You can see their game rounding into form, the structure crystallizing. Final score notwithstanding, it’s looking more and more like Blues hockey lately, Stanley Cup version.
“Yeah, I thought that Islanders game was a big move in the right direction,” alternate captain Alexander Steen said. “And even against Vancouver we did a lot of good things. So we’ll continue to build.”
You can see the forechecking intensifying, the puck possession improving, the offensive zone time up. That’s how this team must play to win.
“I think our best part of our game is our forechecking,” defenseman Vince Dunn said. “When we’re chipping pucks in, we’re very good at retrieving them back and working the cycle and making plays from down there.”
But there have been lapses, costly lapses that have helped the other team get back in the game. In general, the Blues have been too loose on defense, resulting in shooters left open and too many shots on goal.
“We do good things, that’s for sure,” coach Craig Berube said. “But we’re still not where we need to be. We've got to be tighter than we are defensively. I still think that our awareness without the puck is not where it should be right now. There is (good) puck play at times, but we've got to clean it up. We’re just turning pucks over too much at times.”
As a result, the Blues aren’t getting the results they want. They’re uncharacteristically having trouble holding onto leads late in games. Last season, the Blues were 35-2-2 when leading after two periods. This season they’ve already squandered third-period leads twice, losing in overtime to the New York Islanders 3-2 on Monday and to the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in a shootout Thursday.
So although the Blues have points in six of their seven games, at 3-1-3 they’ve left three points on the table via overtime or shootout losses to the Canucks, Islanders — and on opening night — to the Washington Capitals. In all those games, the Blues blew two-goal leads.
“There’s things we want to clean up,” Steen said. “You know, playing with the lead I think we've got to manage the game a little bit smarter. We've got to try and play with a consistent bite throughout 60 minutes.
“I think it was a little different scenario (against Vancouver). But at the same time, there’s still self-inflicted wounds, and that’s definitely something we can clean up.”
By “different scenario” Steen was referring to 1.) a questionable goaltender interference call against Robert Thomas, and 2.) a bench minor penalty against Berube for barking too vehemently at the referees about that call.
The result was two full minutes of five-on-three for the Vancouver power play. As has been the case so far this season, the Blues did exemplary work killing the penalties. But just as the power play ended, but before the two Blues could get out of the box and into the play, the Canucks scored to tie the game 3-3.
“It’s an emotional game,” Dunn said. “ ‘Chief’ (Berube) knows that he shouldn’t be doing that, and we don’t hold him accountable for any of that. It’s a team game and coaches are going to make mistakes and players are going to make mistakes. Beyond that, I think that game was very winnable for us. You know that’s not an excuse for the loss.”
So seven games into their Stanley Cup defense, the Blues have hit their first rough patch. But after what the team accomplished last season — after a much rougher start that resulted in the dismissal of coach Mike Yeo — there isn’t anything resembling dismay or panic in the locker room. Not even close.
“Building from last year, we’re very confident and we’ve still got that playoff swagger that we had,” Dunn said. “We’re just not consistent enough. You see very good spurts and we kind of get relaxed.
“You know, we maybe try to get a little too fancy. We’re not an overly skilled team. We definitely have our high-end players that can make high-end plays. But overall, I think we’re a pretty direct north team.”
At the moment, they’re a team that’s winless in its past three games. In order to start moving north in the standings again, they must defeat the team that started this mini-slump one week ago, the Montreal Canadiens.
Although the situation wasn’t as dramatic as the Islanders or Canucks games, the Blues couldn’t hold a lead against Montreal, either, leading 3-2 in the second period only to see the Canadiens score the game’s final four goals in a 6-3 loss.
To date, it’s the Blues’ only loss in regulation and thus the only game in which they didn’t earn at least one point. The Blues seemed almost mesmerized at times by the Montreal speed and quickness.
“The other night in Montreal we were really off-page from the start of the game till the end of the game,” Berube said. “We seemed overwhelmed by their speed and just didn’t manage the puck very well. Definitely we have to come out and have more energy than we had in Montreal. We played a soft game in Montreal. A team like that with speed, we've got to make sure that we’re physical, we’re in the way.
“Doing all those things. Managing the puck a lot better than we did. We turned a lot of pucks over in that game, and they came at us with speed.”