The St. Louis Blues are Exhibit A that home ice no longer matters in the Stanley Cup playoffs. At least, it doesn’t to the Blues.
St. Louis scored twice in a wild final seven minutes Monday to beat the Dallas Stars 4-3 in Texas and take a 2-1 lead in the teams’ second-round playoff series. With the victory, the Blues stayed perfect on the road in the playoffs after St. Louis won all three of its games in Winnipeg during an opening-round win against the Winnipeg Jets.
Patrick Maroon, who has so reinvented himself he now goes by the name Pat, dragged the puck out from behind the net and lifted a shot over Dallas goalie Ben Bishop’s right shoulder to break a 3-3 tie with 1:38 remaining in regulation time.
The Blues defended their lead while two men shorthanded for the final 43 seconds after Colton Parayko was penalized for flipping the puck into the stands and Bishop went to the bench for an extra Stars skater.
The teams traded four goals over the final seven minutes, with the Blues answering with markers by Maroon and captain Alex Pietrangelo after the Stars had tied the game on goals by Andrew Cogliano and Tyler Seguin.
The Blues’ staunch defensive play and resilience were evident during their road sweep of the Jets. And they once again displayed the latter Monday, taking the lead just 1:27 into the game, getting four pucks past Vezina Trophy finalist Bishop and rarely letting the crowd at American Airlines Center get to a fever pitch.
Game 4 is Wednesday.
To be cruelly honest, it looked like Maroon was just about done as an impactful NHL player when the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the New Jersey Devils near the end of last season.
Sure, he still had decent hands for a big power forward, and everybody likes Maroon’s good-guy toughness. But in a league increasingly about speed and transition, Maroon was a 225-pound throwback to a slower, half-court style. He scored three goals in 17 games for New Jersey and became a free agent.
At an age when he should still be close to his prime, the player who turned 31 last week settled last summer for a one-year, US$1.75-million contract to play for his hometown Blues. Maybe he thought it would be a good place to end his career.
After a 28-point regular season, Maroon has been a beast in the playoffs. Playing on a checking line with veteran Tyler Bozak and rookie Robert Thomas, Maroon was a handful for the Jets and he is now menacing the Stars.
It is mystifying for everyone unaware of NHL culture that the league embraces a seismic shift in officiating standards for the playoffs compared to the regular season. But credit Maroon for being able to take advantage of it, like when he pushed down Dallas defenceman Esa Lindell to give himself time and space on the winning goal.
In what turned out to be the series-clinching goal against the Jets, Maroon interfered with Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
It was a good idea not to sign Maroon to a three or four-year contract, but he’s been pretty darn effective for the Blues in the playoffs.
NEVER CRY WOLF
Yeah, Lindell got thrown down by Maroon on the winning goal and it could have been called interference – and certainly would have been were it late October instead of late April – but Stars defenceman might have had more sympathy from referees Steve Kozari and Kelly Sutherland had he not twice flopped in search of a penalty when cross-checked by the Blues’ Robert Bortuzzo during a second-period battle in the corner. Instead of winning a power play for Dallas, Lindell gave the officials a chance to call offsetting penalties, which they did: cross-checking for Bortuzzo and embellishment for Lindell.
Almost nightly since last week’s Game 7 fiasco in San Jose, when officials incorrectly guessed at a major penalty that cost the Vegas Golden Knights their season, there have been incidents that further build the case for the NHL giving the referees some replay assistance.
On Monday, the referees and linesmen without the benefit of replays huddled for a couple of minutes – longer than it would take for the league’s war room in Toronto to phone – before concluding that Parayko’s last-minute clearance did not touch Seguin before exiting the playing surface.
Sutherland and Kozari, as well as linesmen Jonny Murray and Ryan Gibbons, did an excellent job to get the call right and penalize Parayko, but imagine if the puck had clipped Seguin’s stick and Dallas tied it on a power play that shouldn’t have occurred.
No one wants longer games, but everyone wants the correct call. The latter need should trump all else.
MORE FANCY COACHING
St. Louis coach Craig Berube helped tilt the Blues’ first-round series in his favour when during Game 5, with his team trailing, he remade his forward lines by dropping Brayden Schenn alongside Jaden Schwartz on the second unit, while promoting energetic David Perron to the top line.
Schwartz, who hadn’t yet scored in the playoffs after an unfathomably low 11-goal regular season, scored St. Louis’ final four goals in the series, including a hat trick in Game 6.
Berube tinkered again Monday, this time moving Schwartz up to play Ryan O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko. Schwartz deflected in Parayko’s point shot to make it 1-0 just 87 seconds into the game, had an assist on Pietrangelo’s go-ahead goal in the third period and led the Blues with six hits.
No wonder Berube is a coach of the year finalist and the catalyst of one of the greatest in-season turnarounds by a team in NHL history.
Great job by the NBC crew supplying the broadcast to Sportsnet to catch Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott happily taking a selfie with a kid and making him feel better after the young fan was struck by a puck in the third period. Elliott didn’t have to do it, and it was a nice, genuine moment to capture.