This time the Blues were in charge of the rodeo. They came with a disruptive forecheck, made sure to seal off the neutral zone, stayed on the puck, won the tactical match, and all but snipped the laces of the boots worn by Colorado’s speed skaters.
The real, true Blues showed up for Game 2 on Thursday night, and the Avalanche didn’t know what to do. As I wrote in the hours before this critical second-round game, the Blues had to poison the Avs with doubt and slow the home team down. Take away the swag, and the Avs would sag and become tentative. Once you can raise the anxiety level, the mistakes would likely follow.
Blues 4, Avalanche 1.
And just like that the best-of-seven series is knotted 1-1, with the next two games in St. Louis. The Avalanche know what it’s like to come into the postseason with massive hype, and they know what it’s like to become fragile under pressure, and they know what it’s like to get shoved out of the tournament in the second round. It happened in 2019, 2020 and 2022.
There were flashbacks in Thursday’s Game 2.
This is what torment sounds like:
“We didn’t have our jump,” said Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado’s supergalactic center. “Our execution was off. We weren’t feeling it, just fighting it out there, and it’s unfortunate but it’s 1-1. It happens. We’re trying our best. We come prepared (and did) everything we could. Just off, everyone was a little off — or really off. We still had a chance to tie it up.
“With our experience, that’s what you learn. In years past, we might dwell on it and get down on ourselves and each other or whatever it might be, but we’ve got to pick each other up and move on and stay positive. We have a great team, we still believe that we can get this thing done and win this series. We’re not going to sweep every round.”
1) Craig Berube is a great coach. We know this in St. Louis, and judged by the gushing on TNT it seems that the rest of the hockey continent is making this discovery. The Chief came through with his coaching speciality – line fusion – to change the chemistry after a flat Game 1. Perked by Berube’s line alterations the Blues bubbled up at five on five, controlling 61.7 percent of the scoring chances, 75% of the high-danger shots, and blanking the Avs 2-0. And with the Blues about to start a crucial 5-on-3 power play, Berube called timeout and implemented an all-forwards alignment that set up David Perron’s goal for a 2-0 lead.
2) Berube used the off day to reset the Blues’ mindset. There was a meeting with a video session, teaching, updated strategy, and a straightforward challenge to his players. Berube can take his team’s identity and cultivate a new identity within. The Blues can have multiple personalities with Chief as coach, but there is no disorder.
“He’s awesome,” said Perron, speaking of Berube. “We come in and we watch video, we saw a lot of the things that we didn’t do well and he was pretty vocal about it, did a great job of bringing it to us and saying what he had to say and we responded. It was great.”
3) Perron had two goals. His second score shut down Colorado’s big, third-period push. The home-team momentum went kaput. The Avs were reenergized and dangerous after slashing the St. Louis lead to 2-1, but Perron pounced on a careless turnover and swooped in to rip one under goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s glove.
Perron now has seven goals and four assists in the Blues’ eight playoff games.
On Feb. 25 Perron was stalled at nine goals in 38 games in a season roiled by injuries and illness.
Since then – in 37 games including the postseason – Perron has 25 goals and 18 assists.
This is known as a dramatic turnaround.
Speaking of turnarounds …
The younger Perron had only two goals and eight assists in his first 30 postseason games as a Blue.
Since the start of the 2019 postseason, Perron has 18 goals and 18 assists for the Blues in 43 playoff games.
Perron is a treasure. He’ll turn 34 years old on May 28 and has never been better or more valuable to the Blues than he is at this moment.
Perron’s 20 postseason goals rank 7th in franchise history. With two more goals Perron will have 22 and move into 5th place ahead of Brian Sutter and Red Berenson.
4) Jordan Binnington wasn’t bombarded as often as he was in Game 1 … but he was damn good in Game 2, stopping all 27 shots at five on five and allowing only one goal in 31 shots overall. In the first two games of the series Binnington has made saves on 73 of 76 shots at five on five (.961), and stopped 81 out of 85 shots at all strengths (.953.)
In his five postseason games against the Wild and Avalanche, Binnington has a .948 save percentage overall, and a .957 save rate at five on five. When the Blues won the Stanley Cup in a 26-game run in 2019, Binnington started every game and had a .914 save percentage overall. His quality start percentage was .692 (18 of 26) during the 2019 postseason. So far in the 2022 tournament Binnington is 5 for 5 in quality starts. Obviously you can’t do any better than that.
Binnington outmaneuvered MacKinnon behind the net on a dump-in. MacKinnon raced in, thinking he’d catch Binner off guard. Not a chance. Binnington set a trap. This was intentional. And MacKinnon skated right into it. Binnington walled MacKinnon off, and sent the up the ice. A few seconds later, Kyrou scored at the other end. MacKinnon was so stunned by Binnington’s heist, he stopped. It took him a couple of seconds to get moving again. And Colorado was silly for thinking that they’d mess up Binnington by taking a cheap run at him. That didn’t work, either.
5) All hail the captain, Ryan O’Reilly. In eight postseason games this spring he has six goals and four assists, is a plus 3, and has won 57 percent of his faceoffs. In the first two games against the Avs, the Blues have outscored the betting favorites 3-1 at five on five when O’Reilly is on the ice. The O’Reilly margin is 4-2 in all situations. O’Reilly’s goal gave the Blues a 1-0 in Game 1, and last night he assisted on Jordan Kyrou’s second-period goal that put the Blues 1-0. They never lost that lead.
Perhaps more important is O’Reilly’s tenacious work in suppressing MacKinnon. O’Reilly draws that assignment more often than any Blue. And through two games the Avalanche have been outscored 2-1 at five on five with MacKinnon on the ice. This is a very big deal. O’Reilly’s stellar defensive reputation is still in place.
6) Since Minnesota lacerated the Blues in Game 3 of their first-round series to take a 2-1 lead, the Blues have won four of their last five playoff games. The Note has outscored the Wild and Avalanche 21-9 overall and 11-6 at five on five – with six power play goals in 15 opportunities – during the five-game stretch.
7) Back to Berube’s commingling of his lines. He really outdid himself this time. Why? Because each of the three lines that he pieced together were barely used at five on five during the 82-game regular season.
And while it’s totally incorrect to say that none of the three lines appeared during the regular season, the combinations had scant ice time.
– Pavel Buchnevich, O’Reilly and Perron spent a grand total of 14 minutes and 10 seconds together at five on five. In 82 games.
– Ivan Barbashev, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko were together for 13 minutes and 27 seconds of five on five play. In 82 games.
– The most experienced grouping – Brandon Saad,, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou – formed a line for 53 minutes of five on five action over 82 games.
So it’s not like Berube had the benefit of total familiarity with these combinations. These line formations weren’t a factor during the regular season. But Berube has sharp instincts, has a terrific feel for what his team needs, and his line remixes were superb in Game 2.
Buchnevich led the Blues with two assists in Game 2. He was much busier and clearly fit right in with the high-energy, full-action duo of O’Reilly and Perron. Tarasenko was a much different player in Game 2, and the influence of Schenn and Barbashev was an obvious factor. There’s no quit (ever) in Schenn, and Barbashev likes the heavy–contact game. In addition to putting three shots on goal and notching an assist, Tarasenko had as many hits as Barbashev (4), and one more hit than Schenn (3.) Kyrou and Saad (empty net) each scored a goal, Thomas had one of his best games of this postseason. The speed of Kyrou, Saad and Thomas stressed Colorado and the line was in such control at five on five that it finished with an expected goals share of 87 percent.
8) Here’s the most surprising stat from the first two games: The Avs have only one even-strength goal from a forward (Valeri Nichushkin.) Gabriel Landeskog scored a power play goal in Game 2, but when the terms of engagement are set at five on five, Binnington and the Blues are putting the clamps on Colorado’s top forwards. MacKinnon, Nichushkin, Landeskog, Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and Andre Burakovsky have combined for 27 shots on goal at five on five in two games – and none have scored. And the Avs’ top defensemen – Cole Makar and Devon Toews – have a combined 13 shots on goal at five and five … but with no goals or assists. It’s only a matter of time before a few of these guys break through, but the Blues are keeping the Colorado stars off the board.
9) The defensive pairing of Colton Parayko and Nick Leddy have held up well under immense pressure, and the Blues have outscored the Avs 2-1 with the duo out there for 29 minutes at five on five in the first two games. The combination of Robert Bortuzzo and Niko Mikkola has done a good job at five on five; the Blues have outshot the Avs 12-5 and outscored them 1-0 during the duo’s 13 minutes and 49 seconds of ice time in two games. It’s tough to evaluate Justin Faulk. The defensemen’s underlying metrics weren’t good during the first two games, but he’s been used with the other six STL defenseman, going from partner to partner. But the Blues have been outshot 25-8 when Faulk was teamed with Calle Rosen in 17 minutes at five on five.
10) In Game 2 the Blues had four goals and six assists as a team. Members of the 2019 Cup-winning Blues had two of the goals and five of the assists. Through eight postseason games players from the 2019 Blues have combined for 20 goals and 22 assists. And Binnington has a goals against average of 1.75.
I was confident that the Blues would deliver a strong response in Game 2. I didn’t think they’d win by three goals. But the Blues fixed all that was wrong with their effort and performance in Game 1. And it wasn’t a surprise.
“It’s the playoffs for you right there. Big roller coaster,” Perron said after Game 2. “Obviously, we didn’t feel good about ourselves last game. We probably had two or three players have a good game, that was it. Tonight, we had a lot more guys and it was important to find a way to win one here on the road, just like we did last time against Minnesota. We’ve got to keep pushing forward here.”
We can expect Colorado to jump into Game 3 like a pack of competitive psychos, so the Blues can’t ease up.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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All quotes used in this column were recorded during Thursday’s post-game media interviews. All stats used here were sourced from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.