Blues unfazed by lackluster round-robin performance as Cup defence begins

St. Louis Blues players celebrate a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during second period NHL qualifying round game action in Edmonton, on Thursday August 6, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

If you think the St. Louis Blues are concerned about a winless round robin, you haven’t been paying attention to their remarkable journey.

You can be sure Blues head coach Craig Berube wasn’t happy about going 0-2-1 in Edmonton, but those games were nothing but a tune up for the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The only thing in their sights right now is finding a way to win four games against the Vancouver Canucks in a best-of-seven series that gets underway at Rogers Place tonight.

“We understand what’s at stake. We’ve been there, we’ve gone through it,” Berube said on a zoom call. “Our guys know how hard you have to play, what it takes. Another thing with experience is just handling the ups and downs of the playoffs. There’s a lot of highs and lows during the game, after the game depending on wins and losses and how you handle those going forward is important.

“Our level should be high. I think our guys understand that this is what it’s all about here now.”

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Handling highs and lows was the order of the day for the Blues last season, as they authored one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of sports.

Left for dead and in last place on Jan. 1 of 2019, the Blues went on a remarkable second half run to finish third in the Central Division.

Then, they dispatched the Winnipeg Jets (including a rally from a 2-0 deficit in Game 5 when the series was tied 2-2), the Dallas Stars (surviving double overtime in Game 7), the San Jose Sharks (which went six games) and the Boston Bruins (in an epic series that also went the distance).

There are no certainties in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the best of times and there’s an element of the unknown when you factor in the pause caused by the pandemic, but the Blues know precisely how they need to play in order to have success.

This group is confident they can reach the required level, even if they weren’t quite as sharp as usual during the round-robin action.

“We’re past the hard part. It feels like it’s been forever. It’s not easy mentally, but once the games get going, we’ll be a little bit better,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “Minds will be really dialed in here. We’ve had a lot of down time in this qualifying time here. They gave us probably a little bit too much time to sit around. We’re excited to finally get this going and get on schedule.

“Our group in general has been pretty good about forgetting things and moving on. I think if you look at last year during the season and last year during the playoffs, we bounced back fairly well. It would have been nice to win all three games and play better, but I’ve said it before, this team, we’re gamers and when the game’s on the line in big situations, we all want to be out there. We knew that we were going to be in the playoffs. To sit around and wait, obviously we wanted to build and play better, but to be able to flip that switch, if there’s a group that can do it, I think it’s going to be us.”

The Blues were a bit loose defensively and know they’ll need to be more diligent on the forecheck, especially against someone as mobile as Canucks rookie Quinn Hughes.

“Our forecheck is everything, in my opinion, to our game,” said Blues forward David Perron. “We have to play heavy down low, we have to have our forecheck. That’s a staple to our game and we didn’t have it in those three games. We had it in spurts for sure, but we didn’t have enough of it.

“I just want to see what our game is like and I think playing against the same opponent, we’re going to be able to come back after each and every game, make adjustments, talk about what we can do better and from there. We’re going to keep getting better every game. [For] any team in this league, it’s going to be tough to win four games against us.”

One of the benefits of the pause was that the Blues are getting high-scoring winger Vladimir Tarasenko back in the lineup.

Tarasenko was limited to 10 games this season because of a shoulder injury, but he provides another game-breaking offensive weapon who was second in goals (11) to Jaden Schwartz (12) last spring when the Blues captured the Stanley Cup.

Speaking of the Blues roster, left-winger Sammy Blais remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury, while Ivan Barbashev is back in St. Louis for a few more days after his wife gave birth to a baby on the weekend.

The Blues score by committee and are best known for being extremely difficult to play against.

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As for the back end, the defence corps is even more formidable than last year after adding Justin Faulk and Marco Scandella in trades.

Blues goalie Jordan Binnington wasn’t as sharp as we’re used to seeing, as he was 0-2 with a 4.10 goals-against average and .895 save percentage in his two starts, but he’s battle-tested and determined to deliver once again when the stakes are high.

“He hasn’t had the easiest path to get to where he’s at right now, so I think that just helps him motivate himself to want to push himself to be even better this year,” said Blues defenceman Vince Dunn.

The Blues recognize the Canucks will be a confident group after dispatching the Minnesota Wild in four games.

“After playing a series like they did and winning that, they’re going to be coming in very excited and feeling good,” said Blues centre Ryan O’Reilly. “For us, we’ve got to bring the attention to our game and our details. We have to establish our physicality right away, we’ve got to show them that this is going to be a hard series and they’re going to have to earn everything. It’s just focusing on all those little details and playing to our identity.

“They’re a very good team. They don’t have much of a weakness in any area. We know it’s going to be an extremely difficult series to win. Throughout the regular season, they played us very well. It’s good to know nothing’s going to come easy. We have to earn this and it’s going to be extremely difficult.”

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