BOSTON – No moment had seemed too big for the St. Louis Blues throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. But that all changed about 22 minutes into their first final appearance in 49 years.
It didn’t seem like Game 1 was going to play out that way at TD Garden. The Blues couldn’t have started off stronger, tilting the ice early in the first period, using their size advantage to muscle the Boston Bruins off pucks and coming away with a 1-0 lead on a snipe from Brayden Schenn, who had as clean a look at goalie Tuukka Rask as a shooter can get. The start of the second period brought more of the same, with Schenn stealing an ugly David Pastrnak giveaway and setting up Vladimir Tarasenko to put St. Louis up 2-0.
But all of a sudden, the brand-new stakes of Stanley Cup final hockey began to dwarf the less-experienced Blues. It started with the quick answer by the Bruins, 1:16 after the Tarasenko goal, with defenseman Connor Clifton getting body position on Robert Bortuzzo before a puck banked off Clifton’s skate past Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington. The momentum continued with the Blues doing something they hadn’t done all spring: losing their cool. The Bruins baited them into post-whistle skirmishes, something coach Craig Berube, during Media Day Sunday, had praised his team for avoiding in the first three rounds of the playoffs, when they averaged the fewest penalty minutes per game of any team. The Blues ended up taking five minor penalties Monday night.
“Five penalties takes a lot of guys out of the game and burns up a lot of energy from other guys that are killing all the time,” Berube said. “It’s too much. We’ve got to be better there. We’ve got to be more disciplined. Calls are calls. That’s the way it goes. We’re not gonna complain about ’em. We’ve just got to be better.”
Even Binnington, the picture of calm throughout these playoffs, showed frustration, sneaking an elbow on rugged Bruins right winger David Backes after Backes landed on his leg and took his time getting up.
“We’ve got to be more disciplined and composed,” Binnington said. “Stuff’s gonna happen, and you’ve got to handle it.”
By midway through the second, the Blues already taken their fourth minor of the night, and it was only a matter of time before the Bruins power play, the NHL’s best throughout the post-season, punished St. Louis for a mistake. Charlie McAvoy beat Binnington to tie the game, and the Blues were lucky to escape the second with a 2-2 tie, outshot 18-3 in the period. Suddenly, St. Louis had no forecheck.
“It’s tough to get on the forecheck when you’re not coming in together,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo, explaining that the Blues needed to stay physically closer to each other for puck-side support.
The Bruins, buoyed by a characteristically raucous home crowd, forechecked relentlessly, and Sean Kuraly buried a feed from Noel Acciari to put them up 3-2 at 5:21 of the third. They didn’t look back, adding an empty netter to seal a 4-2 victory. They were equally physical despite being the smaller team, with even 5-foot-9, 186-pound Torey Krug delivering a thunderous hit on the Blues’ Robert Thomas. Binnington said after the game he saw Krug coming from a distance and yelled to warn Thomas but got drowned out by the crowd noise. Whether the hit was a charge or not, it added to the intimidation. The Blues simply looked overwhelmed, outshot 38-20 for the game despite an 8-8 ratio in the first period. Rask entered Game 1 with an NHL-best .942 save percentage for the playoffs, and the Blues didn’t test him enough.
“He’s a world-class goaltender,” Schenn said. “We’ve got to be able to shoot more pucks. We didn’t get enough traffic around him, enough tips, screens. We didn’t make it very hard on him.”
If St. Louis can find a positive going forward, it’s that everything about Game 1 played against type. The larger sample size, the other 19 games the Blues have played this post-season, painted a profile of a team that did a tremendous job suppressing its opponents’ shots and grinding them down with a strong forecheck.
Then again, those games weren’t against the Bruins. The home side won’t make things easy for the Blues going forward, and any hope of catching Boston napping after an 11-day layoff is out the window now. The Blues will have to earn every inch in Game 2.
“They pressure you. They come hard. They’re a quick team. They get on you. They’ve got good sticks. They do a lot of good things,” Berube said. “We’ve got to be better. They’re gonna continue to do that. That’s the way they play. They’re a good defensive hockey team, and they do force you into bad situations with the puck a lot of times. But we’ve got to be better than that.”
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