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Gordo: Injury-riddled Blues gain strength through adversity

Gordo: Injury-riddled Blues gain strength through adversity

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Three things can happen to a team once injuries start piling up.

It can collapse. Or it can muddle through, winning games here and there while awaiting reinforcements.

Or it can actually get stronger for the long haul as individuals assume more responsibility and grow.

The Blues have chosen Door No. 3, as predicted in this space after top goal-scoring threat Vladimir Tarasenko went down 10 games into the season with a long-term shoulder injury.

Their sturdy team structure carried over from their Stanley Cup run. They are reminding their rivals again and again and again that what happened last spring was not a fluke occurrence.

Chicago Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton noted that after his team fell to the Blues 4-0 Monday night.

“They get the lead early, that plays into their hands,” he said during his postgame news conference. “They are a very good defensive team. They played a smart road game. They didn’t expend a ton of energy, they were just smart and made us work for our chances.”

Dallas Stars coach Jim Montgomery gave the Note a nod after his team fell to the Blues 3-1 last Friday. “I thought the Blues won the majority of one-on-one battles, and I thought their puck support was quicker than ours, offensively and defensively,” he said.

There is nothing exciting about the Blues when they “find their game,” but they become numbingly effective. The best possible illustration of that came in Game 7 of the Cup Final, when the Blues stymied the Boston Bruins in the third period.

That was a clinic in team defense.

Of course, structure and effort aren’t enough to offset the loss of skill. Individual players must up their game to fill the talent void — and one Blue after another did that.

Winger Sammy Blais stepped up to produce offensively, then suffered a long-term wrist injury. And the Blues kept winning.

Forward Oskar Sundqvist stepped up to produce offensively, then suffered a foot injury. And the Blues kept winning.

Along the way, Alexander Steen went on the shelf for weeks due to a high ankle sprain, Robert Thomas suffered an upper-body injury and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo sat out a four-game NHL suspension.

And the Blues kept winning, demonstrating great resilience and persistence. Many players answered the challenge to elevate their play.

Let’s start with the goaltenders. When Tarasenko went down, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong noted that Jordan Binnington had just been “OK” early this season.

Since then, Binnington has played brilliantly. Back-up Jake Allen has excelled as well, moving past last season’s collapse.

When you can put that sort of goaltending behind a tight-checking team, you frustrate the stuffing out of opponents. And that’s just what the Blues did during the four-game winning streak they took into Pittsburgh Wednesday night.

The top surviving forwards have all played very well this season. David Perron has cheerfully replaced Tarasenko as a power-play triggerman and the team’s clutch goal scorer.

Brayden Schenn has bounced back from his disappointing 2018-19 production and responded very, very well to his contract extension. He is scoring off the rush, as he did two years ago, and he is converting on the power-play, as he did for the Flyers three years back.

Jaden Schwartz has carried the confidence he regained during the Cup run into this season. He is working diligently to improve his net front skills so he convert more deflections and rebounds.

Cornerstone center Ryan O’Reilly is anxious to score more goals, but he produced 13 points in October and 13 in November with his stabilizing play.

Of course, the Blues needed more from the supporting cast — especially after Blais and Sundqvist went down. And that production came.

Ivan Barbashev climbed from the fourth line into a scoring line role, with newcomer Jacob de la Rose filling his former spot. Zach Sanford improved his shift-to-shift effort in a top nine role.

Grinder Mackenzie MacEachern moved onto the fourth line and excelled. Depth forward Nathan Walker arrived from San Antonio and fit right in.

Our old friend Troy Brouwer passed his professional tryout and rejoined the team as a free agent. Prospect Klim Kostin got his first four NHL games and fit in nicely, scoring a very nice goal in the process.

On the blue line, Alex Pietrangelo has played at a Norris Trophy level while asserting himself offensively. Colton Parayko is taking another career step forward as well.

Justin Faulk just scored his first Blues goal and more will come. Derrick Pouliot came up from the AHL to fill in capably.

Thanksgiving is the first major milestone of the NHL season and the Blues breezed past it with healthy leads in the Central Division and Western Conference. They can expect more adversity between now and the playoffs, but they could become even stronger each time they overcome it.

Imagine how that could pay if this team can get back to full strength by the playoffs.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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