Come playoff time, the Xs and Os matter in the NHL. Talent obviously is critical, too, especially in goal where one guy can steal victories.
But collective will still is the most essential element to postseason success. It can drive a team to new levels with its players powering through physical and emotional punishment.
These thrilling playoffs are illustrating that once again.
Teams that appear dominant on paper often break down on the ice. Underdogs can pull upsets, build confidence and morph into a more formidable team on the fly.
Teams can keep raising their play. That’s what the Blues did during their 2019 Stanley Cup run while getting better and better.
That’s what the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Vegas Golden Knights are trying to do this season.
The Blues need a reminder of how they must play to regain their standing. They can get it by tuning into these playoffs.
The underdog Canadiens rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to topple the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. Thus emboldened, the Canadiens also swept the favored Winnipeg Jets to reach the Final Four.
“There’s such a great group of guys in there,” Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. “That translates on the ice. Everyone does their job and has a specific job that they’re supposed to do on the ice. And that’s part of it, too. But I think that everyone plays for each other and does the right thing for their teammates.”
Remember when Blues veterans talked that way?
The Islanders upset Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, then now have forged a 3-2 series lead over David Pastrnak and the favored Boston Bruins in Round 2.
“We found a way to win. Good teams do that,” Islanders forward Jordan Eberle said after his team held on for a wild 5-4 victory Monday night. “We have a lot of character in this locker room and a lot of guys who have battled with each other for the last three years throughout the playoffs. You go through that many rounds and that’s how you gain character. You really want to play hard for one another.
“So, you see the hits, you see the blocked shots, you see the bearing down at the end of the game with the last five minutes when we are protecting a lead. All character things and we have a lot of it in this locker room.”
Again, those are the sorts of words the Blues uttered during their unlikely Cup run.
The game did not pass the Blues by. For a host of reasons — injuries, COVID complications, personnel changes, perhaps complacency — they lost the edge the forged during their championship season. To see what they are missing, they can view the Colorado-Vegas series, which has turned into an absolute war.
The Golden Knights did an excellent imitation of the ‘19 Blues while pummeling the Avalanche in Games 3 and 4 of their series to tie the matchup, then had a scintillating victory Tuesday in which they overcame a 2-0 third-period deficit and won 3-2 in overtime. They now lead the series three games to two.
The Blues broke down the Peter DeBoer-coached San Jose Sharks with relentless physical pressure in 2019. Now the DeBoer-coached Golden Knights are trying to do the same to Colorado.
They sent the puck in deep again and again and went bowling for ‘Lanche players with crunching hits.
“They make a play in the D-zone, they are throwing it out in the neutral zone, and they are coming at us 100 miles an hour,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “We have to make sure that we beat their guys back up the ice and we got to find a way to transition out of that cleanly, and they are making it tough on us.
“So, earning our ice and earning our space, fighting in those hard areas to try and keep advancing the puck and put them under duress a little bit is going to be real important. If our guys understand that it is going to be very difficult but we can get it done.”
Those sound like the words Blues opponents spoke in ‘19 after getting swarmed.
Maybe Ryan Reaves, William “Aircraft” Carrier and rest of the Golden Knights have a chance to crush the Avalanche dream. Most fans in these parts would rather see Alex Pietrangelo win another Cup than see Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke hoist the sacred chalice over his skull tarp.
Or maybe the intrepid Canadiens can extend their roll against whichever West Division power survives that series.
“We’re sticking together,” Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli said. “We’re playing as one and we’re winning games and having fun.”
Maybe the Islanders can complete their upset of the Bruins and advance to the Final Four. All signs point in their favor as the series returns to Long Island.
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy blinked first by pulling goaltender Tuukka Rask in Game 5 and then ripping the officials going soft on the Islanders.
“There was a calmness about our group,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, experience is, instead of worrying about all the things, it does not matter if it is hockey or life, experience just lets you focus on four or five things that are the most important. Everything else will fall into place.”
Maybe the Blues can rekindle their spark and reestablish their resolve by seeing these teams succeed with the same vibe they built just two years ago.
It can be done. Just watch.