By taking care of matters in their end of the ice, the Nashville Predators' defensive corps is earning the right to contribute to matters on the offensive end.
That was evident again on Sunday when the Predators bounced the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal at Bridgestone Arena to grab a 2-1 series lead. Ryan Ellis scored the first goal while fellow defenseman Roman Josi tallied the final marker.
P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm each registered assists, giving the blue-liners a combined seven goals and 14 assists in seven playoff games. Ellis has scored in six straight games and leads Nashville scorers in the postseason with eight points off three goals and five assists.
St. Louis is well aware that in Game 4 Tuesday night, it will have to do a better job of accounting for the Predators' defensemen and their ability to produce points.
"We knew that was going to be a challenge walking into this series," Blues coach Mike Yeo said, "and obviously that's a part of our game we're going to have to be better at."
Subban dominated Game 1 with three point blasts, leading to a goal and two assists in Nashville's 4-3 win. Ellis produced a goal and a helper in Game 2, staking the Predators to a 2-1 lead before St. Louis rallied in the third period for a 3-2 decision.
Nashville's skill on the backline came to the forefront throughout Sunday's game. The Ellis-Josi pairing and the Ekholm-Subban duo combined for 20 shot attempts, with Josi firing eight times on net.
"If we get a chance as a D corps, there are a lot of guys who can skate and we try to join the rush and make something happen," Josi said.
The Blues need to keep things from happening. Better puck possession would be one way. The Predators won 39 of 63 faceoffs Sunday, the second time in the series they dominated St. Louis in the circle.
More discipline is a second avenue to success. After avoiding the penalty box in Game 2, aside from a coincidental minor in the third period, the Blues took a half-dozen minors on Sunday. Two occurred in the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second period when Nashville buzzed their zone at will.
"You're giving them and their skill players the opportunity to field the puck and make plays," St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "They start to feel more confident. So I think that certainly makes a difference."
If the Blues can earn more possession time and keep penalties to a minimum, they could return to the formula that enabled them to control long stretches of Game 1 and 2 when playing 5-on-5. Any deviation from that, particularly against an opponent playing at its best with a raucous crowd behind it, is going to create issues.
And chances are those issues are going to come from Nashville's defensemen.
"The more you have the puck," Subban summed up, "the less defense you play."
During his days behind the Minnesota bench when his Wild weren’t competing, Mike Yeo was known to question whether they had enough dislike for their opponent.
Now with the Blues, Yeo has changed his colors, but he hasn’t changed his feelings. The morning after charging the club with not being competitive enough in a 3-1 loss to Nashville in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, he connected the less-than-stellar effort to the Blues’ lack of animosity toward the Predators.
“You know what, I think coming into this series one of my concerns was that we didn’t really hate this team,” Yeo said. “I think we’ve got to the point where we’re over that now.”
The Blues better be over it, now trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven series with Game 4 set for 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bridgestone Arena. They’re coming off their worst performance of the series, perhaps the entire postseason, and now their coach is calling for more competitiveness.
“It’s tough,” Blues goalie Jake Allen said. “Every game, you should bring your compete level in the playoffs. We’re definitely going to have to up it (Tuesday). I thought they sort of took it to us in that aspect (in Game 3) and forced turnovers and forced mistakes. We had good moments, we did, but not enough of them to complete the win and complete the effort.”
It wasn’t that the Blues didn’t show up Sunday. They liked their start, but then got in penalty trouble and for the third time in the series Nashville netted the first goal. The Blues are now 4-0 when they score first and 1-3 when they don’t.
“I think what we’ve done well is we’ve been ready for the start every game,” Yeo said. “I would say that we’ve been unlucky not to score the first goal in these games. They’ve had a couple that have gone their way, but that said, it shouldn’t be enough to beat us.
“As long as we’re prepared to deal with the fact that they might score, there might be a bad call, there might be something that goes the wrong way, as long as we’re determined to come back and continue to play our game ... and get after them, we’ve seen that we can come back. We’ve seen that we can push and create opportunities and turnovers and scoring chances, so we just have to make sure we’re more consistent in that.”
The Blues did not push back, though, until midway through the second period Sunday, when Alexander Steen scored to turn it into a close game for a while.
“When (Yeo) says not competitive, I don’t think he means that we didn’t show up for the game,” Steen said. “I think it’s the intensity that they came up with, it pushed us back a little bit early on. It’ll go back and forth a little bit. We’ll get ready and ramped up for the game Tuesday and try to push our game for more minutes than we did the last game.”
The Blues could open Game 4 with some new line combinations, perhaps the ones that finished Sunday’s game, but it’s also likely they’ll have some lineup changes.
“We’re not going to overhaul here,” Yeo said. “We got a group that has gotten us here. We still have a lot of confidence. There’s no panic on our side. We’re excited about our opportunity here, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to try to tweak some things and try to find some ways to get a little stronger in our game and try to find some better combinations.”
In Game 3, Yeo moved Steen and Vladimir Sobotka onto a line centered by Paul Stastny and sandwiched Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko around Jori Lehtera.
“An attempt to spark things within our group and to try to get some life,” Yeo said.
The coach also dropped Patrik Berglund and David Perron down on a line with Ryan Reaves and slipped Ivan Barbashev down with Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak.
Berglund and Perron have combined for just one point — an assist by Berglund — and just five shots on goal.
“I think we’re cycling the puck too much,” Berglund said. “Obviously it’s up to us to get to the net, (but) right now we’re playing kind of on the outside. We’ve got to find a way to compete harder and get to the tough areas.”
“We need them, there’s no question,” Yeo said. “I think they can be a real huge factor in this series going forward. I think they have more to their game as far as getting into the offensive zone, getting in on the forecheck, being physical, making life miserable for their defensemen. I think we can do a better job of that.”
Barbashev, meanwhile, has played under eight minutes in both of the games he’s played since returning to the lineup and has just one shot on goal.
“He’s doing fine,” Yeo said. “Obviously he gets a little bit lost in the shuffle not playing special teams. (But a lineup change) is a consideration for us.”
It doesn’t matter who’s in the Blues’ lineup, however, if they don’t compete harder and start to show more of a dislike for the Predators.
“The rivalry has definitely grown,” Steen said. “I think when you play against another team in the playoffs, and the amount of times that we do divisionally during the season, that’s something that grows. I think it’s been fairly evident in the first round with Minny and even with Nashville. When the importance of the games grows, the rivalry grows.”
The Blues suffered their first road loss of the postseason in Game 3 and will look to even the series in the second installment in Music City. The last two times the Blues have faced a 2-1 series deficit, they evened the series in Game 4 (2016 vs. SJS, 2015 vs. MIN). St. Louis' Game 3 loss was a bit of an oddity as they have won nine of their last 11 road games. However, they will be looking to snap a four-game skid at Bridgestone Arena as their last win here came on Feb. 2 (1-0 W).
What to Watch
Alexander Steen scored his third goal of the postseason in Game 3 and is now just one goal shy of tying his single-season playoff career high (4 - 2016). In addition, Steen has logged three of his seven road goals this season (reg + postseason) over his last five games
Ryan Reaves shares fifth overall with 35 hits this postseason After surrendering a pair of power-play goals in back-to-back games, the Blues' PK was dormant in Game 2 and stopped all three Nashville attempts in Game 3 Alex Pietrangelo recorded his 21st postseason assist in Game 3, passing Barclay Plager for 6th on the Blues' all-time list among defensemen The Blues haven't lost consecutive road games since dropping three straight from Feb. 18 - Mar. 3 (12-2-1 since)
This day in history: 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs become first team with average age of 30 or older to win Stanley Cup beating Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in Game 6 of Final 1985 Peter Stastny scores one of biggest goals in history of Quebec Nordiques, beating Steve Penney at 2:22 of overtime for 3-2 win against Canadiens in Game 7 of Adams Division Final 1999 Craig Conroy scored 2 goals while Pierre Turgeon added three assists as Blues defeat Coyotes 5-3 in Game 6 of their 1st round series
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Joined: Mon Feb 24, 2003 7:46 pm Posts: 3657 Location: Scott AFB, IL
Game 4s are absolutely critical in any series. For the Blues specifically, tonight is the difference between evening the series and sending it back to StL, or else finding themselves in a 3-1 stranglehold.
Like glen said in the other thread, if the Blues lose tonight, they're not exactly out of it, but everyone will know they're out of it.
Joined: Thu Feb 20, 2003 8:02 am Posts: 9466 Location: Long Island, NY
If there was ever a game that's even more than just a run of the mill must win, this is it. We need to dominate end to end, make Nashville uncomfortable and go back home with all the momentum in the world.
That said, I'm guessing they're going to crap the bed.
Preds 4 Blues 0
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Tarasenko and Schwartz both right in front to jump on a rebound. It looked to me like the puck crossed the line and Ellis pulled it back from under his belly. It looked to me from the above view that it definitely was across, but we didn't have a view of it being across. Bah! Humbug!
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