Monday, May 9, 2022

Shorthanded Blues use veteran-savvy players to even series with Wild

From Binnington to O'Reilly, Perron, Kyrou, Faulk and Parayko getting 
bulk time on defense, 5-2 win in Game 4 could bring reinforcements in Game 5

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- It wasn't do-or-die for the Blues in Game 4 Sunday against the Minnesota Wild in their Western Conference first round playoff series, but it was close enough.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues defenseman Justin Faulk (72) wins a puck battle with Wild forward
Marcus Foligno on Sunday in Game 4. 

Going down 3-1 in the series needing to win three in a row, including two in St. Paul, would have definitely put the Blues in quite the bind. And with their injuries on the defensive front, the task would have been daunting to say the least.

But a 5-2 win in Game 4 changed the landscape and made this a best-of-3 series.

The Blues need to win another game in Minnesota, beginning with Game 5 on Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center would be preferable to them, but nevertheless, winning with a less than a full deck has to be viewed as inspiring.

"I liked our start to the game," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "I thought we had a real good first period. We only got the one goal, but just the mindset and I think we were doing a good job on our forecheck, getting shots to the net and getting to the net. Power play, like I said, didn't capitalize but it really created a lot of momentum for us."

Playing without four of their top six in defense, Minnesota was in prime position to take command of the series. But getting the job done with the likes of Niko Mikkola playing bigger minutes, Calle Rosen stepping in again and being serviceable on the blue line, Scott Perunovich playing his first game in nearly four months and Steven Santini -- despite playing just 3:08 in the game -- filling in on a limited role evened the series 2-2.

Marco Scandella reaggravated the lower-body injury that sidelined him in Colorado April 26, played just 1:34 and will not be available for Game 5, which put more of an onus on Justin Faulk (31:10) and Colton Parayko (30:37), who each played more than half the game in most of the situations. It made for a smoother transition than expected.

"They're out there almost like every other shift, it seems like, right," Berube said. "They did a great job of containing their top players and doing a good job there, breaking pucks out, all the stuff that you want them to do.

"They both carry the puck out of our zone, which is nice and get up the ice, create some offense and things like that. Parayko, the first goal, he's in on the forecheck. He gets it in deep and he stays on the forecheck and 'Buch' makes a play to Kyrou and we score a goal. Very valuable players obviously. They're going to log a lot of minutes."

They helped make life easier on Jordan Binnington, who stepped into the series and stopped 28 of 30 shots, feeding off a crowd that certainly was very appreciative of him and will continue to do so.

"Definitely, it helps for sure. The crowd loves him, we all know that," Berube said. "He's a special player that helped us win (the Stanley Cup) here (in 2019). Like I said, down the stretch, him playing well and winning games, that creates confidence."

And then there's Ryan O'Reilly, the captain who maybe didn't produce his greatest offensive numbers during the regular season (21 goals, 37 assists) but continued to do the little things (face-offs, forecheck, backcheck, defending, protect pucks, limit turnovers/mistakes) that remain invaluable to coaches. 

Oh, and in the past seven games going back to the regular season, O'Reilly has 13 points (seven goals, six assists), including a goal and two assists in Game 4.

"I thought he had a heck of a game, O'Reilly, all-around," Berube said. "You look at the scoresheet and that's what everyone looks at, right? It's all the little things he does like you talk about. His linemates change, but he stays on the forecheck, creates an opportunity for Kyrou, who makes a fantastic move and scores a goal (to make it 3-1). If you look at O'Reilly, the penalty kill, the checking part of the game, he does a great job for us. That line (with David Perron and Brayden Schenn) went up against a top line (Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno). That's a heavy line, it's hard to handle and I thought they did a great job."

O'Reilly plays a dogged game but doesn't usually get rattled. The Wild tried to get under his skin, especially in the first period, to no avail. They tried to physically knock him around, on his skates and on the ice, with little effect.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues center Ryan O'Reilly (right) and defenseman Niko Mikkola are able
to wedge out Wild forward Marcus Foligno from the puck Sunday.

"He doesn't really get rattled by stuff like that," Berube said. "He's pretty controlled all the time. I don't see him get too unemotional, I guess. He understands. Guys are going to hit. He'll battle through it.

"I think if you look at the situation throughout the season, power play-wise too, he gets a lot of chances. He just wasn't capitalizing for them, but he stays with it. It's the same as we were just talking about, he doesn't let it bother him, he doesn't get rattled. He's very happy for the other guys producing and he does what he has to do. There's a lot of times players go through situations in years and slumps where they're not producing offensively like they want to and it bothers them, but he does other stuff that is just as important for the team."

Perhaps the Blues will get some reinforcements in Nick Leddy, who hasn't played since Game 1, and Robert Bortuzzo, who was injured in Game 2. Regardless, they soldier on, with or without them.

"I want to wait until after the skate and then see how they come through," Berube said. "... They're a great team. They're hard to play against. They do a good job, and we're a good team too, so here we are. We're tied."

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