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Conference Final

Binnington's ability to bounce back key for Blues, McKenna says

Veteran analyzes play of goalies, impressed with Sharks' Jones after early goal

by Mike McKenna / Special to NHL.com

Mike McKenna has been a professional goalie for the past 14 seasons and has played for seven NHL teams and 13 minor-league teams. Most recently he played in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, playing one NHL game with them this season. He also played 10 games with the Ottawa Senators in 2018-19.

He knows about the most important position in the playoffs and a lot about the men who play it and those trying to score goals against them. So NHL.com asked him to share his insights during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In his most recent column, McKenna talks about the St. Louis Blues' 2-1 win against the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final at Enterprise Center on Friday, which tied the best-of-7 series at 2-2.

Usually in a 2-1 game, you'd look directly toward the goaltenders for storylines. Martin Jones of the San Jose Sharks and Jordan Binnington of the St. Louis Blues each had a solid performance, but Game 4 was actually more of a tactical battle, one where chances against were limited and rushes were few and far between.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Blues series coverage]

 

Binnington faced 30 shots but did not allow a goal until the third period when Tomas Hertl scored his 10th of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Jones faced 22 shots.

It wasn't an ideal start for Jones, who allowed a goal 35 seconds into the game. Blues forward Ivan Barbashev centered a pass toward Oskar Sundqvist, but the puck deflected off the stick of a Sharks player, the redirected shot beating Jones short-side. Jones was caught shifting left to the location of Sundqvist's stick blade, which was directly in front of the crease. Had the puck gone where it was intended, Jones had a good chance of making the save.

Video: Barbashev scores early, Blues win Game 4

The first shot a goalie faces can be nerve-wracking. When it ends up in the net, it's difficult for the goalie not to think about how quickly the game's complexion can change for the worse. What happens if you allow the next one? How about if it really goes sideways and your team is down 3-0 before you know it? At that point, you're probably exiting the game and donning a towel.

These are the type of thoughts that can destroy a goalie.

But Jones bounced back admirably. He made several saves on open shooters, often using his preferred method of shifting into shots and using his chest and arms to deaden pucks. He controlled his rebounds and wasn't afraid to take extra depth and challenge shooters when necessary.

Some people will look at the second goal, by center Tyler Bozak, and fault Jones for swatting the puck with his stick rather than trying to cover the rebound of the shot from the point. However, when goalies start reaching for pucks between legs, feet and sticks, one little bobble can shift the angle of the shot and leave the goalie sprawling on the ice, the red light flashing behind him.

Unfortunately for Jones, his decision to clear the puck from a high-danger area like the slot was foiled by the leg of one of his defensemen, sending the puck into the net.

This type of bad luck didn't exist at the other end. Binnington had another strong performance but benefited from some timely clears and blocks from teammates. The Sharks also hit several posts.

As the hockey world is finding out, Binnington is very good at finding pucks through traffic. He works to see it and doesn't allow himself to become passive very often. Against a team like San Jose, built around puck-shooting machines like defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, Binnington's skill set is invaluable.

Could Binnington be playing into the minds of the Sharks at this point? Prior to this series, San Jose had not faced Binnington, who stormed onto the scene in January.

Even with the amount of pre-scouting done, there's no way to truly know how a goalie plays until the puck drops.

Binnington's demeanor exudes confidence. He's patient on his edges and often waits out the shooter in situations where many other goalies would simply drop and block. In an ode to goalies of years gone by, Binnington is willing to make saves with one knee on the ice and one raised. This effective use of the half-butterfly allows him to build and maintain vertical coverage and is the reason why several very dangerous scoring chances have ended up in his glove.

The only flaw in Binnington's night was Hertl's goal, a clean shot from the point that managed to force its way through his equipment.

When you look at goalies today, they sometimes look invincible. Holes don't exist, but the puck is small enough and travels with such velocity that it can occasionally make the space necessary to sneak through. No matter how hard you squeeze, it can find a way.

Video: Binnington earns the first star in Game 4 of the WCF

It had to be a frustrating evening for Jones; each goal went off a teammate. But he was tidy with his rebounds and made several key saves that kept the score close. It's the type of game a goalie can walk out of the building upset about the loss, but still be pleased with his personal performance. Having that confidence during a seven-game series is so important.

For Binnington, it was yet another victory bouncing back after a loss. He has lost consecutive games twice this postseason, refusing to allow poor performances or losses to fester. The Blues believe in him and have ridden the wave he's created for more than four months.

Who knows how long that will last? But at this point, they need two more wins to reach the Stanley Cup Final and play the Boston Bruins. 

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