BOSTON — Remember the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The duration of the Stanley Cup Playoffs makes it feel like their ignominious sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets happened an epoch ago. But I was thinking about them this week, because the St. Louis Blues are everything the Lightning were not.
Don’t get me wrong (TM, The Players’ Tribune), I’m sure the Blues would much rather be the team rampaging through the NHL like a Murdersaurus with 128 points and 62 wins than the team that had to do a four-month wind sprint to make the postseason. But maybe that sprint was the intangible, intrinsic thing for which Jon Cooper was searching when his team staggered over a cliff after one round in one of the most embarrassing playoff ousters in NHL history.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse, it’s reality,” Cooper said after the series. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.”
When a slew of top seeds fell early in the playoffs, we were told a lot about “meaningful games” vs. “playing out the string,” and the Blues offer a macro example of that. They went 30-10-5 after Jan. 1, which is comparable to what Tampa did (31-9-2) in that stretch, but it was completely different in that the Lightning were cruising and the Blues were trying to claw out of a hole like they’d been buried alive.
Their resurgence built character, establishing a baseline for resiliency that has carried over to the playoffs. Simply put: The Lightning were punched in the face, their makeshift crown fell to the ground and shattered, and they didn’t know what had hit them. The Blues get punched in the face, shake it off and figure out how to counterpunch.
“I’ve said it before, things don’t really seem to faze us. We use everybody and put teams on their heels. We get a lot of momentum opportunities from that,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo.
The short-term memory loss of the St. Louis Blues is truly one of the postseason’s wonders. Their Game 4 win moved them to 7-2 after losses in the playoffs. They have a 1.86 goals-against average in those games, which has been attributed to the play of Jordan Binnington, because NHL goalies, like NFL quarterbacks, get all the credit and all of the blame. But it can also be attributed to the way they play in front of him.
Here, again, is the contrast between the Lightning and the Blues. Tampa Bay was an offensive machine with intricate wiring. When it hummed, it was the most efficient contraption in hockey. The Blues have all the intricacy of a battering ram. It’s just that sometimes they forget if the giant log is supposed to swing forward or side-to-side.
“What works is what you guys saw in Game 4,” Patrick Maroon said. “That’s our style of play. When we get away from that, and play East/West games, and turning pucks over, they’re going to get opportunities and they’re going to get on the rush and they’re going to score and they’re going to beat us off that. We take dumb penalties. We’re in the box too many times. And then they punish us on the power play.”
The Blues are, to a man, convinced they can beat anyone if they don’t end up beating themselves.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot a lot. A lot of the times. It’s not what they’re doing special, it’s what we’re doing wrong. And I think that people gotta understand that. We fix it easy, the players come together, and they see what works again,” Maroon said. “We don’t get too high or too low. Guys don’t get to frustrated or too down on themselves.”
There’s a best-selling crockpot cookbook called “Fix-It and Forget-It,” which is a shame, because it could also have been the title of the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues commemorative DVD. (Which, for the record, should be called “The Chronicles of Gloria.”) They’re so adept at diagnosing their issues, but more impressive is the way they take adversity and crumple it up and toss it over their shoulder into the garbage.
A lesser team wouldn’t have rallied in the regular season. A lesser team doesn’t win three games in Winnipeg or rally from 3-2 down to Dallas. A lesser team is probably still cursing to the high heavens over that blown hand-pass call in overtime of Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks. But it was their reaction to that controversy that told you all you needed to know about the Blues, which is that they have a unique way of moving past their tribulations. Coach Craig Berube walked in, told them to forget it, move on, and en masse they did.
That was apparent again after Game 3, when they greeted fans who had been waiting 49 years for a Stanley Cup Final game in St. Louis with a truly flatulent performance, losing 7-2.
“Every guy on our team has a ton of character,” said forward Zach Sanford. “We’re a really close group and we all have each other’s backs. A tough loss like that, I think a lot of teams [would have started] throwing each other around the bus, blaming other people and doing this and that. With this group it’s all just boosting each other and having each other’s back.”
I think back to that Lightning series and wonder what would have happened if you transplanted the spine of this Blues team into that body. There are a lot of reasons one has now played 19 more playoff games than the other this postseason. But one of the primary reasons is the Blues’ ability to fail, understand why they did and then forget they ever did, lest it fester or snowball in their minds.
“We know what we do wrong, and we know how to fix it right away. And they’re all easy fixes,” Maroon said.
The Bruins are trying to kill us
Last week in this column, I presented you with the Boston Bruins‘ doughnut bacon cheeseburger, which was a gluttonous stomach anvil of a treat on Media Day. Then the action shifted over to St. Louis, and the Blues’ playoff tradition of presenting the press with toasted ravioli and other pasta was lauded for its delectability.
Well, leave it to the Bruins to up the ante, as the media area before Game 5 was basically, “hey, let’s fry everything and give it to these idiots.”
– Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 5, 2019
Look, it’s no secret that the working media aren’t exactly pictures of good health on the road during the Stanley Cup playoffs. This kind of spread, this late in the postseason, feels very much like an attempt by the Bruins to thin the herd.
I had two of everything, of course.
Jack Hughes, avid golfer
NHL draft prospect Jack Hughes was in St. Louis ahead of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, meeting the media and answering all the prerequisite questions about Kaapo Kakko outplaying him at the IIHF world championship.
But my favorite part of the conversation wasn’t about hockey. It was about golf.
Hughes said he looked forward to the next couple of weeks because it’s the last time he could “be a kid” before his life is “going to change a lot” at the draft. And apparently part of “being a kid” is playing copious amounts of golf with his family.
“Wasn’t very good at the start. Trying to pick my game up this summer,” he said.
So which Hughes family member is the best on the links?
“Quinn‘s pretty good,” said Hughes, of his brother, a defenseman on the Vancouver Canucks. “He uses a 5-iron, just puts the ball in the middle of the fairway, but keeps advancing it. I just smack the ball. So mine could end up in the woods, but if it is straight it goes very far.”
Sounds like the difference between a defenseman and a center to me.
Hughes put over golf as a way for hockey players to check their brains for a while.
“A lot of hockey players play golf,” he said. “Hockey’s such an intense sport. There’s not a lot of time to think out there. Golf is a lot more relaxed. I just think it’s good to decompress on the golf course.”
Now, please commence your “Jack Hughes likes golfing” and “well, he is being drafted by the Devils” jokes…
Baby Cup, Gloria
It was an underreported story, but the NHL and the Blues succumbed to superstition after Game 3’s rout by the Bruins. Instead of featuring a live rendition of their victory song, “Gloria,” before Game 4 at their watch party, they waited until after the game to have the massive singalong. Because doing it beforehand is, like, a major jinx.
Well, speaking of that:
– Bill Pollock (@missourisports) June 5, 2019
This is Ann Marie Vancil, and this is her in the Stanley Cup 20 minutes after being born at a St. Louis hospital. C’mon, parents. You know what’s at stake. You just risked insulting the hockey gods for the ‘gram!
Listen To ESPN On Ice
Emily Kaplan and I have been doing daily podcasts that you can find all over the NHL page. But our latest main show was an entertaining one after Game 4, with Steve Whyno of the AP (8:55) and Joan Niesen of Sports Illustrated (25:57) offering their thoughts on the game. Listen to it here.
Here’s Taylor Hall on April 8, talking about how he’s not looking to sign long-term with the Devils at the moment, and he’s going to take a patient approach to his future. Ugh … who knew resurfacing this news from an unnamed source two months later, even though we literally already heard it from the player himself, would be the pathway to so many clicks!?
The NHL is coming to Seattle, and the region is getting ready for a spike in hockey interest with two new sheets.
Also, the official Seattle NHL site is up and please, dear hockey gods, let that salmon-and-blue thing at the top be their color scheme.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
Awesome look by Katie Strang at the NHL scouting combine Q&A process. ($)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
In which we have NHL draft prospects read and react to scouting reports … about themselves! (ESPN+)