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 

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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment