Rutherford: Outcome of Blues’ must-win game vs. Golden Knights shouldn’t be surprising

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ST. LOUIS — Admittedly, if the St. Louis Blues had beaten the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday, we’d be talking about how they won’t go away and the remaining 10 games just got a lot more interesting.

That’s what happens in a stretch run — it’s hard to give up hope.

But the Blues fell 2-1 in overtime and now the focus will be on how their season is finished.

They’re five points behind Vegas for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and the Golden Knights have one game in hand. It would take the Blues running the table, or an epic collapse by another club to make up the needed ground in their final 10 games.

Understandably, the Blues aren’t going to feel that way or say those things.

“We’re still in the fight,” coach Drew Bannister said.

“We’re going to have to get some help along the way, but where our game’s at right now, we feel like we’re capable of grabbing two points every night,” captain Brayden Schenn said.

Perhaps, but at this point, it’s about playing hard to the finish line and putting an eye even more toward the future.

The Blues did some good things in a recent stretch that saw them go 6-1 and pull within 4 points of Vegas. There were some incredible wins over Boston and Los Angeles, a pair of wild victories over Minnesota, and even a valiant loss to Colorado. Players such as Jordan Kyrou, with a hat trick in Saturday’s OT win over Minnesota, and Brandon Saad, who scored for the third straight game Monday and in six of his last 10 games, came alive.

But as we head to the last 10 games of the season, it’s clear the Blues just don’t have enough this season.

That’s what should be lamented, not the fact that Bannister dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen against Vegas.

The Blues didn’t lose and cost themselves two points because of their lineup construction, as many fans used for their postgame finger-pointing.

In a must-win matchup against the Golden Knights, they lost for the same reason they’ve lost a lot of games this season — they didn’t have the start that was needed, their goaltending can only bail them out so much, and we’ve been honest about this all season, they’re just not a playoff-caliber club.

If you didn’t notice who Bannister had on the ice Monday, he took out rookie forward Zack Bolduc and added defenseman Marco Scandella, giving the Blues the unconventional arrangement of 11-7.

“I felt that we went to 11 forwards in the third period (of Saturday’s 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota), and we seemed to get a lot of energy,” said Bannister, explaining his rationale for Monday’s decision. “I wanted to get my best players the most ice time (against Vegas). We felt we put the 20 best players on the ice that deserved to be out there.”

It was fair to second-guess the coach after the game.

The Blues lost Brandon Saad briefly after a big hit by Vegas’ Brayden McNabb, Schenn sat in the penalty box for seven minutes after fighting McNabb, and Oskar Sundqvist was helped to the locker room with a lower-body injury that could well end his season. Meanwhile, Scandella saw just 6:56 of ice time and Perunovich played just 5:19 on the blue line.

Would the Blues have been better off with 12 forwards and having Bolduc, or Zach Dean, in the lineup? Perhaps. It would have been helpful when they were down to just 10 during a couple of stretches on Monday.

But while you’re always at risk of an injury or two putting you in a bind when you dress 11-7, you also can’t predict those things. And if you’re saying that going with 12 forwards and six defensemen would’ve made a difference, you’re saying that Bolduc’s resume with one career goal and 10:28 of ice time per game this season would’ve made a difference. Dean with one career game?

Sure, you could make a case that the Blues were unable to get into a flow or roll their four lines, but Schenn said that it went beyond that.

“At the start of the game, maybe come with a little bit more jump,” Schenn said. “But they’re a team that’s not going to give you a whole lot. They’re big and it’s a stingy game out there, not a whole lot of room.”

The Blues had 14 shots in the third period when they were down to 10 forwards without Sundqvist.

“We had a ton of energy in the third period,” Bannister said. “Like our guys were skating, and I thought that was something that we didn’t do in the first two periods when we needed to. I didn’t think we stayed in as many battles as we needed to in the first two periods to create more offensive-zone time and come up with more pucks.

“We didn’t play well enough in the first and the second. I didn’t think we were direct enough. We weren’t able to get to our forecheck and some of that was on us. We made some poor puck decisions. In the third period, the switch flipped and they started to work and stay on pucks and got rewarded by quality scoring chances.”

If you wanted to criticize one thing about the situation with having seven defensemen in the lineup, it’s the fact the Blues have kept Scott Perunovich in the lineup to ensure that he reaches 74 career games played this season. That will keep him from becoming a Group 6 unrestricted free agent this offseason. It’s asset management playing him and making Scandella, who will be a UFA this summer, a healthy scratch.

And in Monday’s game when they both played, it was Perunovich who, according to Bannister, had the error that led to Vegas’ first-period goal for a 1-0 lead over the Blues.

“Yeah, there was a battle in the corner there,” Bannister said. “(Nathan Walker) loses his footing, and I think it was Scotty Perunovich who probably should’ve just held his ice, let (Walker) get up, and recover in that situation. Then probably that play wouldn’t have happened.”

But that’s one play.

The Blues lost because their goaltending can only come through so many times.

Jordan Binnington made 24 of 25 saves Monday in the first two periods. In the Blues’ 6-1 run before facing Vegas, Binnington was 3-1 with a .918 save percentage, and backup Joel Hofer was 3-0 with a .952 save percentage. The goalies have been covering up a lot.

The Blues got a little unlucky Monday, with Pavel Buchnevich deflecting a puck that landed on the top of the net, as well as shots by Schenn and Torey Krug that hit the crossbar. In OT, Buchnevich didn’t convert a penalty shot that could’ve won the game for the Blues.

But that’s part of making mistakes and a lack of execution against opponents like Vegas.

“It’s a big hockey team,” Krug said. “I guess every team seems that way for me. They’re either big, they skate well, they take away a lot of ice, and their D swing in and it makes you feel like you don’t have much room out there. They definitely play on top of you.”

Going into Monday, the matchup with the Golden Knights generated a lot of interest — win and interest grows, lose and it dwindles.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Blues were always going to be a long shot for making the playoffs, and the outcome just confirmed what many already thought about this club.

(Photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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