Blues’ new defensive-zone system passes first test against high-scoring Stars offense

DALLAS — Yes, Jordan Binnington bailed out the St. Louis Blues on several occasions Thursday night, but by and large, it was a successful night for a defense implementing a new system that’s designed to limit the wide-open slot shots that were so plentiful and productive for the opposition last season.

Yes, it’s just one game, but it’s something to build off.

The Blues fell 2-1 to the Dallas Stars in a shootout, after giving up no high-danger scoring chances in the first period. The Stars finished with 35 shots on goal, and 11 of those were high-danger according to Natural Stat Trick, but a majority of them were from the outside and the Blues limited a lot of second and third chances that, again, were custom last season.

“They got shots. They’re going to get shots. But for the most part, we did a good job of keeping it on the outside and protecting that slot area,” Blues coach Craig Berube said.

In the preseason, the Blues installed a new defensive-zone system in which the ice below the blue line is divided into quadrants and there’s always someone, if not multiple players, defending the area in front of the net.

It’s been a work in progress, but when you’re facing a Dallas team that ranked No. 7 in the NHL in goals per game last season (3.43) and enters this season as a top Stanley Cup contender, you had to come away feeling good about the initial results.

“I think there was a few chances there where Binner had to make saves, but ultimately we’re trying to eliminate shots from inside the house,” Blues defenseman Justin Faulk said. “There’s always going to be a couple, but for the most part, I think a lot of their shots were coming from the point, or down the wall. They probably shot five from the goal line in the corner.

“So there’s stuff to clean up and tighten up, and that’s going to happen. You can’t expect perfection in Game 1, especially with a new system, but I think guys, for the most part, were doing things we wanted.”

The chart below from Natural Stat Trick illustrates from where the volume of Dallas’ shots stemmed.

The Stars’ lone goal in regulation, which was scored by Jamie Benn in the second period, did happen on a high-danger chance. However, it was a play that developed along the wall and below the goal line before Benn brought the puck in front of the net and beat Binnington.

“I think it was solid,” Binnington said of the Blues’ defensive-zone work. “We’re controlling our jobs and supporting each other. I think communication is important and it was there tonight. A lot of good things, so we’ve got to be positive and carry that forward.”

The Blues began the season with a defensive group that included Nick Leddy and Colton Parayko in the top pair, Faulk and Torey Krug in the second pair, and Marco Scandella and Tyler Tucker rounding out the blue line.

None of them — again, none of them — had a minus rating against Dallas because, while Scandella and Tucker were both on the ice for Benn’s goal, they were also both on for Tucker’s goal that tied the score 1-1 in the second period.

Yeah, of course, the first and only goal of the Blues’ season belongs to Tucker, the 6-foot-1, 204 rugged defenseman who had one goal in 26 games during his rookie season last year.

“(Jakub Vrana) made a good play,” Tucker said. “I was wide open in the slot and got it through.”

If you’re wondering who could have predicted that, the answer is a couple of his teammates.

“I heard that (Robert) Bortuzzo did,” Faulk said.

That’s true.

The Blues’ social media team recently asked players who would net the team’s first of the season and Bortuzzo said: “Tucker.” But he wasn’t the only one; backup goalie Joel Hofer did as well.

“I had a feeling,” Hofer said.

Tucker was aware of that when asked after Thursday’s game.

“I think they probably thought it was funny,” he said.

The goal wasn’t Tucker’s only contribution. In 13:01 of ice time Thursday, he had two shots on goal, three hits and one takeaway.

“Tucks played a strong game,” Berube said. “He was solid, he was physical, good gaps. I thought he moved the puck quick and made the plays he’s supposed to make.”

“He’s a simple player,” Faulk added. “Just a simple game, he’s in guys’ way, being physical, he’s a big body, he’s a tough kid, just making it difficult on the other team. I thought he did that.”

The Blues decided to go with Tucker over Bortuzzo and Scott Perunovich, who were both healthy scratches Thursday. With a young player like Tucker, 23, mistakes are going to happen, but the club is hoping to stick by him.

“You’ve got to manage how he’s playing and what’s going on,” Berube said. “Mistakes happen, everybody makes them in the games. You’ve got to try to eliminate them as much as you can. Just game to game here, and see how he does.”

“It’s going to happen,” Tucker said. “Just try to learn from them. I”ll be fine.”

And the Blues will be fine if Binnington is as locked in this season as he was in Game 1 Thursday. He made all 10 saves in the first period, all 11 in the third, and four more in overtime, including a save on Stars’ defenseman Miro Heiskanen in OT that could’ve easily ended the game.

“He was great,” Berube said of Binnington. “Made some huge saves.”

Binnington was just glad to be back in the crease after missing the playoffs last season and waiting five months.

“Yeah, it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We love that competition, so it was good to be back out there playing full-time and something on the line. I’m excited for more.”

A lot of the Blues were feeling that way.

“Overall, I liked the energy of the group,” Faulk said. “Guys were working hard. There’s definitely stuff to clean up, but it’s nice to see guys with jump and willing to compete and work out there today.”

(Photo of Justin Faulk and Craig Smith: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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