Relentless Blues all set for home opener after perfect road trip

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Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

To say the St. Louis Blues wanted revenge during Saturday night’s season-opener in Colorado would be an understatement. A week shy of five months since the Avalanche swept the Blues in the 2020-21 playoffs, it was important for St. Louis to send a clear message right out of the gate. A 5-3 win later, followed by wins over the Arizona Coyotes and Vegas Golden Knights last night, and no one can argue that this team is something else… and quite different.

Along with getting their swagger and some much-needed size and aggression back into their lineup, the Blues are no longer a team that lets their foot off the gas after 30-40 minutes of play. Throughout the past few seasons, including the remarkable Stanley Cup run in 2019, there were too many nights where St. Louis would get out to a quick two-goal lead and then slowly fall asleep during the second and third period.

In the opener versus Colorado, they scored three of their five goals after the midway point of the game. Monday in Arizona, they erupted after the midway point of the game, scoring six of the final eight goals in the game. Facing off against their old friend Alex Pietrangelo and the Golden Knights Wednesday evening, the Blues didn’t break a 1-1 tie until deep into the third period, when Vladimir Tarasenko executed a perfect pass in front of the net for his first goal of the year.

If there’s any big change from the roster last year, Tarasenko looks like a different player early on. When he returned from his third shoulder surgery last season, he drifted around the ice and rarely got his stick and mitts dirty in the corners. While few would regard his defense as elite or his non-scoring game as impenetrable, he looked like a lost soul on the ice during his games earlier this year. The first three games of this season have shown a different player.

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Same slick wrist shot and deadly release, but Tarasenko is better positioned to score and produce for his team this fall. If he doesn’t drive to the net in the third period last night, the Blues don’t get that second goal and may lose the game. The breakthrough came on his seventh shot on goal of the night. The last time he put up that many shots in a game was March 25, where he was on the ice for 21+ minutes yet came away with zero points. Wednesday, Tarasenko stalked the puck and wore down Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner, the same way a running back wears down a defense.

The Russian winger isn’t alone in the early surge. Veteran winger and former Chicago Blackhawk Brandon Saad wasted little time in showing fans what he can, which is bury a puck on a slick wrist shot to flip a game on its head. Jordan Kyrou, who exploded onto the scene last season with 14 goals and 35 points, already has seven points through the first three games. Justin Faulk, the defenseman who was signed to a long-term deal that irked some fans in Blues country, already has two goals.

Jordan Binnington made 42 saves on 43 shots last night, proving that he can be a game-changing on the road against any opponent. It may be true that the Avalanche and Golden Knights were walking wounded due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, but you still have to stop shots and help your team endure 60 minutes. Binnington did just that, stopping Vegas point blank several times while the game was still 1-0 or tied at one goal apiece. Starting only his second full season as the Blues No. 1 guy in net, Binnington already has 75 wins on his NHL ledger, including a pair of seasons following his Lord Stanley heroics that are better than some fans give him credit for.

Here’s the thing I notice the most about this team. They are talented bruisers out there, beating up teams and being persistent in their pursuit of plays. Instead of dumping and chasing or committing clueless cross ice passes, they are attacking teams on both ends of the ice. If there’s a nitpick to pull on, it’s their defense allowing too many clear looks at Binnington but they aren’t facing horrible teams.

But they aren’t folding up like a tent early on in games, as well as keeping the pedal pushed down during the home stretch. Neither of the three wins were easy routes; St. Louis had to keep going in order to pull off those wins. The motor and desire of this team is off the charts, and they can do it without a fully healthy roster.

Enter Pavel Buchnevich. One of the guys missing from last night’s fun was the Blues’ other offseason signing. A crafty winger with a mean streak on the ice, Buchnevich headbutted Coyotes player Lawson Crouse, who wasn’t a character featured in the Count of Monte Cristo. The incident came after Crouse cross-checked Buchnevich after a mid-ice altercation. The suspension was warranted, but the referees chose to see the headbutt instead of the entire sequence. The takeaway is that the new Blue brings some much-needed tenacity to this team.

Let’s be honest. Since Ryan Reaves, David Backes and Pat Maroon departed, the Blues have been known to be pushed around by other teams. While that doesn’t always show up in the box score and unfortunately does produce a player safety hearing from time to time, Buchnevich’s aggression proves this team shouldn’t be trifled with. There will be no players such as Jamie Benn sitting on Blues defenseman’s heads this season.

All the Blues needed to do in the offseason was collect some extra talent and get meaner while finding new ways to extend games. Three games into the 2021-22 season and they are doing it. Not a flash in the pan and featuring a Stanley Cup window still wide open, the Blues are going to be a fun team to watch this year.

Sorry (not really), NHL.

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