Blues coach Craig Berube said something funny the other day that doubled as a reminder of why the NHL playoffs are finally back to feeling right.
It was after the Blues won Game 4 of this first-round series against the Wild. Jordan Kyrou had played great. The young All-Star forward netted two goals, but Berube suggested he could have had as many as four. And yes, Berube admitted, he at times wishes Kyrou would be quicker to unleash that wicked shot. But Berube, with a grin, said he does not holler for it from the bench – shooooot! – like Blues fans do from their Enterprise Center seats.
“They’re not going to hear it anyhow,” Berube said.
They probably would have heard him last postseason, when crowds were still limited in size due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Blues were bounced from the hockey bracket by Colorado in the first round. The Avalanche won every game by at least three goals. It wasn’t very close. It was a bit embarrassing. It is easy to forget now that those games were played with half-sized crowds. Crowds of 9,000 saw the Blues lose their home games. Colorado was limited to fewer than 8,000 at its games.
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They definitely would have heard Berube shouting from the bench the postseason before that one, when fan-less bubble hockey was the play. That postseason the Blues’ losing streak reached five between three qualifier losses and back-to-back losses to Vancouver to start the first round. They fought back to even the series then dropped the final two games. They showed some fight late. But they never looked like the defending Stanley Cup champion that was leading the Western Conference when the season was shut down.
Is it too early to conclude that, for Berube’s Blues, playing in an authentic postseason atmosphere is on the list of important ingredients for success?
After covering every sport in our area during the pandemic, I do not think one was more affected atmosphere-wise by the pandemic-caused crowd limits and restrictions than hockey.
Especially postseason hockey.
Especially, especially Blues postseason hockey.
This is not an excuse for the Blues. The Tampa Bay Lightning figured out pandemic-affected postseason play. Twice. Their back-to-back championships are not tainted or tarnished. Their rings shine bright, and perhaps brighter because of the added difficulty they overcame.
The Blues just did not figure it out. They never looked right in those two playoffs. For many reasons. Some of it can be blamed on the timing of the league’s first shutdown, which came at a terrible time for the Blues; or the way opponents got healthy during that pause; or the critical piece the Blues were missing last postseason, when David Perron popped a positive COVID test right before that series against Colorado. When playing the what-if game, do not forget to include the growing evidence that suggests these Blues are just better when they are playing in front of pulsing crowds.
This is not an acoustic bunch. They sound better with an amp, preferably one cranked up to 11. Now that the playoffs are back to normal, the Blues are back to looking like a team built for postseason hockey, back to looking like a team that is going to be a hard out in a seven-game series. I do not think it’s a coincidence.
The Blues feed off their home crowd, especially this season’s high-scoring edition. When their lines are rolling, the emotion and energy in Enterprise builds, shift by shift. The crowd can become something close to an extra man on the ice. The Wild know this as well as any Blues opponent. Including their Game 3 win here in this series, they are 1-9 in their last 10 trips to St. Louis.
Berube’s Blues love a hostile crowd, too. They welcome playing the role of silencer, as first witnessed during their road-warrior Cup run in 2019. As much joy as they take whipping Blues fans into a frenzy, they savor chasing fans from their seats on the road as much if not more.
Here is my best example for this non-scientific argument: Jordan Binnington.
It is not breaking news that Berube switching from Ville Husso to Binnington in net was a turning point in this series.
What has to be mentioned in the story was how the embattled Binnington was greeted by more than 18,000 Blues fans before his Game 4 start.
Country music star Kenny Chesney, who recently rocked Busch Stadium, would have been jealous of Binnington’s reception in front of a sold-out Enterprise Center.
“It helps, for sure,” Berube said. “The crowd loves him.”
The past two Blues’ playoffs do not get a free pass, but seeing how this team is playing now makes me want to at least dot them with an asterisk.
The Blues can make their case even more convincing if they take care of the Wild and show more fight against the dangerous Avalanche.