The St. Louis Blues did a couple of things on Wednesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights that had become very rare during the 2020-21 season: Score first and score enough to beat a very good team.
After all, it was just Monday night when former star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and Vegas took it to the Blues to the tune of a 6-1 demoralizing defeat. The loss dropped the Blues to 16-16-6, a record that doesn't look too flashy when held under a microscope. In the NHL, the standings wins, losses and overtime losses. If you took points out of the picture, St. Louis had won 16 games and came out on the losing end in 22 contests. Last night was different.
Before the limited capacity downtown at the Enterprise Center could settle into their seats, Vladimir Tarasenko snapped a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for a 1-0 lead less than a minute into the first period. Sammy Blais, starting for the healthy-scratched Mike Hoffman, planted another puck in the net six minutes later. Suddenly, Blues fans were witnessing a completely different team. One that was actually back-checking and finishing plays. Instead of allowing endless breakaways and odd-man rushes in their own end, the Blues were the ones collecting clean looks at Fleury.
You could say it was a good-for-broke performance from a team desperate for a spark. Kyle Clifford dropped the gloves with former St. Louis tough guy Ryan Reaves. He lost, but the effort of a veteran hockey player locking fists with an NHL heavyweight must have been a moral boost. Lately, the Blues have undergone that odd transformation of a team getting healthy yet finding new ways to play bad hockey.
Jordan Binnington helped seal off the net, making 50 shots and showing off the lack of nerves that helped this team win a Stanley Cup two years ago. Instead of spotting the opposition early and putting his team behind, Binnington saved his line mates with seemingly endless stops in the second and third periods, when the boys started running out of steam and needed a brick wall down by the net to form. The buzzer rang and the final score was 3-1, pushing the team to 17-16-6, good for fifth place in the West Division. It was their first time scoring three goals in their last eight games. In other words, still a point less than the Chicago Blackhawks, who came into the season with lesser hope than their Midwest rival. Oy vey!
Before the game, I asked Blues fans what was hurting this team. Was it the lack of cohesiveness that a team usually acquires late in the year? Unlike the 2018-19 team, this band of studs was having a hard time bringing it all together. Injuries hit this team harder than any other NHL squad, but the talent level should have produced a few more wins. There have been odd uses of Zach Sanford over Hoffman, who has struggled in his first year on the Blues wing. Effort was questioned and booing began in recent games. Wednesday may help suture the wound and allow this team to make a last stand-but let's look at a few reasons from Blues faithful.
There's also the loss of multiple veterans at once. I don't think Petro/Steen/JayBo are team-breakers if only one of them leaves but all in one off-season? Whoof. That's a leadership vacuum you can't put on paper. And it will get filled eventually but it rarely happens right away— Irretronal Optimism (@irratnloptmsm) April 7, 2021
The loss of Jay Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo, and Alexander Steen cleared too much leadership out of the locker room at once. Usually, a team can lose 1-2 important veterans in a matter of a year and stay strong. The Blues lost two vital defensemen and three fan favorites. That's not something you can replace easily.
Injury to 55 is what ruined the season, team developed bad habits and were never able to recover. They aren't talented enough to out skill teams, they aren't "gritty" enough to out work teams, they aren't on the same page enough to out system teams.— Walter Sobchak (@Walter_Sobchak0) April 7, 2021
But what happens when the best defenseman left on your team goes down with an injury? Colton Parayko was the guy who broke Ben Bishop's collar bone in the 2019 playoff run, but found himself slowed by a bad back. He came back this week. Some would say too soon, but a healthy #55 could go a long way.
They have many issues...the goaltending being a dumpster fire is a good place to start— AJCKC (@AJClipp) April 7, 2021
Goaltending has been an issue. Overall, Binnington hasn't been as sharp as he was the past two years, and new backup Ville Husso can't stand in net for even five minutes of a game without giving up a goal. Jake Allen is in Montreal thriving, and the depth in net is worrisome moving forward. Is Binnington the guy? Can Husso support? Is Cujo still active? How is Grant Fuhr's knee doing? Questions abound. Craig Berube told the media this week that Binnington had lost his swagger. Some of it was collected in the 3-1 win, but will it become consistent? The goaltending has been anything but consistent this season.
Blues success with Berube relied on a heavy team, strong forechecking, physical presence if front of both nets, solid D that can make basic passes and clear the zone. This roster will not provide this.— DC (@DCSlowRide) April 7, 2021
Is it a certain level of physicality and dominance in size hurting them? Of course. While Clifford fired the team up by taking on Reaves, the Blues have lacked the size and ruthlessness at times to finish plays and take back the momentum in a game for weeks. Being overmatched on the roster and in the grit department suddenly disappeared as well last night. But will it continue?
There are a month of games left in the regular season. Do the Blues have a shot at getting into the playoffs? Can they do some damage? A close friend and colleague told me this before the big win Wednesday: "they are done." That's an attitude derived from many disappointing nights where fans are left scratching their heads. One win won't change that mindset that many fans currently hold. With Minnesota on the docket, can this team pull it together and make some waves? They don't have to do everything right. Few hockey teams do. But the forechecking, backchecking, and constant pressure can't disappear Friday when the 24-12-2 come to town.
Diagnosing the Blues isn't an easy task. Teams are assembled with solid parts all over the league, but it can fall apart or just not work. Does Berube's band of misfit toys have another miracle in them? The odds are against them but then again, aren't they always for a team called the Blues?