The Blues made some dramatic changes to their lineup for Game 3 on Sunday, some made on their own and some forced upon them.
In the most drastic move for a team that had lost the first two games of its playoff series with Vancouver, coach Craig Berube sat goalie Jordan Binnington and went with backup Jake Allen. Allen stopped 39 of 41 shots he faced in the Blues' 3-2 overtime win and could get the start for Game 4 on Monday.
Binnington faced plenty of chances from Vancouver in Games 1 and 2, and hadn’t made the game-saving stops he made as the Blues marched to the Stanley Cup last season. It was the first start for Allen in a postseason game since 2017.
Also not in the game was forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who has not been at the top of his game as he has jumped back into action after October shoulder surgery kept him out of most of the season, and forward Alexander Steen, who has been in and out of practice of games since the start of training camp. Berube said both were unfit to play, the NHL's catch-all phrase this postseason to describe players who aren't in the lineup.
Berube said both Tarasenko and Steen were "day-to-day. Not sure (if they'll play in Game 4). I'm really not sure."
Troy Brouwer, who played in the first two games of the series, was also out, and Mackenzie MacEachern, Jacob de la Rose and Jordan Kyrou came into the lineup for an all-new fourth line.
It may have been Kyrou's best game with the Blues. He had seven shot attempts, two shots on goal, and after starting on the fourth line found himself playing with Brayden Schenn and Tyler Bozak after an in-game promotion.
"Might have been the best game, might have been the most competitive game I've seen him play," Berube said. "When I put him in the lineup, that's the conversation I had with him. It's not about if you score a goal or make a play, it's about doing the right things, playing the right way and being a competitive player. I thought he was really competitive tonight."
Tarasenko was kept out of the second playoff seeding game for unspecified reasons and has missed at least one practice. When he’s been on the ice, he still clearly has been dealing with rust from his long layoff, with no goals and no assists in his four games and several turnovers. Tarasenko is 10 months removed from his shoulder surgery, and has had to jump right back into the heat of a postseason with no time to get ready.
Steen missed Game 1 of the Vancouver series and the warmup game with Chicago, as well as several practices. Berube has said he was going through rehab and is day-to-day, a condition that apparently is ongoing.
Game 3 was the first in an elimination series for Kyrou, who played against Vegas in the seeding series, taking Tarasenko’s spot on the top line. MacEachern has alternated games with scratches, playing in Game 1 of the Vancouver series in place of Ivan Barbashev, who still has to clear his quarantine after returning from St. Louis and the birth of his son. De la Rose played in Game 1 of the series. He’s played in as many games in the playoffs as he did in the final month of the season.
MacEachern and de la Rose both had effective games as well. MacEachern had four shots on goal and de la Rose had two.
The absences of Tarasenko and Steen led to a second line of Oskar Sundqvist, Schenn and Bozak, at the start of the game, before Kyrou and Sundqvist began trading shifts.
On the dot
The series has matched two of the best teams in the NHL in the regular season in faceoffs. Vancouver was second-best, winning 54% of its draws, while the Blues were sixth at 51.6. (Philadelphia was tops, at 54.6%.)
“Those little battles are important,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “It’s better to start with the puck than without it. At this time of year, it’s all about the little things that add up at the end of the night.”
And that battle would often be personified by two of the best players in the league on the faceoff dot, Ryan O’Reilly of the Blues, who won 56.6% of his draws in the regular season, the fifth-best in the league, and Bo Horvat of Vancouver, who was third (57.3%).
Not much went well for the Blues through their first five games of the postseason, which all ended in losses, and on faceoffs, it turned out to be a split decision: The Canucks won 54% of the faceoffs in Games 1 and 2, while O’Reilly won 63% of his. When O’Reilly and Horvat went head-to-head, O’Reilly won 67% of the faceoffs, taking 10 out of 15. In Game 3, the teams effectively split the faceoffs but O'Reilly continued his roll, winning 65 percent of his draws and taking nine of 13 when going up against Horvat. (He also won seven of nine against Jay Beagle.)
Going into Game 3 on Sunday, O’Reilly has been the best at faceoffs in the postseason, winning 68.6% overall, while Horvat is seventh (59.6). O’Reilly has posted some very strong numbers in the playoffs, including winning 20 of 23 draws against Vegas in the seeding rounds. He’s won at least 60% of his faceoffs in every game.
“The second game I was really good,” O’Reilly said. “They kind of caught me on my strong side every time so it definitely was an advantage and I was feeling it. . . . It doesn’t make or break a game, but I feel confident on my draws. Vancouver has got some really great centermen that really bear down.”
The toughest of all is Horvat, whose scoring in the series has done more serious damage.
“He’s extremely strong, and he gets very low and his timing is very good,” O’Reilly said. “Every time I face off against him, I know I have to bear down and it’s going to be a challenge. He works extremely hard.”
O’Reilly had a tougher time with J.T. Miller in Game 2, where Miller won five of nine faceoffs between the two. In the first two games, O’Reilly had won seven of seven draws with Brandon Sutter. In Games 3 and 4, with the last line change, Vancouver will be able to dictate the matches it wants.
“We push each other hard on the faceoff dot,” Miller said. “If someone has a good night, better than the others, we’re the first to let them know. We all bring our own unique style and (assistant) Manny (Malhotra) does a great job of showing us video of what works and what doesn’t, when we’re getting away from our tendencies, when we’re going well. . . . We understand in this series, starting with the puck is going to be crucial. If you lose a draw, it can start a long shift in your own end.”
With Steen and Tarasenko, the team’s two alternate captains, out, O’Reilly and Jaden Schwartz wore A’s. … By not getting in the game, Steen remains tied for second for playoff games with the Blues with Bernie Federko at 91. Brett Hull played in 102. … Vancouver defenseman Tyler Myers missed the game because of what reportedly is a shoulder injury suffered in the third period of Game 2. Jordie Benn took his spot; Benn was late getting into the bubble because he and his partner had a baby.