NHL News

Blues defenseman Bortuzzo plays unlikely hero

SAN JOSE — Robert Bortuzzo wasn’t the only hero for the St. Louis Blues in their 4-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

He’s just the only one they wanted to talk about.

Oh, they mentioned goalie Jordan Binnington (24 saves), who improved to 10-2-0 in games after a loss this season, with a .934 save percentage and a 1.80 goals-against average. They acknowledged the clutch opening goal by Jaden Schwartz, who continued his postseason renaissance after a disappointing regular season.

But they really just wanted to talk about Bortuzzo’s goal at 16:34 of the second period, as a defenseman who has never been known for his offensive flourish roofed a shot past Martin Jones that ended up being the game-winning tally.

“That was unbelievable. He gets it on his stick and he’s so calm, and then he makes that shot … it’s one of the hardest backhands I’ve seen. We were all very impressed,” center Ryan O’Reilly said.

“Picked the corner, too,” said center Brayden Schenn, before quipping, “I’m sure Bortuzzo has a few like that. Check the highlight reel.”

Schwartz joked that Bortuzzo scores those kind of goals “all the time” in practice. Binnington said, “That was really smooth. Nice play by him. He’s got that in his arsenal.”

Having Binnington and Schwartz make plays in a critical game of the Western Conference Final isn’t exactly surprising. Bortuzzo making them is quite surprising. Not only because he had just two assists in 30 previous postseason games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Blues, but because he’s been in and out of the lineup this postseason with St. Louis, playing just eight of their 15 playoff games. He only played two of seven games against the Dallas Stars in the previous round, before appearing in the first two games against the Sharks.

“It’s never fun coming out [of the lineup]. But it’s how you handle it. It’s using the time off to get better,” he said.

How the 30-year-old Bortuzzo handles it is indicative of his character, according to Schenn. “He’s a glue guy in our locker room. Whether he’s in the lineup or out of the lineup, his attitude doesn’t change. He’s a team-first guy. You need those guys,” he said.

The Blues needed him in Game 2. The score was tied at 2-2 late in the third period, the Sharks having rallied from a 2-0 deficit on two more Logan Couture goals, giving him 13 in the playoffs. Bortuzzo was out with new defensive partner Joel Edmundson and the Blues’ best line in the first two games of the playoffs: Pat Maroon, Robert Thomas and Tyler Bozak.

The Blues do their best work deep inside the offensive zone, and their defensemen were encouraged to join the play a bit more in order to facilitate that. Maroon got the play started on the forecheck, the puck finding its way to Bortuzzo. He passed to Bozak, who passed to Edmundson, who saw Bortuzzo sprint to the goal after catching Sharks veteran center Joe Thornton flat-footed at the blueline. Edmundson fed him, and Bortuzzo did the rest.

“I found a way to sneak in behind Thornton and put it home,” he said.

Again, one does not expect Robert Bortuzzo to score a critical goal. He has 14 of them in 335 regular-season games since the 2011-12 season. He didn’t have one in the Stanley Cup Playoffs until Monday.

Does he remember his last playoff goal, in general?

“In all of hockey?” he asked.

It was actually in 2007, while Bortuzzo was with the Kitchener Rangers. Remember that goal?

“I don’t,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t know if you have people that can dig that stuff up, but it’s been a while.”

Later in the game, Bortuzzo made a play that was much more in keeping with his reputation in the NHL, dropping to the ice to block a rocket off the stick of Kevin Labanc of the Sharks in front of Binnington. “[Brent] Burns had it down low, found a high guy and it was a huge block by Bortuzzo. Key moment in the game. I think we fed off that,” said the Blues rookie goalie.

He also played 1:47 on the penalty kill for the Blues, on a night when the Sharks were 0-for-2 on the power play.

“It felt good to contribute in any way,” he said.

But, truth be told, it especially feels good to contribute offensively, if his teammates’ reaction is any indication. “He usually has great breakout passes, but I’ve never seen him that far up the ice,” joked Oskar Sundqvist. “Awesome goal, awesome celly.”

That celebration, where Bortuzzo just seemed to bellow like a beast after the goal, was something he promised Schwartz before the postseason.

“[Goal-scoring] isn’t really my game. It goes in the back of your mind,” Bortuzzo said. “But I told Jaden that if I do score a playoff goal, you’re going to like the celebration.”

Did he like the celebration?

Schwartz smiled.

“I loved his celebration,” he said.

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