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“Next Man Up” mentality aiding Blues’ fast start

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be honest. When Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the best scorers in the NHL, went down with season-ending shoulder surgery in October, more than a few St. Louis Blues fans figured the season had become a toss-up, a struggle at the very least to defend the title.

It’s hard enough to go back-to-back in this league, but even more so without true scoring firepower and a roster that carried more than its fair share of inexperience outside a miraculous spring surge.

The honeymoon of the Stanley Cup victory hadn’t entirely worn off, but the afterglow of the celebration had ceased and real hockey was again being played. Defending the trophy wasn’t going to be an easy task for a team that just about retained their entire Cup run roster, save for one Oakville native who migrated south-but was suddenly without #91.

But then something weird and amazing happened. The Blues grew immune to losing, at least in regulation. 28 games into the season, they haven’t lost back-to-back regulation games. They have taken several games to overtime and a few to shootouts, but they don’t go down easily. The Blues are 11-3-3 since Tarasenko went down with an injury, and the “next man up” mentality has helped starve off any sense of a sophomore slump or regression due to injury.

And there have been plenty of injuries. Alexander Steen hasn’t played in a game since Nov. 6, and Sammy Blais has been down for two weeks. Last week, Oskar Sundqvist went down with an injury that may keep him out for weeks. Klim Kostin, sent down a day after scoring his first NHL goal, injured himself with San Antonio. Carl Gunnarsson is also sidelined with an upper-lower-midsection somewhere injury.

Yet St. Louis walks into Chicago tonight having won four of their last six games, including an impressive Thanksgiving eve victory over Tampa Bay and a handy Penguin bashing on Saturday night at the Enterprise Center. When most figured they would collapse, either due to the excessive injury toll or the insane amount of overtime nail-biters, the Blues have found a way to rally. Resilience just doesn’t cover it.

Reliable depth is a better description.

Outside of career years shaping up for Brayden Schenn and David Perron, other Blues have popped up and contributed.

When Tarasenko went down, Blais stepped up and added some goals.

When Steen went down, Sundqvist stepped up.

Sundqvist then goes down, and Nathan Walker adds some firepower. Six different Blues have six or more goals so far on the still young season. Five players already have 19 or more points. Perron has five game winning goals and three overtime winners. Perron is not even taking that many stupid penalties, which is weird.

Jake Allen had a very good November, helping Jordan Binnington stay fresh and leaving the rest of the NHL scratching their heads. No Blues team ever thrives without solid goaltending, and both Binnington and Allen were each strong last month.

All four lines are a force, including Ivan Barbashev’s silent yet deadly fourth line. When you can throw three guys over the bench and expect a goal, wins are going to roll in like hot rolls at a Thanksgiving table.

The Blues take the ice against their rival Blackhawks tonight. The rivalry is a bit one-sided these days, especially if you look at the standings. Chicago is the second worst team in the Western Conference with only 25 points. Their scoring tandem can’t save them and a rebuild is underway. It’s a lot different looking than it was a couple seasons ago, and St. Louis didn’t have to accumulate a long stretch of losing seasons to get there.

All Doug Armstrong did was string together some great trades and signings, know when to hold his cards, and how to mix and match his talent. He has a coach of the year candidate in Craig Berube ruthlessly leading the charge, choosing talent above pay grade or feelings. He has a never-better triple threat in Ryan O’Reilly, Schenn, and Perron. A defensive stalwart in Alex Pietrangelo aided by Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester, and Vince Dunn. There’s an arsenal of youngsters waiting to get more minutes or a taste of the action.

It would have been the most Blues thing ever to just slip away and die after losing their high-aid forwards. Instead, they’ve played some of their best hockey. The more injury-riddled they get, the more unified their game becomes. It’s unconventional and quite entertaining.

It doesn’t mean they don’t wear down our patience during most games. A bad penalty, blown lead in the third period, or painfully slow start still occur more often than a sports fan would call healthy viewing, but in the end, the Blues figure it out. No matter what is thrown at them, they refuse to give in. It’s the most impressive thing about this team, the secret ingredient that helped them erase that Cup drought just a few months ago.

The 2019-20 season is over a third of the way complete, and the Blues currently lead the Western Conference with 40 points. They are road warriors at 9-2-3, and not too shabby at home. The only area where they struggle are shootouts, where they are 0-3. But if that is the area crying out for improvement, a team is in safe waters.

Here’s the good news. The December schedule doesn’t look that tough. A healthy mix of home and away games against seemingly inferior opponents should keep the divisional stranglehold intact. Here’s the potentially bad news: The Blues have been known to play down to the competition. Three of their last four losses have come against the bottom five teams in the conference. That has to end.

Outside of taking care of business, the horizon doesn’t seem scary for St. Louis. The season after winning their first Cup doesn’t look like a team resting on their laurels. This team is hungry and deep.

Not sorry, NHL.