ST. PAUL, Minn. — With Minnesota and St. Louis tied in the waning minutes of a game last week, Blues forward David Perron forged ahead like an NFL fullback blocking for the ball carrier.
As Perron skated tall between Wild defensemen Jonas Brodin and Ryan Suter, teammate Jaden Schwartz lined up for the winning shot deep in the slot behind him during the 4-on-4 situation.
The puck soared into the upper right corner of the net on the glove side of 6-foot-6 Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, who never saw it until it was too late with 2:27 left.
Perron was in the way, doing precisely what he intended.
“I think everyone should be expected to do that, but it’s certainly nice when you’re rewarded going to the net,” said Perron, who was also parked in front of the net trying to block Dubnyk’s view of Joel Edmundson’s goal earlier in the Game 2 victory that gave the Blues a firm grip on the first-round series.
In a low-scoring sport when bounces and deflections can decide a game, the importance and value of creating traffic in front of the crease is amplified in the postseason.
“Sometimes we put too much emphasis in goal scoring in the playoffs,” Perron said. “There’s just more grabbing and more interference, so obviously anytime you can get to the net you can create something good.”
With the Blues leading the Wild 3-0 in the series entering Game 4 in St. Louis on Wednesday, declaring screening the difference would not be an exaggeration. The Wild have a 117-79 advantage in shots on goal, leading all NHL playoff teams in shot differential, and have attempted 228 shots to just 142 for the Blues. They’ve won nearly 60 percent of the faceoffs, too, with a 133-89 edge.
Not only have the Blues successfully screened Dubnyk, but the Wild have done little to distract Blues goalie Jake Allen, who has stopped 114 of those 117 shots.
“They see it, they’re going to stop it. That’s just the reality. That’s life in the NHL,” said Wild forward Zach Parise, who has two goals and an assist in the series. “So we’ve got to get to the net. We’ve got to get rebounds. We’ve got to get screens. We can sit here and say we’re unlucky, but I think we’ve got to create a little bit. We put ourselves in the opportunity to get lucky, and we’ll see what happens.”
With bigger pads and better skills, goalies around the league have never been better.
“No one comes outside the crease. It’s not 1970 anymore,” Parise said. “It’s about getting their eyes, making them uncomfortable, and all of a sudden you’re there and one of their D-men has to be there, too, and then it’s a double screen. But you can’t just be off to the side waving at the puck. You’ve got to get in there, and then if you tip it it’s a bonus.”
Naturally, the Wild spent much of their practice time on Tuesday working on screens and tips.
“When you’re not scoring, you’ve got to try to get in front of him, try to beat your one-on-one battle to the net, and get the shots through,” center Mikko Koivu said. “It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of things that need to click.”
As the old pro sports saying goes, though, the other guys get paid, too.
“They scored a lot of goals during the regular season around the net, so we’re just trying to be tough on them,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said.
Successful examples of the effort to crowd the net and set up scores with long, high shots have been plentiful around the league since the playoffs have begun.
Dion Phaneuf won Game 2 for Ottawa in overtime against Boston. In Toronto’s Game 2 win over Washington, Morgan Rielly scored for the Maple Leafs with help from a screen and John Carlson did the same for the Capitals . Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson did the dirty work for Ryan Ellis, who scored for the Predators in Game 2 against Chicago.
While the defenders are trying to clog the shooting lanes and take away potential defelctions, the forwards for the team with the puck are trying to muscle their way in and grit their teeth.
“You’ve got to prepare to get cross-checked and slashed and whatever when you’re there. Just try to fight off your check and try to be in the goalie’s face,” Arvidsson said . “You’ve just got to prepare to get hurt or something like that. You go there to score goals, so that’s where you have to be.”