My 544-mile commute on Thursday from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Edwardsville bureau of Arch City Sports provided plenty of time to reflect on this week’s road trek for your St. Louis Blues, a week which saw consternation following a Game 3 loss to the Minnesota Wild that now heads into tonight’s Game 5 with renewed enthusiasm.
It’s been the proverbial topsy-turvy roller coaster of emotion for local puck heads at this time of the year, especially for this news camera-toting jockey that was assigned to cover a team that makes his blood bleed blue.
Heading into this past Monday’s tilt, the outlook seemed high after the Blues tied the series, 1-1, following a 4-1 win two days prior. Vladimir Tarasenko’s hat trick propelled the duke and showed what this team was capable of post-season.
That uplift was needed for the next two games held at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul. It’s a pretty imposing venue for visitors. A dramatic audio/visual introduction was presented this week. A young flag bearer skated to center ice, planted the flag and pumped his fist into the air. A massive “State of Hockey” flag unfurled and made its way amongst outstretched palms in the lower bowl.
All this visual stimuli for Monday’s game. It set the tone for a Wild ride…a brutal one for the ‘Note.
It resulted in a 3-0 setback in Game 3 and a 2-1 deficit for the Blues in the best-of-seven series. It was an effort that wasn’t much of an effort. Outscored, outshot, outhit. All the elements needed to win playoff hockey were unfortunately unaccounted for.
As one who has covered professional athletics for 20-plus years, I can tell you this much, critically. I think “Hitch” is arguably one of the most eloquent coaches that the franchise has ever had. When he speaks, people listen. Whether one agrees with what he says or not, at least they understand where he’s coming from.
On average, when it comes to a Ken Hitchcock press conference, the average length from first word spoken to the “thanks, guys” at the end usually lasts around nine minutes. There’s always going to be some specific comments about the efforts of individual players that will always stretch that length to the median.
His assessment of Monday’s loss precisely lasted one minute and 22 seconds. That’s about how long it takes for one to warm a cup of cocoa in the microwave.
A very direct, unemotional tone was delivered. It was Hitch’s version of a poker face.
“We came here to win a game and now we’ve got to get ready for the next game,” he said in response to the media’s third, and final, question. Eighty-two seconds in, the press conference was over. No further need to reflect.
The mood amongst Blues fans continued to sour following Tuesday’s optional skate. Only nine players took to the ice. Two were starters from the preceding night’s game, Marcel Goc and Dmitrij Jaskin. Backup goalie Brian Elliot and practice goalie Niklas Lundstrom fielded pucks thrown at the pipes. The rest were scratches from Game 3.
Once revealed, the online feedback was swift and fierce. “How dare only two starters show up following Monday’s uninspiring effort?” seemed the negative consensus.
Hitch’s Tuesday post-practice press conference, which clocked in at a robust eight minutes, avoided the optional skate’s low numbers and instead examined what was needed for Wednesday’s Game 4 and what a victorious result could bring.
“We win the game tomorrow, we’ve got home ice,” the coach said near the end. “We can play better and we’ll play better.”
Wednesday’s pre-game ballyhoo at the “X” contained the same sensory elements. The 19,390 in attendance were more raucous than the previous winning game. They had every right to be. Seeing how the Vikings, Twins and Timberwolves provided very little sports joy recently, the Twin Cities potentially had bonafide superstars on the horizon if they swept games back-to-back.
A few Wild fans even brought the heat. One middle-aged woman, who idiotically forgot that this was an “all-ages show,” flashed a handmade sign displayed on the video screen that read, “Ott’s a T_at.” I leave it up to you to fill in the blank, but I can assure you that it wasn’t the letter “h.”
And then the opening puck was dropped, and it didn’t take long for one to sense that, in hindsight, missing Tuesday’s optional skate might have not been such a bad thing after all.
If the Blues’ effort in Game 4 was correlated to the punch-set of a heavyweight prize fighter, then Ryan Reaves’ goal at the 5:34 mark was a right hook, Tarasenko’s twine-tickler ninety-five seconds later was a punch to the ribs and David Backes’ tally midway through the first was an uppercut. St. Louis was up 3-0 early in the opening frame.
Groggy after a standing “eight-count,” Jarod Spurgeon’s goal 1:41 into period two gave the Wild a little life, but the Blues’ Paul Stastny provided the lethal blow with his first goal, and point, less than two minutes later. The air at the “X” had been taken out of its sails.
Blues win Game 4 via knockout, 6-1, and the differential could have been much, much worse. Series tied 2-2. I’ll be dag-gummed if Hitch wasn’t a prophet!
In the St. Louis locker room afterwards, the atmosphere remained blue-collar. Gathering sound bytes for media hounds became a whirling dervish. Immediately, skates and pads were chucked and packed into bags and players showered, dressed and skedaddled.
The team was quick for the exit, even in victory. It’s not because they were rude and wanted to avoid the press. I find the St. Louis Blues organization, from top-to-bottom, to be extremely media-friendly and accessible. A running chartered bus awaited and a team plane was at the ready to whisk them back to Missouri for a Thursday skate. Time was precious.
“We had to assert ourselves and we had twenty guys on the page tonight, similar to Game 2,” said a sweat-laden Backes. “We have to stop this trend of every other game and play this same way at our building on Friday.”
Even Hitch was quick with the post-game quotes, which clocked in a 4:22, coincidentally, the date of the game.
“We can play a lot better than we played today,” he said. “We’ve still got things we’ve got to work on, but this is our game. We’re going to play this game and if it’s good enough, we’re going to put it out there, and if we win with it, great. If we don’t win with it, so be it. But this is our game.”
Eleven Blues collected points in Game 4. Sixteen skaters were +1 and above. If this team can play “a lot better” like Hitch states, then optimism is high for tonight’s Game 5.
As I rolled through the flat-plains of Iowa Thursday, my outlook was cautious. I liked what I saw in Game 4 Wednesday at the “X” and hope that that momentum continues for the ‘Note tonight, resulting in a win and a 3-2 edge.
Conversely from what I personally saw this week, the Wild have a lot of high-octane fight in them and are more than ready for the challenge. It’s a very solid team and one can expect that they will capitalize on every opportunity and advantage presented. They would love nothing more to head into Sunday’s Game 6 with a chance to clinch.
Later tonight, one bad bounce or one fluke goal could change the complexion of the series, either pro or con. That’s what this playoff has become in a 2-2 stalemate.
I just hope that it locally results in a “W.” You know, that missing letter from the aforementioned Ott sign held at the “X” on Wednesday.
(KTVI/KPLR Photographer Brian Ledford covered Games 3 & 4 of the Blues/Wild Series in St. Paul, Minnesota.)