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Commentary: Blues lose to Maple Leafs after poor showing in first period

The Blues were down 4-1, and Jordan Binnington was pulled from the game before the end of the first period
Credit: AP
Toronto Maple Leafs' Zach Hyman (11) is congratulated by Pierre Engvall (47) after scoring a goal against the St. Louis Blues during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Billy Hurst)

ST. LOUIS — This is what happens when you're not ready to play.

It happened to the Blues again on Saturday in a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Enterprise Center. It was the first time the Blues (18-7-6) have had back-to-back regulation losses this season.

With the speed and skill the Maple Leafs possess, the Blues talked about managing the puck properly against Toronto and doing their best to keep it away from them, mainly trying to force the Leafs to play in their own end and make them work to get it back.

That all went right out the window 2 minutes 51 seconds in when Zach Hyman scored the first of his two goals. It came off a Zach Sanford neutral zone turnover.

Sanford, who left with an upper-body injury after the first period and did not return, tried to go off the boards with a puck, but it was knocked down by Mitchell Marner instead.

What does Toronto love to do best? Thrive off turnovers and go back at you with speed. It's exactally what Marner did, leading him to feed Hyman for a one-timer from the left circle. Jordan Binnington was slow to move from his left to right and got a piece of the shot but not enough. Binnington was pulled from the game for the first time in his regular-season NHL career.

Boom, it's 1-0 just like that, and when you turn the puck over against Toronto, and have five guys moving forward with a full head of steam, that's when you get caught back-tracking on a dime, and the Blues were not in a good position to defend.

OK, one mistake. Shake it off, right?

Yes, the Blues did so when Ivan Barbashev tied it at 4:25. The goal came off a Maple Leafs turnover by Travis Dermott. Robert Thomas picked off a pass and fed Barbashev in the right circle, which he shot to tie the game 1-1.

Back to level terms, get it in gear again right?

Well...

Here come the puck management, or mis-management, issues.

Jaden Schwartz had a puck knocked away from him in the offensive zone. Jay Bouwmeester appeared like he was going to be able to at least push the puck aside but swung and missed at it. Instead of staying with it with pressure, he inexplicably pulled back, letting Toronto go on the attack. It resulted in the first of two Auston Matthews goals. He used Justin Faulk as a screen for a shot that got under Binnington at 6:51 to make it 2-1.

And it got worse. With the Blues on the power play, David Perron turned it over at center ice, which resulted in a 2-on-0 shorthanded opportunity that the Leafs' Hyman converted at 9:12. It wasn't all on Perron, as the Blues were putting pucks in poor positions and moving it backwards instead of into the o-zone, and Brayden Schenn put Perron in a tough position with his pass.

So, less than 10 minutes into the game, three mistakes, three goals, and the Blues were chasing.

Binnington's night ended when Jason Spezza's goal from the blue line made it 4-1 at 12:57 of the first on what coach Craig Berube called a "missed assignment." It wasn't so much the power-play goal allowed as much as it was an unnecessary offensive zone penalty by Nathan Walker.

Goodnight. Game over.

Binnington was gone after four goals on 11 shots.

That's the kind of game it turned out to be, and it took just less than 13 minutes to decide.

"Obviously they got some bounces there," Schenn said. "They capitalized on their opportunities, but at the end of the day, we've got to still find a way way to not try and give them those chances and find a way to be better."

Bounces are one thing, but when you're gift-wrapping them on a silver platter, that's another.

"We gave them some pretty good chances," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said "Obviously the short-handed one, we were a little bit sloppy with the puck, we knew we had to defend against these guys, obviously highly skilled.

"Just weren't ready. It happens. At the start of the first period, I thought we had some decent looks. Once that team gets momentum offensively, they're going to keep going. We know what we did wrong."

That should be the problem: just weren't ready.

The Blues' 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh was one thing, playing their sixth game in 10 days and ninth in 16. Legs were tired, bodies were weary. They had two full days to refresh before Saturday's game, and will get two more here until they play next. 

Not being ready against an opponent with this kind of skill, well, the result speaks for itself.

"They had more desperation than us, they played a little looser to," Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. "We were kind of tight, on our heels a bit. They had a couple good bounces that gave them confidence and you could see every time we tried to get something going, a bad bounce or something, and it was in the back of our net. We couldn't really find our rhythm tonight. It happened, it's frustrating because we know we're much better than that. We've got to put the puck in the net. The power play too. That's a key thing that's got to be an offensive spark for us that I myself and the other guys have to find a way to put the puck in the net."

The Blues played better as the game went along, but let's face it, Toronto played a bit safer and had to absorb some of the Blues' body blows. But when those scoring opportunities that presented themselves were there, the Blues missed the net, compounding the issues of this game.

"We had some chances kind of at the start of the second period there, hemmed them in a little bit there," Schenn said. "We have to find ways to be better though. We know that's now good enough. They were up early in the hockey game, but there was still a whole hockey game to try and come back. We weren't able to find a way and I think just in general, just got to find a way to be better as five-man groups and work together."

Pietrangelo said, "I think in the second period I think we pretty much had the puck in there the whole period and had some good chances. They have a good goalie, they have some good players, it's tough to crawl back when you're down like that.

"I had a couple. I didn't know how it didn't go in. Those ones, sometimes they don't go in, you just have to keep working at it and finding a way to score."

Berube seemed OK with the game, but that's the nature of who he is. Even when things don't look good, he keeps things even-keeled and instills that mindset of 'get it out of the system and move forward.'

He didn't like the shorthanded goal against, though.

"Well, the power play, you give up a shorthanded goal. There’s just no reason for that to happen," Berube said. "And the PK goal, just a missed assignment there.

"Other than that, we were OK, I think. I didn’t think we came out that bad. But we made a couple mistakes, mistakes that you shouldn’t make."

Jake Allen, who received the loudest ovation here in quite some time, came on and played well, making 15 saves on 16 shots (only giving up a Matthews goal to his left off one of those fortuitous Toronto bounces), and Perron scored in the third period at 2:02 to cut the Leafs lead to 5-2.

But this is one that was decided early, a stark reminder to the home side there's no wading into games.

"You give them those chances, they're going to score. You saw that," Pietrangelo said. "They're making plays, they have patience with the puck. When we played them in Toronto, we were a lot harder defensively, a lot stronger on the puck and we didn't give them much."

The Blues were in an all-too-giving mood tonight. It happened against Anaheim here, and against Nashville also.

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