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

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."

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