This was a master class in the art of the regroup.
From the moment his team dropped the series opener 3-2 in overtime, St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube was calm, composed and expressed confidence.
This had nothing to do with false bravado, this was genuine belief.
Berube had seen his group bounce back before and he fully expected them to do it again, even if the Blues had far too many passengers and were thoroughly outplayed in Game 1.
Berube spoke openly about what his team needed to do better, and then he decided to make a few tweaks to each of his top three lines to try to find an offensive spark.
This subtle turn of the blender worked magnificently, but the 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche probably had just as much to do with having the proper mindset as it did tossing out different combinations.
Berube also made excellent use of a timeout after Avalanche forward Valeri Nichushkin received a goalie interference call that gave the Blues a two-man advantage late with 1:24 to go in the second period.
With Torey Krug still unavailable due to injury, Berube opted to go with a five-forward setup on the power play, using Pavel Buchnevich at the top of the umbrella, and that bold call also paid immediate dividends, with David Perron scoring on a one-timer that changed direction off the stick of Avalanche defenceman and Game 1 overtime hero Josh Manson.
Perron had his fingerprints all over this game, scoring a valuable insurance marker midway through the third period after the Avalanche made things interesting with a power-play goal of their own from captain Gabe Landeskog (which came with Perron in the box serving a hooking minor).
Perron nearly completed the hat trick on a long-range attempt toward the empty net after Brandon Saad had given the Blues a three-goal cushion.
“I don’t know. He likes scoring. I know that,” Berube told reporters in Denver. “But he was very competitive. Hard on pucks. I thought he did a real good job hanging on to pucks in the offensive zone. Really good job of getting pucks up in our zone on the walls.”
That’s the thing about Perron, as impactful as he can be offensively — and he now leads the Blues in playoff scoring, with seven goals and 11 points in eight games — he does so many of the little things that don’t show up on the score sheet.
That ability to create while also being so responsible on the two-way line with Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly is a big reason that Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon and Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar have been limited to no goals and one assist between them through two games.
Instead of being down 2-0 and facing an uphill battle, the Blues have stolen a game on the road and turned this series into a best-of-five while wrestling away home-ice advantage.
“It’s playoffs for you right there. Big roller coaster,” Perron told reporters. “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.”
One thing for the Blues that didn’t change in Game 2 was the play of goalie Jordan Binnington.
Although he wasn’t nearly as busy as in the opener, when he faced 106 shot attempts and 54 shots on goal, Binnington was rock-solid once again, finishing with 30 stops while doing an excellent job of assisting on the breakouts with his sharp puck handling.
“It probably gives a lot of confidence for our D too, just knowing they don’t have to go back for every single puck and knowing how hard they forecheck and how physical they can be,” said Perron. “It’s a huge thing for us, for sure. The moment he stepped in the Minnesota series, we saw a difference with how good he was with the puck, and we want to keep doing that.”
Perron’s second goal was one Kuemper got a piece of with his glove, but would like to have back, though the larger problem was the turnover just inside the offensive blue line that led to the odd-man rush after some miscommunication between Andre Burakovsky and Makar.
“It’s a turnover high in the zone. Bottom line, so I’m not going to place the blame on either guy, but you’ve got to take care of the puck,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar told reporters. “If you turn it over there, the chances are that something bad is going to happen.”
This wasn’t about one play; the Blues were clearly the better team and answered the challenge.
“We played a connected hockey game,” said Binnington, repeating a mantra mentioned by Berube numerous times after Game 1. “We were all supporting each other, and you know the depth we had today, that was good. We just trusted our game. We talked about just controlling the puck and tracking back hard and trying to outnumber them all over the ice.”
By holding on to pucks and completing more plays, the Blues found a way to limit the potent attack of the Avalanche, who didn’t generate the same kind of sustained pressure that was their calling card in Game 1.
“From the get-go, it seemed like we got on our forecheck way more. We made them defend,” said Perron. “That definitely will slow them down a little bit, chipping away at their bodies so that they can’t get the speed they want.”
MacKinnon found balance speaking at the podium, sharing the disappointment and need for more while not overreacting to what was the first subpar effort from the Avalanche.
“We didn’t have our jump. Our execution was off. We weren’t feeling it, just fighting it out there, and it’s unfortunate but it’s 1-1,” said MacKinnon. “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.”
Now it’s up to the Avalanche to see if they can follow suit and deliver a counterpunch after suffering their first loss of these Stanley Cup playoffs.
“No. 1, we got outworked and out-skated. So that makes everything more difficult,” said Bednar. “In Game 1, I thought we were the quicker team, I thought we worked extremely hard and that was probably their biggest adjustment, right? They needed to get that work out of their group, they got it. We didn’t. So, they were much better and we were worse.
“It’s one game, we knew this was going to be a long, hard series. (The Blues) are a really good team. They answered back after a bad night in Game 1, now the onus is on us. We have to do the exact same thing.”