Sammy Blais got a text message from St. Louis Blues Head Coach Craig Berube on Saturday night. The coach wanted him to come to the American Airlines Center the next morning ready to play.
“I was a little bit nervous, but I got a good night of sleep,” said Blais.
Saturday morning, he learned he would make his NHL playoff debut in Game 6, a win-or-go-home game for the Blues against the Dallas Stars. In his first game action since March 12th, Blais would make his presence felt.
Blais netted his first professional playoff goal in the third period, the death blow that gave the Blues a 4-1 lead in an eventual 4-1 victory that forces a Game 7 in St. Louis on Tuesday.
“We needed him to bring some energy and he did just that,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “He’s played well when he’s played all year. It’s not easy to come in at this time of the year with the level of hockey and play the way he did today. He got rewarded with that goal, but it was an impressive game for him.”
Just 33 seconds after Jayden Schwartz had given St. Louis a 3-1 lead, a sequence that shook up Stars goaltender Ben Bishop with a rising shot, Blais added to it. Linemate Ryan O’Reilly forced a turnover by Stars captain Jamie Benn at the St. Louis blue line and sprung Blais on a breakaway.
“It was the end of the shift and O’Reilly gave me the puck and told me to go,” said Blais, who became the seventh Blues rookie in franchise history to score a goal in his playoff debut, and the first in 19 years. “I was tired and saw an opening on the blocker side and took a shot that went in.”
At the end of a shift and running out of fuel, Blais teed up a drive from the high slot that beat Bishop under the crossbar.
“I just saw an opening and I believe in my shot,” said Blais. “I saw an opening and got a shot at his shoulder and just went upstairs.”
It was an exclamation point on Blais’ return to the ice after being kept out for weeks due to injury and a stacked Blues post-season roster. Yet his impact on the game was felt beyond the goal, with the rookie playing 12:20 and leading all skaters with nine hits.
“We like Sammy a lot. He was playing really well before he was injured and then playoffs started,” said Berube. “I think he was pretty much ready to go but hadn’t played. He’s got size and he’s physical, and he has good ability with the puck.”
Berube is one of the few people with firsthand experience of how Blais handles professional playoff hockey. Berube was the head coach of the Chicago Wolves in 2016-17 when Blais posted three goals and eight points in ten Calder Cup Playoff games that make up his only career post-season action.
“I think Sammy has that attitude,” said Berube of his decision to insert the rookie in Game 6. “I’ve coached him for a couple years now and been around the kid, and he’s come a long way as a player. The big moments like this don’t bother him. He can handle the pressure.”
Blais also handled the circumstances to be ready when called upon. In addition to his patience to get back in the lineup, Blais also racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles this season.
He was recalled to St. Louis from San Antonio four times just between February 16 and March 2nd before sticking in St. Louis for good. That kind of travel was a challenge for San Antonio’s 2017-18 leading scorer, but with all the movement he still managed 18 points in 26 AHL games.
“It’s been a crazy season, but this is the NHL,” said Blais. “Every time I’m up here I want to prove that I belong here. Everyone stays ready and when you get the call you have to perform.”
“He knows how to prepare and how to get himself ready,” said Pietrangelo. “That’s a testament to him, the way he gets ready in practice. It’s not easy when you haven’t played and your practicing but not getting in those game situations.”
Blais stayed ready, got the call, and answered the call. Perhaps he’ll get that call again for another elimination game on Tuesday at Enterprise Center.