The St. Louis Blues have only played five games (four being legit meaningful), but it feels like 50.
When a hockey season nearly gets to the end and has to abruptly stop, weeks seem like months and old win-lose records seem to vanish with the newfound mentality. The Blues have been back for less than two weeks, but the intensity level seems to be higher with fans than the players.
Well, most of the players. The Blues look like a team that’s just started the regular season. It may be 80 degrees outside, but the play on the ice seems Halloween-ish to me. It’s not exactly scary, but it’s far from comforting.
There hasn’t been a single game yet where the Blues seem to have full control, or even three quarters. The play seems to acquire the high level for five minutes before a costly turnover occurs or their ability to shoot accurately gets lost in the sea of empty seats.
The Colorado Avalanche game seem to contain the best play so far, but then last night’s game against Vancouver took the bigger prize. In a tight game (at the time), the Blues turned it on and dominated the 200 foot game. Lesser mistakes in front of their own net and firmer cycling and shooting in the offensive end. A team’s play seems to swing directly behind its ability to forecheck properly. The Blues looked very good until they didn’t.
The wheels fell off fast and the game was gone. The Blues suddenly had lost four meaningful games in a row, and were down 1-0 in the first round of the playoffs. It’s like the first few days at Starbucks training school. Three lattes after you started finding confidence, the entitled customers come in and throw you six curveballs at once. That’s the Blues right now; the out of shape and not quick enough barista.
But I think they are close. There are things to worry about, but a few that don’t need a second glance. Here are a few.
They Should Worry About: Vince Dunn
The kid can look fantastic one moment, and look like an unreliable joker the next. He’s veteran-savvy but prone to rookie-type mistakes. He has a shot and the hunger to get to the net or initiate a play that leads to scoring. But then he can commit the worst turnover, or just turn off his brain suddenly. I’d worry about him.
They Shouldn’t Worry About: Jordan Binnington
He doesn’t get nervous after a playoff loss. The silent yet deadly St. Louis hero for life didn’t have a great night Wednesday, but he’s turned it around at the highest level before-and on numerous occasions. Most NHL pundits were waiting for the other shoe to drop with Binnington, but it never did. He’ll bounce back. No doubt.
They Should Worry About: The fourth line
Look, the bottom lines don’t make or break playoff hockey games, but they do provide the little things on the ice that teams need to do in order to win a close game. Players like Ivan Barbashev, Sammy Blais, and even Alexander Steen’s aging body could have prevented a couple of those power play goals from Vancouver happening. Barbashev’s physicality gives the team a true edge that was missing for parts of the Round Robin and Game 1 action. Every quality Blues team thrives on some fourth line pressure. I’ve seen enough Troy Brouwer.
They Shouldn’t Worry About: Vladimir Tarasenko
The guy is close. Keep in mind these are his first games since October, and you can give him more slack. Still, there were at least three separate moments in Wednesday’s game where Tarasenko was loose and had the puck in range to unleash a snipe. Once he gets himself set and back in tune completely, he will affect this series. He played 17:31 in Game 1 and had three shots. Without a single Tarasenko point, one could say the Blues have been lucky to be in games. On the other hand, he was gone for most of the season, and the team found a way. But in the playoffs, opposing teams eliminate your weapons easier, so the biggest ones need to shine. I have no doubt #91 is going to erupt soon.
They Should Worry About: Oskar Sundqvist
Here’s the thing. Sunny hasn’t scored a goal, or registered a point in a game, since Feb. 23. That’s 12 game without a credible threat. He’s playing 13-16 minutes a game, so he’s out there. And Sundqvist is a multi-faceted talent on the ice when he’s on, affecting the outcome at both ends of the ice. He’s a pest, quality shooter, and understands the sacrifice required to move a puck through the neutral zone. But right now, he’s a missing link when the Blues need all hands on deck. Like Barbashev, Sundqvist’s role is unique and doesn’t easily come through in a stat page. But even the stat page is being cruel to Sundqvist. I’m not suggesting Tom Wilson come run him over again, but I’m not ruling it out either.
They Shouldn’t Worry About: Colton Parayko
The big guy is turning pucks loose, putting 16 shots on net during the four games back from the stoppage in play. Parayko has two goals and is executing his game out there, using his forward puck-carrying abilities to move into the offensive zone while pushing players around in the defensive zone, Like the entire team, Parayko has sprung a few leaks on occasion, but overall has looked good. He needs to be shooting, and that is happening. It’s the time of year where goaltender’s collar bones should be in danger.
At the moment, the Blues look like a team who just fell out of bed. The morning is running away and they are late to just about everything. The immediate zip out of the gate, the ability to finish a game, and locking down their defense. A couple late leads blown and an outright route should give them a reality check, one that isn’t too late.
For all their good intentions, the round robin games felt like exhibitions that existed solely to knock the rust off the knees of players. Game 1 showed a more able team ... until the show got ugly. The Canucks aren’t diabolical, but are fully capable of sending the Blues home for a short summer.
2020 has proved it’s anyone’s game, even the Philadelphia Flyers. Could the Blues rise up? I’ll say it again: The talent is there, but the alertness needs to settle in pretty soon.
For now, I choose to remain optimistic. It feels more to me like the Blues are beating themselves, rather than being the clearly inferior team. With talent like Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn flying around, and David Perron being a big time scoring threat, the Blues are primed to break out.
Game 2 would be a swell time to get to work on that repeat.