The NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are finally here, and the defending Stanley Cup Champions are in trouble before their first real game.
After losing their exhibition game coming out of quarantine, the Blues went 0-2-1 in the Western Conference Round Robin tournament, and as the fourth seed will face Vancouver in the first round.
When the playoff format was announced, Blues President of Hockey Operations Doug Armstrong and Coach Craig Berube both said it didn’t matter where they were seeded. They let the players set their own schedule in reporting to training camp II, and allowed them to work back to their game at their own pace.
The players apparently took full advantage. They haven’t come close to displaying a sixty minute effort. Come to think of it, they played about thirty good minutes against Colorado, very few against Vegas, and maybe twenty against Dallas in the shootout loss in their finale. This has left the Blues without the confidence of playing a good game since March 11. The four games they’ve played so far have been close to awful, with only six goals scored in four games, and four of those were against a clearly compromised Marc Andre Fleury of the Knights.
Can the Blues rebound? Sure. How many times have we seen a lower seeded team go on a run? But usually those lower seeded teams are playing with the intensity needed to earn a playoff spot, and they’re playoff ready heading into the post-season. The Blues were a perfect example last year. Their stretch run was akin to playing a playoff game every night.
What do the Blues need to do to beat Vancouver…a franchise they’ve never beaten in three playoff series…in the first round? Here’s a rundown…
– Stay out of the penalty box! The Canucks had the fourth ranked power play in the league during the regular season. Their top unit (with Tyler Toffoli injured) of Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller and Quinn Hughes is lethal. Boeser is a terrific net front presence, Pettersson is a playmaking sharpshooter, Horvat is terrific going and getting the puck in the corners, Miller…their leading scorer…is strong on the left point, and Calder Trophy finalist Hughes has a great shot from the right point. Heading into Sunday, the Blues had the worst penalty kill of the 24 teams in the post-season tournament. They didn’t allow a power play goal to the impotent Stars, but did take six penalties. If the Blues take a bunch of penalties and kill them the way they have since their return, they’ll be in BIG trouble.
– Possess the puck: It’s the Blues game, right? Especially against a young, fast, skilled team like Vancouver, the Blues need to play their game. Get the puck, maintain possession in the offensive zone, wear the opposition down, and get to the net for a goal. The Blues never got to their game in the round robin. Maybe they felt like it didn’t matter. It obviously matters now.
– Get pucks to the net: The Blues were outshot in the three games against the Avalanche, Golden Knights and Stars, 95-62. Roughly 32-20 per game. The number of attempts was much worse for the Blues. If they possess the puck, as mentioned above, they can increase their attempts and keep those of the opposition down. The Blues need to be more aggressive in shooting the puck, too. Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom isn’t allowing many long-distance goals. Having the puck and getting to the net is imperative.
– Protect leads: In all three games of the Round Robin, the Blues had the lead entering the third period. And in each game, they lost. After going 26-0-3 when leading after two during the season, the Blues were 0-2-1 against Colorado, Vegas and Dallas. They’ve allowed the opposition to move unimpeded to their goalie in third periods, and haven ‘t been able to get the puck out of their zone. On Sunday in the closing moments, Dallas pulled their goalie with 1:45 to go. The Blues got the puck out of the zone for maybe three seconds, and the Stars scored with thirty seconds left. The Blues must be more aggressive on the PK and when the opponent has a sixth attacker. And they simply need to tighten up defensively. That’s what the team is built upon.
– Get the big guys going: Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Pietrangelo combined for five points…three assists by O’Reilly, two by Schenn…and no goals in the four games played. Obviously, if the Blues are going to win, they need to get goals from their most high-profile players.
The Blues have no momentum heading into their series against the Canucks. Can they find “their game?” We’re going to find out.