The Blues brought Jordan Binnington off the bench in Game 4 of their first-round series against Minnesota because they wanted him to stop pucks. Through two games, he’s done that with a .935 save percentage, leading them to back-to-back wins and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
But there’s another, less-discussed aspect of the goaltender’s game that helped the Blues re-take control of the Wild.
After a 5-2 victory in Game 4 on Sunday, coach Craig Berube was quick to credit Binnington for it.
“He played the puck exceptionally well,” Berube said. “That’s a big thing!”
Then after his team’s 5-2 win in Game 5 on Tuesday, Berube emphasized it again.
“I’ve talked about the puck play,” he said. “He was excellent with that puck tonight. He killed a lot of their forecheck. He got out on so many pucks tonight and made real good plays with them.”
In the last two games, Minnesota has scored a total of four goals and three of them belong to Kirill Kaprizov, two of which came on the power play. The Wild aren’t getting any secondary scoring, and that’s in part because they’ve been unable to establish a forecheck and create some offensive zone time.
It’s not all because of Binnington, but for a defense that played without two of its best puck-movers — Nick Leddy in Game 4 and Torey Krug in Games 4 and 5 — he has helped the Blues exit their zone more easily and even create some offense at the other end.
“He’s always been able to handle that puck back there and get out and make plays with it,” Berube said. “He moves it to people. He reads the play well, and he’ll bypass the forecheck a lot of times, which helps your D out a lot. It helps the D that he gets to a lot of rims. Your D is not going back on a rim; that’s a tough play for a D. It’s good he gets out of the net really well.”
St. Louis native Mike McKenna, a former NHL goaltender who’s now a contributor at DailyFaceoff.com and national TV analyst, has been keeping an eye on the St. Louis-Minnesota series and sees exactly what Berube is talking about. And he agrees that the Blues are benefiting from Binnington’s play with the puck.
“I can tell you that it makes a huge difference,” said McKenna, who played with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria (Ill.) in 2012-13. “What they’re doing, Binnington and the Blues, is really a continuation of what Jake Allen and I did together in Peoria and (what) Jake brought to St. Louis. Jake was such a good puck handler and him and Binner were very much on the same page with their ability, and what they prefer to do with the puck.
“When you couple that with (Blues goalie coach) Dave Alexander, who knows this stuff inside and out, it’s pretty easy for them to come up with a good game plan. But a good game plan is no good unless you have a guy who has patience with the puck on his blade, and to me, that’s what Binnington has. He has a ton of patience, he usually doesn’t make rush decisions, and so he’s able to slow down a forecheck.”
According to data at Allthreezones.com, Minnesota ranked No. 17 in the league during the regular season in “dump-in recovery.” The Wild regained about 32 percent of the pucks they put into the zone.
Also according to Allthreezones.com, the Wild have many of the best players in the league at retrieving pucks. The line of Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and Jordan Greenway, along with Kaprizov, all averaged more than four recoveries per 60 minutes.
However, while the Eriksson Ek line has been dominant at times during the series, the Wild haven’t been nearly as effective on the forecheck, particularly in the past two games with Binnington in the net.
Let’s look at some video clips, beginning with two from Game 4:
In this one, the score is tied 1-1 late in the first period, and the Blues are on a power play that is about to expire. As Ryan Hartman clears the puck out of the Wild’s defensive zone, Greenway rushes out of the penalty box and tries to chase down the puck. But Binnington beats Greenway to the puck, staying outside the trapezoid, and passes it off the end boards to teammate Ryan O’Reilly, who easily escapes.
In this next one, the Blues are leading Minnesota 3-1 early in the third period when the Wild dump the puck. Binnington corrals it behind the net, and when he looks up he sees Mats Zuccarello bearing down on the left side. So instead he sends a backhand pass to a wide-open Colton Parayko, who hits Buchnevich with the puck at the blue line, and the Blues are out of the jam.
That’s the type of play McKenna knows can throw off a forecheck.
“They’re not able to instantly read where he’s going with the puck,” he said. “It’s not always a foregone conclusion that he’s going to his forehand. He can make little delay plays, he can find a secondary option if it’s needed, or he can just shoot it out.
“You just have to have your head up and aware and be able to make your 10-to-15-foot pass. If your first option doesn’t look great, have the confidence to find a better option, or at least put the puck in a safe area. Yeah, it comes down to having a good system, but you have to have a confident, patient puck handler.
Now let’s look at Game 5 in Minnesota on Tuesday:
In the first clip, the score is still 0-0 early in the first period.
The Blues’ Brayden Schenn has the puck on the wall and his pass to the point eludes Justin Faulk at the offensive blue line and goes the length of the ice. Binnington grabs it, skates behind the net, and sends a pass up ice to Schenn. He drops it back to Faulk, who fires the puck off the glass and out of the zone.
Barbashev was on the receiving end of that clear in the offensive zone. He was cross-checked by the Wild’s Jake Middleton, putting the Blues on the power play, and O’Reilly scored on that man advantage for a 1-0 lead.
In the next clip from Game 5, the Blues are leading 1-0 midway through the first period.
Minnesota’s Matt Dumba dumps the puck in. Binnington has it behind the net, and after seeing Matt Boldy in front of him if he goes to the forehand, he decided to flip a backhand out of the reach of the Wild’s Kevin Fiala. David Perron makes a quick release pass to Alexei Toropchenko, and emergency is averted.
Now, with the Wild leading 2-1 on two power-play goals by Kaprizov, we have a classic case of the puck being rimmed into the offensive zone on the first shift of the second period.
Binnington gets behind the net quickly to stop it from coming out the other side. Kaprizov is in pursuit, but Binnington boxes him out and moves the puck to Schenn, who clears the zone.
This is something that Minnesota has been doing far too often in the series, McKenna says, and it’s limiting the offensive chances.
“Generally when a team dumps the puck in, your goal is to retrieve it cleanly,” he said. “But I think the Wild have done a very poor job of dumping it with purpose, or putting the puck in a place where they can regain it. They’re not putting it in corners. They’re simply just wrapping it around. Part of that is because the Blues, I think, have done a good job in the neutral zone standing up to Minnesota’s forwards when they’re carrying the puck and forcing them to dump it.
“But anytime that puck goes behind the net, they’re giving Binnington a chance to make that initial pass, and what happens is that the first forechecker ends up going to the goaltender rather than the defenseman. There are six players on the ice including the goaltender, so now instead of two forecheckers going on to two defensemen, you’ve got two forecheckers going onto a goalie and two defensemen. So, the defensive team has them outnumbered and the goalie has a defenseman that should be open.”
With Minnesota still leading 2-1 and less than six minutes remaining in the second period, the Wild rim another puck into the offensive zone. Binnington stops it, looks off Leddy on one side and goes to O’Reilly on the other. O’Reilly passes it to Leddy, who sends it Perron, who gives it back to O’Reilly with some speed and — bing, bang, boom — the puck is out of the zone.
“A lot of them obviously are on the rim,” Berube said. “With (Binnington) going back and playing the puck, it’s less wear-and-tear on them for sure. He does a great job of finding the guy that’s open off those plays. A lot of times it’s a direct play maybe to a center or a wing, maybe to our D. But it just makes for easier breakouts.”
But before Tarasenko’s empty-netter made the score 5-2, the Blues were still protecting a 4-2 lead with under seven minutes left in regulation.
The Wild dump the puck in, and Binnington stops it behind the net. With Boldy and Fiala both hunting on the forecheck, Binnington moves it to Robert Bortuzzo, who gives it to Schenn, and the Blues are off and running.
This may explain why beyond Kaprizov, who has seven goals, Minnesota isn’t getting much scoring from anyone else.
Fiala, who had 33 goals and 85 points in the regular season, and Marcus Foligno, who had 23 goals and 42 points, have no goals and a combined five assists. Meanwhile, the Wild’s fourth line of Nicolas Deslauriers, Tyson Jost and Brandon Duhaime have no points and are a combined minus-5.
“(Binnington’s puck play) just totally negates depth scoring because they’re not going to have the puck much,” McKenna said. “The grinders just chip it in. Typically they don’t have the skill set to be able to carry it into the zone with speed and with possession, so that’s where the goalie can help. You expect them to get in and grind and be heavy and all of that, but if the goalie is out of the net and he’s already chucked a pass over to a D in the corner, you’re out of the zone.”
That’s what the Wild will have to figure out in Game 6 Thursday night at Enterprise Center.
“(The Blues) did some breakouts before where we had some good sticks, good hits and kept the puck in and had some zone time,” Foligno said. “We just have to be a little bit more mindful with our aggressiveness. We don’t want to be too passive. Our game is an aggressive style, and we know that they’re a good team, too. They were putting pucks in places where we can’t get them, too. You’ve got to give them credit sometimes.”
(Top photo of Jordan Binnington: Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)