and that just kind of helped us to kind of settle down and build our game after them kind of thinking they outplayed us going into the second. We knew if we started getting our game together, things would come and that's exactly what happened. It was good from there."

Before we get to the second period blitzkrieg, let's take a moment to recognize Jordan Binnington, who held the fort down in the first period and made sure he was a brick wall. 
Remember, it was Binnington who came on for Ville Husso after Game 3 and won Games 4-5 to help put the Blues in this position. He finished 3-0-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in Games 4-6.

"We had a good first period and kind of weathered the storm," Binnington said. "They came out hard and they were playing desperate. I think we matched that and we came out in the second period and played really hard. 

"It's a hard-fought series against a team that comes at you pretty hard and we did a great job. We had guys step up, just a great team effort and it's good to be at this point. Now we're looking forward to the next challenge."

But that second period, my goodness. 

The Blues put the hammerlock on the Wild with three goals from O'Reilly, Bozak and Vladimir Tarasenko, outshooting Minnesota by a whopping 21-5 margin and for all intents and purposes, putting the series on ice despite the Wild making a push in the third period with their season on the brink.

"The first goal was obviously big," said Blues forward David Perron, who had two assists. "It kind of took some pressure off there. It allowed us to go out and kind of realized what we had to do better and play better in the second period. We had maybe a few too many turnovers in the first that we'd kind of cut to the middle. We've got to make sure we play our game and create momentum playing deep. That's going to be even key more next round."

Matt Dumba ended Binnington's shutout bid, but birthday boy Colton Parayko, who turned 29 on Thursday, scored an empty-net goal with 1:41 left. It put the capper on a series the Blues absolutely deserved. 
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues forward Alexei Toropchenko (65) attempts a shot while being
defended by Minnesota's Matt Dumba. Toropchenko had an assist in a
5-1 win over the Wild Thursday in Game 6.

Special teams were the difference throughout the series, and it was the difference on Thursday with two power-play goals and the penalty kill going 5-for-5.

"Special teams were unbelievable tonight and the goalie," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "We killed penalties in the first period. They came at us pretty hard. I thought that we defended well in the first though, 'Binner' made some good saves, penalty kill was good and then in the second, we came out and I thought we took the game over. Power play was really good in the second, penalty kill too. And then the third period, they come with a push. We kill that penalty off, which was really important. We probably didn't advance pucks and play in the offensive zone enough in the third, kind of sat back a little too much, but guys checked well, and then our penalty came through again in the third. And 'Binner, Binner' made some big saves.

"Getting that first goal's huge. That's a big goal by Leddy, who had a heck of a game."

Thursday, May 12, 2022

(5-12-22) Wild-Blues game 6 Gameday Lineup

By LOU KORAC
ST LOUIS -- It it ain't broke, why fix it, right?

That's the Blues' mindset going into Game 6 of their Western Conference First Round series against the Minnesota Wild at Enterprise Center (8:30 p.m.; BSMW, TNT, ESPN 101.1-FM) with the chance to clinch the series.

The Blues lead the best-of-7 series 3-2 after winning Games 4 and 5 playing with 11 forwards and seven defensemen, meaning Scott Perunovich will likely remain in the lineup quarterbacking the top power play unit with Torey Krug (lower body) out again for a third straight game, and Tyler Bozak and Alexei Toropchenko alternating with partners on the fourth line.

"It's nice to play different roles in different times," Bozak said. "I feel like I'm a player that can help in a lot of different ways in different scenarios. It's fun to be a part of that.

"I've pretty much played with everyone over the course of the year and last year and stuff like that. We have a lot of smart players on this team. It's easy to adjust with whoever you're with. We try and play as structured as we can and stick to our system. If everyone's on the same page is when we're the most successful."

It's been quite the success for the Blues, not only in this series but in the regular season, going 10-4-2 going 11/7 and 10-4-3 playing with less than 12 forwards overall.

"I don't know. We've got quite a few guys in the top nine that can definitely take some extra minutes and create a lot of opportunities when they get that extra time," Bozak said. "We've got a lot of skill up there, a lot of guys that can score as we've seen throughout the year. I think just giving our best guys a few extra minutes and a few extra opportunities definitely helps."

Perunovich has two assists in two games in the series, both on the power play and both on top at the blue line in place of Krug. 

"Some poise. You can tell obviously he’s run power play units before," Blues forward David Perron said of Perunovich, who returned after missing nearly four months with a left wrist injury. "It was only his second game in a long time. He did a good job back-to-back there. Limited minutes and all that stuff. He goes out, he’s pretty sharp, really crisp with the puck. 

"Obviously with Kruger going down, it’s important that we have a guy up top. I think the key for our unit is puck movement. The quicker we move the puck, we find lanes, we find shot opportunities, and if we’re too slow then we don’t find those."

- - -

The old saying is that the fourth win, and series-clincher is always the toughest one to achieve, and the Blues will have that extra motivation to get the job done here tonight and not go back to Minnesota for a Game 7.

"Before the last two wins, we realized that at times we were just kind of beating ourselves a little bit," Perron said. "Just not making that crucial mistake that will end up in the back of our net. Just coming out there tonight being composed, knowing that the last win of the series is really the hardest. They’re gonna come at us, give everything they got. So it’s an exciting challenge for us. But we know they’re not gonna go away easy."

Bozak added, "I think you just definitely don't want to look past it in any way. I think we've done a good job with taking it one game at a time this series, not getting too high or too low. Obviously we know good of a team we are playing against and how tough of a game it's going to be tonight. We're going to have to have our best."

Which is why coach Craig Berube wants the Blues to stay within themselves and not get overly hyped up.

"Well, I think it’s always the toughest game," Berube said. "Minny is going to be ready. They’re going to give us everything they’ve got in the game. It’ll be our toughest game in the series. That’s the toughest challenge. I think the other thing is just … controlling your emotions here early on in the game is going to be important with the crowd and at home. Don’t look too far ahead, just one shift and do what you’re supposed to do out there and keep your emotions in-check the best you can. Stay disciplined. We don’t need penalties."

In their 2019 Stanley Cup run, the Blues won two of their three Game 6 series clinchers, falling 5-1 to the Boston Bruins in the Final before winning there in Game 7 and closing out the San Jose Sharks, 5-1, in the conference final and the Winnipeg Jets, 3-2, in the first round.

"We’ve been in a number of them so a lot of the guys have been through it and they know what’s involved in it," Berube said. "You learn from past mistakes, too. But again, you’ve got to control what you can control. Go out there, play hard and do your job, and that’s it."

"To play in front of our home ice. Obviously, we know if we go back for Game 7 it’s going to be a really tough task playing in their home barn," Perron said. "We did a good job staying with the game the whole time for Game 5. But again, we were in a different position many times in our career and it can turn around really quickly. So we've got to make sure we take care of it tonight."

- - -

If the Blues get anything close tonight like the contribution they got from Vladimir Tarasenko, who took over the third period in Game 5 with a natural hat trick, they will be in good shape.
Tarasenko flipped that game on a dime with two early third-period goals to turn a 2-2 game into 4-2 before potting an empty-netter to seal the deal.

For Berube, it's all about Tarasenko being engaged, playing physical, being responsible at both ends of the ice that brings out his best.

"I think he's done a pretty good job of it all year to be honest with you," Berube said. "Right from training camp on, he came in very focused and determined, put all the stuff in the summer behind him and went and played hockey. And played really good hockey for us, very consistent hockey, most of the year.

"I think Vladi and I have formed a really good relationship. It's not always patting each other (on the back) and talking nice, either. Which is fine. You've got to go at it sometimes, and I'm OK with that. And so is he. ... He hears it or I hear it, and we go on. Let's go. Go play. That's what it's all about.

"(But) leadership. That's the big thing. Lead by example. He's done that. He has the ability to be a power forward. Right now, that's what I'm seeing."

When Tarasenko gets in one of his locked-in modes, players notice.

"It’s interesting. He finds a way at the right time to score those big goals," Perron said. "The first goal kind of came out of nowhere, the next thing you know the second shot’s kind of the vintage Vladi shot – top corner – and then he seals the game for us. We obviously need him to keep doing that.

"We have many guys in our locker room that can step up at the right time. And I think that’s why we’re a strong team."

"He's a guy that whenever he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, there's a chance he can score," Bozak said of Tarasenko. "I've been lucky enough to play with him for four years now and you kind of take it for granted how good of a shot he has and how good of a player he is after you see it every day. Just little things throughout the game, he's so strong and powerful and can take over a game at any moment. We're extremely lucky to have him."

- - -

Maybe in Minnesota he's a villain, and that's OK with Brayden Schenn, but inside the Blues locker room and in this city, everyone knows what he means.

Schenn has two assists in the series but has been a wrecking ball throughout with his physicality and penchant to create space for his linemates, and in this case, it's Perron and Ryan O'Reilly.

"He’s very physical. Makes a lot of plays, too, when he gets the puck," Perron said. "He can hang onto it. That’s something we talked about as a line, just being able to hang onto the puck more than maybe even we’ve done before. Just the way their structure is defensively, I think we can find some space for us there playing more kind of little one-on-one’s in there. When we don’t know what to do kind of hammer it back of the net and make sure that we don’t lose possession for free and make their big boys play more D-zone than they like.

"He gets up and down the ice really, and he’s super physical. He creates a lot of space for us that way. And I think at times the games at home we play a lot against their big boys over there. So kind of knowing what we have to do, play deeper in the zone, making sure they can’t get momentum playing on our O-zone too much. And we end up obviously taking a lot of D-zone draws – all that stuff. So also, there’s two centers out there. Like you said, I think 'Saader' was playing phenomenal with us as well. He’s playing good hockey. But at times that’s what happens with changes."

Berube has used Schenn in a variety of roles, and it's a plus having a guy that can play center and jump on the wing when needed.

"He's been very valuable for me," Berube said. "I know you look at the scoresheet again, there's no goals, but his physicality and his hard play, that wears teams down. He does a good job of it, he's a very physical player, he plays extremely hard. He does all the little things and the goals will come.

"We've got to continue to bang bodies, stay disciplined though, that's important. We've got to stay disciplined, we've got to be physical on the puck. It's not physicality running out of position, it's physicality on the puck."

"He does it all," Bozak said of Schenn. "He plays hard minutes against their best players. He puts his body on the line, finishes his checks, goes to the hard areas. It seems like he's always in the scrums and that's no easy task, especially against a big, strong, tough team like Minnesota is. He's obviously a guy you can rely on and sparks us pretty much every night and gets us going."

- - -

The Blues' projected lineup:

Brayden Schenn-Ryan O'Reilly-David Perron

Pavel Buchnevich-Robert Thomas-Vladimir Tarasenko

Brandon Saad-Ivan Barbashev-Jordan Kyrou

Alexei Toropchenko-Tyler Bozak

Nick Leddy-Colton Parayko

Calle Rosen-Justin Faulk

Niko Mikkola-Robert Bortuzzo

Scott Perunovich

Jordan Binnington will start in goal; Ville Husso will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Logan Brown and Nathan Walker. Torey Krug (lower body) and Marco Scandella (lower body) are out.

- - -

The Wild's projected lineup:

Kirill Kaprizov-Ryan Hartman-Mats Zuccarello

Kevin Fiala-Frederick Gaudreau-Matt Boldy

Jordan Greenway-Joel Eriksson Ek-Marcus Foligno

Nicolas Deslauriers-Tyson Jost-Brandon Duhaime

Jacob Middleton-Jared Spurgeon

Jonas Brodin-Matt Dumba

Jon Merrill-Dmitry Kulikov

Cam Talbot will start in goal; Marc-Andre Fleury will be the backup. 

Healthy scratches include Nick Bjugstad, Connor Dewar, Alex Goligoski and Jordie Benn. The Wild report no injuries, but Deslauriers could be dinged up and come out of the lineup tonight, although Wild coach Dean Evason wouldn't confirm any changes.