Blues playing shut-down hockey so far vs. Wild – STLtoday.com
The Blues’ suffocation of the Minnesota Wild offense began before Game 1 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series and there is a direct correlation to the date.
It started on March 7, Mike Yeo’s first game against the club that fired him. He had just taken over the Blues, from Ken Hitchcock.
The Blues allowed just one goal to one of the NHL’s most potent offenses, and it came with Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk pulled for an extra attacker on a shot by Mikko Koivo from 86 feet out that skipped past goalie Jake Allen with 11 seconds left in regulation.
One month and two playoff games later, the league’s second-highest scoring club and top five-on-five team in the regular season has yet to score an even-strength goal against the Blues.
In taking a 2-0 lead on the Wild in the best-of-seven playoff series, the Blues have surrendered just two goals — one during a 6-on-5 and one on a 5-on-3 — so including the March game in which they allowed the extra-attacker goal, the Blues have gone 197 minutes, 48 seconds without allowing one when the sides were playing at even strength.
As he got set for Game 3 Sunday at Scottrade Center, Yeo said there’s one simple reason the Blues have been able to contain Minnesota, which finished No. 2 in the NHL behind Pittsburgh with 266 goals during the regular season and tops in the league with 137 at even strength.
“Because we have to be,” Yeo said. “In those games there have been a lot of near-misses and Jake’s had to be great. It’s not like we’ve found a magic formula that prevents them from getting to shots and chances. Sometimes it’s Jake, sometimes it’s a great defensive play, a great stick knocking a rebound out of there. Sometimes it’s a (penalty kill), whatever the case is, we’ve found a way. But we know they’re going to continue to try to pour more on us and we have to be ready for that.”
Though the Blues have struggled for offense themselves in the series, they have stymied Minnesota. The Wild took 52 shots in the Game 1, which the Blues won because Allen was electric, but in Game 2 they continued to bottled up the opposing offense.
Mikael Granlund, who led Minnesota with 69 points in the regular season, has one assist and just six shots on goal. Eric Staal, who paced the Wild with 28 goals, also has just one assist and six shots. Nino Niederreiter, who punched in 25 goals this season, has just two attempts. Both goals belong to Zach Parise.
“They’re sitting five guys when we’re in the zone, right inside the hash-marks and blocking shots,” Parise said. “That’s something we’re going to have to figure out if we want to get some goals and win some games, we’re going to have to figure out what we can do better there.”
“We’ve been a great 5-on-5 team during the regular season, and we’ve got to translate that over,” forward Charlie Coyle said. “We’ve got to find ways to get that puck through. When they play five tight down there, it’s tough. But we’ve got to find ways, get some traffic, go to the net, get inside their guys and put in the rebound goal. It’s going to come for us.”
Minnesota registered just 24 shots in Game 2 and the Blues blocked 19 others, giving them 40 blocks in the series.
“There’s been more of a focus on trying to take away chances from the middle of the ice and around our net,” said Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who has five of those blocks. “They’ve been tight games and we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
“It’s good positional play,” Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. “It’s good sticks, it’s finishing checks in the right position. No one is running around looking for contact, it’s taking what’s given. We’re doing what we can to limit them, and when they do get chances, we’ve got a guy Jakie back there, who’s been rock solid.”
The Blues haven’t been running around, but their fourth line of Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Reaves has been effective in getting under the skin of the Wild.
Upshall was particularly noticeable in Game 2, playing nearly 14 minutes and posting a club-high four hits.
“Oh, he’s doing a great job,” linemate Kyle Brodziak said. “He’s staying within his game and when he’s got the opportunity to be physical, he’s taking advantage of it and that’s exactly what we need.”
And when Upshall ran Coyle in the third period Friday, leading to coindental roughing minors that created the four-on-four situation and set up Jaden Schwartz’s game-winning goal, Ryan Reaves was there to back up Upshall.
“I defused the situation,” Reaves said. “Just standing there was good enough.”
Reaves, in fact, had an encounter with Minnesota’s Chris Stewart, his former Blues teammate. The two were in each other’s weddings and Reaves is the godfather of Stewart’s son, Connor.
“Good friends off the ice, archenemies on the ice … that’s hockey,” Reaves said.
“It’s not awkward at all, not this time of the year,” Stewart said. “There’s definitely no friends out there. We both have jobs to do and that’s the bottom line. I don’t think (Reaves’ line has been) too effective. I like that match-up a lot and I’ll take that any day of the week.”
The Blues, though, are doing something right, suffocating and seemingly frustrating the Wild.
“We’ve done well up to this point,” Yeo said. “I think we got better at taking them away from their game… I think we can still get to our game better. We can put them under a little more pressure. We can continue to grow our physicality.
“Coming back home and forcing them to deal with some of the things we had to deal with in their building, as far as the momentum, as far as the crowd noise, we have to find a way to make that impactful. I remember coming in here in the playoffs and this is an intimidating building and I’ve seen it in the regular season. I’m excited for (Sunday).”