Sunday, May 1, 2022

Big picture, Blues like their game, where it's at, where it's been

Despite finishing with pair of losses, one of which meant nothing, team had a 
16-game point streak in a variety of ways leading to confidence for playoffs

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Forget about the last two games. 

The last one in particular, because it really meant nothing.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Justin Faulk (right) feels the team is in a good spot
heading into its first round playoff series against Minnesota.

Look at the bigger picture, because it got the Blues, who finished 49-22-11 during the regular season, in the position they're in now headed into Game 1 of their first-round playoff matchup against the Minnesota Wild.

They went 14-0-2, a franchise record point streak, and gave them the chance of finishing second in the Central Division and a chance at home ice advantage. 

Alas, the Wild was equally as hot and wrestled it away in the end and the Blues begin the series on the road.

That's OK, because they like the shape they're in. They like the way they've been playing, from goaltending on out that made that 12-game stretch at the start of March going 3-6-3 a distant memory.

"I think we're in a good spot right now," defenseman Justin Faulk said. "We've been playing good hockey. That's obvious with the way it's gone in the last month and a half or so, month with our record and what not, but obviously it's not just the record. We've been playing good hockey, we've been in different situations where we've been down and found a way to come back, tight games going into the third, up early and starting the game right and what not, so there's been a mix of different styles of hockey that we've had to deal with throughout that time. We've seemed to handle it all pretty well and I think the group is confident in any situation right now and confident in each other and the guy next to you, and that obviously goes down to maybe an individual level where guys are maybe feeling good about their personal games too."

The Blues scored 78 goals during their 16-game point streak, an average of 4.9 per game, which is outstanding, and also included a franchise record 12 straight games scoring at least four goals. Robert Thomas went on a tear, tying Connor McDavid as part of a 17-game point streak of his own as part of the team's run, and linemates Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Buchnevich also went on scoring benders of their own.

The team finished with nine players with 20 goals or more, one off tying the record of 10 in 1980-81, some who had career years, including Tarasenko, Thomas, Buchnevich, Jordan Kyrou and Ivan Barbashev.

The Blues allowed an average of 2.7 goals per game, down from their finished number on the season of 2.91 goals allowed per game. And now that the playoffs are here, expect to see more tighter games.

"I think over this last stretch, it's not perfect by any means, but we've done a lot of good things well and finding ways to win games and such," captain Ryan O'Reilly said. "I think we know what we need to do in the playoffs. Playoffs is going to be super-intense and the detail is going to need to be there, but I think our group, we're excited. We know we have a good team. We know we can ... if we do things the right way, we can have success. That's our focus."

Scoring will come. That's a given. The Wild allowed an average of 3.04 goals per game on the season, but both teams finished in the top five in scoring (Blues third at 3.77 per game; Wild fifth at 3.72), so playing the defensive side of the ledger will be key for both sides. The Blues know they have to get the goaltending and tighter defense.

"Yeah, I think so. For sure," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "We’ve definitely had a good year on the goal-scoring side. I think in the playoffs, everything’s a little tighter – we’ve seen in (past) years. So that’s going to be a challenge. We've got to make sure that we up our defensive game. Obviously, they’re going to do that as well.

"I think it’s going to come down to rolling four lines and making sure that we’re all ready. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys you wouldn’t see maybe scoring a goal, making a big play, a big save at a certain time. That’s just playoff hockey. And that’s when it’s fun, when one guy that maybe you don’t expect, who didn’t score all the goals in the regular season, makes a difference in one game, and that could be the difference in the series.

"Kind of another fun part of playoff hockey is everyone gets to contribute and everybody, whatever they bring, it’s one shift at a time and that shift can mean the difference in the game."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Center Robert Thomas (18) was one of several Blues that had career
years this season and will be counted on in the postseason.

The Blues' special teams were certainly special all season. They finished second behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (27.3 percent) with a power-play percentage at 27 percent, including No. 1 on the road (29.4 percent), while the Wild, among playoff teams, comes in with the worst penalty kill at 76.1 percent, and the Blues were fifth in the penalty kill at 84.1 percent. That's a given that they'll need both ends of those units to perform at a high level. But the winner of this series will surely want -- and need -- to be exceptional at 5-on-5 play. 

"Yeah, I think all series in the playoffs, 5-on-5 is obviously the most important thing," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "There's going to be penalties and things like that but 5-on-5, you have to be able to have patience in the game and not try to push it too hard. You're not going to get your scoring opportunities all the time. You're not going to get every look you want every time. It's just about playing the right way and staying with it, staying with it and staying with it because you might end up getting that late in the third period, and then you capitalize on an opportunity and that might be the game-winner. So it's about being patient and understanding the situation is going to be hard. There's not going to be a lot of room and you've got to grind through it."

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