“That’s why you play an exhibition game, right? You can’t prep for a game unless you play a game.” – Alex Pietrangelo
Let’s everyone take a deep breath and calm down.
It was only an exhibition game.
Yes, it’s understood that the Blues played a hockey game for the first time since March 11, against an opponent other than themselves, and yes, it was against their archrivals, the Chicago Blackhawks.
And a 4-0 loss might not sit well on any other day, but this one, a tune-up for when the real games begin for the Blues on Sunday when they get — for all intents and purposes — three more tune-up games in the Western Conference Round-Robin to determine seeds 1-4 for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this one didn’t matter one bit.
The Blackhawks, who needed to have more sense of urgency because they will have to play the Edmonton Oilers beginning Saturday in the qualifying round, showed more of a sense of urgency playing the Blues at Edmonton’s Rogers Place, in front of empty stands of the West’s bubble hub city due to COVID-19.
Chicago, which was swept by the Blues in all four games during the regular season for the first time in this matchup’s history, exhibited more jump, more life and more execution.
The Blues, who will play the Colorado Avalanche Sunday at 5:30 p.m., will have a couple days on Friday and Saturday to prep for meaningful games, and they wanted to escape injury in a game that meant nothing.
“I thought we did (have structure) in spurts,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “That’s why you play an exhibition game, right? You can’t prep for a game unless you play a game. We play against each other, but that really doesn’t do a whole lot. Obviously we’re ot happy with the result. You still want to win the game, but something to work off of. Going into Sunday, we’ll certainly feel a lot better structurally just to kind of get in it. The hardest part to prep for was the defensive game because playing against each other, you can’t be quite as physical. I think we’ll be alright on Sunday. It was just good to get that first one out of the way.”
Center Ryan O’Reilly agreed.
“At times you could see (structure), but it just obviously wasn’t enough,” he said. “That happens with the first game. It’s going to take a bit of time. It’s a completely different situation for all of us to come in and nothing’s going to be perfect right away, but there’s lessons to take out of us. It’s a good wake-up for us to go into Sunday. We know it’s going to be tough.
“You can tell the puck was bouncing quite a bit. We weren’t clean. When it’s like that, you have to take care of it, not force turnovers. We had way too many turnovers, but it’s an opportunity for us to sharpen up and realize it’s going to be tough and we have to find a way to work though those nuances of the game.”
Vladimir Tarasenko played his first hockey game since dislocating his left shoulder Oct. 24 and having surgery Oct. 29, so exactly nine months after surgery. He played 15:07 with seven shot attempts (four on goal) and two hits.
“For Vladi, it’s extremely tough to go that long without playing competitive (hockey), missing so much,” O’Reilly said. “I thought he did a great job. As the game went along, he made some great plays. With him, you know he’s only going to get better and more comfortable. It’s good to see him back out there. His presence on the ice is just a threat automatically.”
Jordan Binnington played the first two periods and was sharp despite giving up two goals on only 13 shots. He was especially sharp in the first period, making seven saves.
“Binner was fine for me,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “He let a couple backdoor plays happen, which shouldn’t have happened. He made some nice saves in the first period there. Binner looked sharp to me. I thought he played the puck extremely well tonight, got out on pucks and stopped them behind the net early on in the game, which was important.”
Special teams didn’t get the job done either, with the power play going 0-for-4 with only two shots on goal, while the penalty kill allowed two third-period goals.
“On the power play, we didn’t shoot the puck enough and we didn’t get it to the net enough,” Berube said. “We had a couple chances, but not enough. And then on the (penalty kill), the one’s a bad break and the other one we got caught coming into the zone and they’re off an entry play we didn’t cover the middle of the ice enough and they scored. There’s some good things for sure on the PK and there were some good things on the power play, but we’ve got to get better.”
The Blues mustered up just 21 shots on goal against a Chicago defense that surrendered a league-high 35 shots during the regular season. The Blues play a heavy, physical, puck-possessing game and in a game that meant nothing, it’s difficult to sacrifice the body knowing there were no stakes.
“You could tell the way we create offense is putting the puck in and chasing it,” O’Reilly said. “We weren’t clean at the offensive blue line. Our timing was off. You could see we weren’t tight and connected and we had to work so hard to get the puck back. That’s something that comes. There’s times that we did it and it looked good and we were able to generate a bit. In order to win, we have to be more consistent with it and keep building it. It’s tough to forecheck, but we have to be smarter.”
It’s just the fact the Blues needed to play a game, any game, to sort of wade into competition and prepping themselves for when the games count. While it may have looked like they didn’t care how the outcome came about Wednesday, they’ll certainly care come Sunday.
They better be against the high-flying Avalanche.
“It’s just kind of getting into the groove of the game,” Pietrangelo said. “There’s no way to play a game and get your timing down unless you do this. Usually you play six or seven, right, to get ready for the season. It’ll be important for us to get off on the right track in practice on Friday and Saturday to get ready for Sunday. My biggest thing was probably the puck movement, just the small plays that we probably could have made and we didn’t have the confidence to make them, communication, all the things that come with playing the game and practicing.”