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Column: St. Louis Blues discover how difficult it is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions

Antoine Roussel  of the Vancouver Canucks scores on St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington.
Vancouver’s Antoine Roussel, right, scores on St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington as teammate Adam Gaudette, top, celebrates during the Canucks’ 6-2 playoff win Friday.
(Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images)

Depleted in numbers and in spirit, the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues limped quietly out of the playoffs in the first round. Their 6-2 loss to the surging young Vancouver Canucks on Friday sealed their six-game elimination and emphasized the difficulty of winning back-to-back titles: Starting in 1993 only Detroit (1997 and ’98) and Pittsburgh (2016 and ’17) have won twice in a row.

The Blues were No. 1 in the West when the season was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but injuries and absences jumbled the lineup and left them 0-2-1 in round-robin play. They rarely played the rugged defensive game that carried them last season, leaving goaltender Jordan Binnington to face too many high-quality chances. “We did a terrible job of helping him out,” forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “It’s embarrassing.” Teammate David Perron had difficulty believing the Blues’ reign had ended. “Very frustrated. Very disappointed,” he said of his emotions.

Vancouver earned its win, led by Jacob Markstrom’s sharp goaltending and rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes’ exceptional skating and puck moving. “It’s a huge win for our team and our group,” Markstrom said, “but I don’t think anybody’s happy. We have three rounds to go before anyone is satisfied.”

The Canucks will face the No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights, who charged into the second round with a five-game victory over the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer surprisingly started Robin Lehner in goal over Marc-Andre Fleury four times against Chicago, a strategy supported by his team’s balanced offense and mobile defense. Vegas forward Alex Tuch has four goals, half his total in 42 regular-season games. Vancouver has confidence but Vegas has playoff experience.

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St. Louis Blues vs. Vancouver Canucks highlights.

The Blues’ fade contrasted with the turnaround made by the Boston Bruins, who were 0-3-0 in round-robin play and fell from No. 1 to No. 4 in the East. However, the Bruins got their act together and defeated Carolina in five games despite starting goalie Tuukka Rask’s departure to tend to a family medical emergency.

The round-robin games helped the Bruins get going, though team president Cam Neely initially didn’t like the idea of having to play to keep the seeding they’d earned. “It was a little disappointing,” he said in a video interview, “but our guys needed a tuneup and we are where we are, and we’ve moved on from it.”

Backup goalie Jaroslav Halak, whose appearance in a round-robin game was his first postseason duty since April 27, 2015 with the New York Islanders, saved 68 of 73 shots in three wins over Carolina. His backup is 6-foot-5 Czech Dan Vladar, a 2015 third-round draft pick who spent part of the season in the ECHL and has no NHL experience. Swaddling Halak in Bubble Wrap seems wise before they face Tampa Bay.

Racism deprived Mabel Fairbanks the chance to become a figure skating champion in the 1930s. As a coach, she made sure her Black students got those opportunities.

The Lightning’s first-round triumph over Columbus was sweet revenge for having been swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round last season in an 8-versus-1 upset. “We had 422 days to think about it. But who’s counting?” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. During that time, the Lightning added grit to its skill. Four of its games against Columbus were decided by one goal, including the five-overtime opener and single-overtime decision in the clincher.

“I don’t know if it was as much on structure as it was between the ears, and all of us collectively from the coaching staff on the way down had to be a little harder,” Cooper said of his team’s improvement.

The Islanders’ five-game ouster of the Washington Capitals was emotional for coach Barry Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the Cup in 2018 but left when he didn’t get the raise he felt he deserved. Trotz embraced many Capitals on the post-series handshake line. “I look on the other side and I see champions over there,” said Trotz, the rare coach capable of making a difference in a league that relies on similar thinking and systems. “It was one of those series where as a coach, when you’ve had some success with a group of guys it tears you a little bit because there’s so many good memories. But at the same time you work for someone else and want to beat that group just because we’re competitive.”

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Montreal Canadiens vs. Philadelphia Flyers highlights.

The Islanders will face the Flyers, who took care of Montreal in six games. Flyers goalie Carter Hart was a fan of Canadiens’ goalie Carey Price as a kid, and they had a respectful chat on the handshake line. Hart’s poise and skill have ended the Flyers’ eternal goaltending woes and should give them an edge over the Islanders.

Dallas’ seven-goal comeback to win Game 6 against the disjointed Calgary Flames and reach the second round triggered an interesting reaction from Stars interim coach Rick Bowness, who took over in December after Jim Montgomery was fired for unprofessional conduct. Bowness thanked the NHL for keeping everyone safe in the bubble but said stress has become a factor because people have little chance to move around or get a break from hockey. “Until you do this, what we’re going through, you have no idea,” he said. “The way we’re living and playing, that’s going to lead to a lot of emotional swings…. It’s mentally tough, and everyone’s making the best of it.”

Dallas on Saturday opened its second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, which outscored Arizona 14-2 in the final two games of a five-game win. Colorado rolls in as the favorite, with Nathan MacKinnon (four goals, 13 points) sharing the playoff scoring lead with Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson.

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Finally: Mike Milbury’s frequent tasteless comments apparently didn’t bother executives at NBC Sports until his latest lack of civility was condemned by the NHL, which conveyed its displeasure to his bosses. Responding to Brian Boucher’s observation on Thursday that players have been focused in the playoff bubble, Milbury said, “Not even any woman here to disrupt your concentration.” Besides insulting women working in both bubble cities to stage the games, he came off as implying women are merely distractions to men — and that players can’t be trusted to exercise restraint. In a statement he said he went too far in trying to be irreverent.

In a statement issued by NBC on Saturday, Milbury said in light of the attention generated by his comment he had decided to “step away from my role at NBC Sports for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I do not want my presence to interfere with the athletes as they try to win the greatest trophy in sports.”

Milbury has a long history of making questionable comments. Remember, Milbury ripped Rask for leaving the Bruins without considering his child’s illness as a valid reason to go home, and Milbury suggested Toronto defenseman Jake Muzzin milked an injury to get rest, which wasn’t the case. Milbury also said of defenseman Slava Voynov, who went to jail after beating his wife bloody, “This guy was a special player and an unfortunate incident left the Los Angeles Kings without a great defenseman.” It wasn’t unfortunate — it was criminal. Milbury provides no special insights or entertainment value that justify continuing to give him a platform.


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