The St. Louis Blues face a virtual must-win situation in game 2 against Minnesota Saturday afternoon. In Game 1, the Wild smothered the Blues with their defense and speedy forwards. The Blues are still looking for their high-powered offense in the regular season to show up in the playoffs.
The Blues were fifth in goals per game with 2.91. In Game 1, they struggled to get solid shots through on Devan Dubnyk. The Wild are one of the best teams in the NHL at blocking shots and they showed it.
An area where the Blues were really exposed was their slow-to-react defense. Minnesota’s speedy forwards were able to skate right around Blues defenders at times, especially on the first goal of the game scored by Jason Zucker.
Take a look at the goal in the video below and focus on Blues defenseman Zbynek Michalek (No. 6) getting beat on the wing by Zucker.
The goal was a clear result of Michalek not taking the body on Zucker. Instead of getting hit to the boards and being eliminated from the play, Michalek was caught flat-footed and allowed Zucker to not only snap a shot from the wing on goalie Jake Allen, but he was also able to continue his skating progress, grab the rebound and wrap it around for an empty-net goal.
Allen made the necessary save, but his defense let him down by not clearing the rebound or picking up the shooter with the puck.
In Game 1, the Blues looked like a team without its classic physical identity.
Despite losing in the first round the past two years, the Blues made their mark with rugged and physical play. They are one of the biggest teams in the NHL and they have used that to their advantage. However, they looked and played rather soft in Game 1. Minnesota won the advantage in hits 25-22.
A clear solution to the problem would be Robert Bortuzzo. The 6-foot-4 215-pound defenseman is a hitting machine, which is why the Blues acquired him at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh this season, to be tougher for the playoffs.
To me, Robert Bortuzzo has to play Saturday. A week ago, Hitch said the Blues are better with him in the lineup. He wasn't wrong. #StlBlues
— Andrew Allsman (@allsmandrew) April 17, 2015
Despite his physical play, Bortuzzo was a healthy scratch in game and Coach Ken Hitchcock has already said there would be no lineup changes in game 2. At a time when physical play is critical, the Blues’ are sitting one of their most physical players.
A growing rumor is that Bortuzzo may be playing hurt. He missed two of the team’s final three games of the season due to an undisclosed injury. He did dress in the season finale against Minnesota, playing nearly 20 minutes with a minus-1 rating. Bortuzzo is a hit-first player, known for closing out a forward as he enters the zone on the wing. Perhaps if that were him instead of Michalek defending Zucker, Minnesota doesn’t score that first goal of the game.
The Blues also have another option on defense that they could use to generate a spark on defense. Rookie Petteri Lindbohm was called up mid-season while Kevin Shattenkirk was hurt. He played extremely well and physical and gained the respect of his teammates. When Shattenkirk returned to the lineup, the Blues made the difficult decision to send Lindbohm back to the AHL.
Talked to a few players last couple days & they say Lindbohm has earned a ton of respect as a younger guy. Love his compete level #stlblues
— Lou Korac (@lkorac10) March 25, 2015
Lindbohm and Bortuzzo represent the tenacity and physical play that the Blues missing in the opening game of the 2015 NHL Playoffs. Their edge is exactly what the team needs in the playoffs to generate a spark and be successful. Sometimes it’s not the best players that win, but the ones that can make their teammates play better as a unit.
Speaking of units, the special team units will also have to be better for St. Louis. Their top 10 penalty killing unit surrendered two power play goals to Minnesota’s 27th ranked unit in the NHL. The penalty killing unit for Minnesota was superb, as they have been all season. The NHL’s best PK killed both St. Louis power plays, hardly letting the Blues even set up in their defensive zone. If the Blues want to win, they’ll have to turn the tables on special teams, especially with the offensive weapons they have at their disposal on the power play.
Perhaps the only bright spot for St. Louis in game 1 was in the faceoff circle. The Blues had a dramatic advantage winning 58% of the game’s faceoffs. Paul Stastny was 4th in the NHL in the regular season and won 69% of his faceoffs. Jori Lehtera won 71% and Alex Steen won 57%. The Blues must continue to win faceoffs, especially to maintain puck possession in Minnesota’s end.
While there will be no lineup changes for the Blues in game 2, it will be very interesting to see how Coach Ken Hitchcock manages his lineup moving forward, especially if the Blues drop the next game.