A lot can change when things go right, or according to plan. Hockey in St. Louis is a roller coaster ride, but at one time, it had truly flown off-track.
Remember when Christmas rolled through, and St. Louis Blues fans (and parts of the team) had shipped the 2018-19 season. A brutal 6-1 loss at home on Dec. 29 against the Pittsburgh Penguins left the Blues 15-17-4, and reeling towards bottom of the Western Conference barrel. Hope was just about gone, and the sell mode was about to be engaged.
Since the Penguins’ demolition, the Blues have won 12 of 18, moving into a comfortable wildcard spot, and keeping their eyes on more juicy playoff spots above. “Lose for Hughes” hasn’t been shouted in a month, and the team has rallied behind interim head coach, Craig Berube, and breakout goaltender, Jordan Binnington.
After their sweep of a home/home series against Nashville, the Blues go into Tuesday’s game with the New Jersey Devils a team reborn at 27-22-5. That’s 59 points, placing them two points behind Dallas for the third spot in the Central Division. They beat a Predators team with 71 points twice inside 48 hours. If that doesn’t tell you how quickly things have turned around, let me provide a few more ideas on how the Blues have suddenly clicked in.
Let’s do five, starting with the new man in net.
5) Binnington equals victory
It’s impossible to light the candles on Binnington’s cake without pissing in Jake Allen’s cherrios. Then again, would the Blues be putting this kind of run together without the new kid in net? I would place a car payment on no way. A team’s confidence level is powered by what is going on inside the head of their netminder. Binnington was just awarded the NHL first star with a 3-0-0 record against Florida and Nashville.
Overall, Binnington is 9-1-1 with two shutouts and a 1.31 goals against average, boasting a .931 save percentage. Allen chimed with 40+ saves on Sunday in Nashville, but four of his last five performances have only reaffirmed who should be in net.
Behind Binnington, a guy who was struggling for air in the next best thing green room behind former Blue Pheonix Copley and current “phenom”, Ville Husso, the Blues have triggered another improbable run. He’s started the majority of the games and held up against some of the league’s best talent. Instead of wilting under the pressure, Binnington has risen up. How long will it last? No telling, but he’s the guy until he breaks.
4) The Tarasenko Infusion
Remember when fans were clamoring for the trade of the team’s best scorer a couple of months ago? Those were the comedic days. Where Vladimir Tarasenko went, the team seemed to follow. During the first, 37 games, Tarasenko had 11 goals. During the past 16 games, he has racked up 11 goals.
What went right? Throw a dart. It could have been the bum shoulder that collected some surgery over the offseason. The inconsistency could pertain to a pain level, which led to lesser sting on the snap shot he likes to throw on goal. I mentioned the limited offensive skill set that didn’t involve crashing the net or completing one timers.
Here’s what never stopped. Pucks to the net. Tarasenko never stopped shooting. He was on pace for a similar amount of shots as last year. Eventually, the goaltenders were going to be worn down. Whether the sting in the shot is back or not, the volume was there.
Once again, confidence helps. Tarasenko is treating defensemen like traffic cones, zipping in and around the offensive zone, and the goals are coming. He collected his first hat trick since Dec. 1, 2016 on Sunday. On one of the goals, Brayden Schenn made a nifty pass to Tarasenko, who swooped in front of the net to put the puck past. It was Houdini-like, something one wouldn’t say about the 27-year-old Russian a month ago.
With your best scorer at his best, the wins should come.
3) O’Reilly is still O’Reilly
Was he ever going to slow down? When Ryan O’Reilly came over in a trade with Buffalo, fans were hopeful that he could be the center that could ignite the Blues top line while giving them newfound depth with Schenn moving down. Fans scoffed at the idea that it could be true, saying it wouldn’t be enough.
Fast-forward to this afternoon, and he’s become the engine on which this team runs. Good times or bad, O’Reilly hasn’t stopped producing. In the 17 games since Jan. 1, he has 5 goals and 20 points in 17 games. O’Reilly’s previous high was 64 points in 80 games back in 2013-14. Through 54 games, O’Reilly has 55 points. He’s played all over, on any shift, with a 6-1 deficit or 5-1 victory. He’s made the trade a win inside one season.
2) Defensive turnaround powered by Jay Bouwmeester
Excuse me while I do a shot of bourbon after typing those words, but it’s true. Props to the solid Twitter handle, @Walter_Sobchak0, for first alerting me to this weird phenomenon. A guy who 99% of Blues fans were ready to drive to the airport is playing 20+ minutes a game, and quality minutes. Bouwmeester isn’t a liability, at least not as often, these days, doing what he’s done for a long time. When right, Bouwmeester is a smart hockey player who uses his height, size, reach, and knowledge of the game to out-think opponents. With terrible luck sent away for good, his season has turned around.
The turnaround of Bouwmeester has aided the play of Vince Dunn and fellow heavy minute defender, Alex Pietrangelo, which has given the team a chance. Remember when the defense set the team back early in games, and they couldn’t recover? Those times are gone. Bouwmeester has led the charge. Forget the two assists on Sunday. The elder Blue is doing his job at last.
It feels like ancient history to think about Mike Yeo behind the bench. Credit interim coach Craig Berube for that mental transformation. The Blues have gotten another bump from a coaching change, soaking in the old school message from the former player and enforcer, and turning the ship around. For the first batch of games, Berube’s effect wasn’t as devout, and the team wasn’t responding. The idea of the interim tag being taken away from comical, and Joel Quenneville’s name was being mentioned every other day.
Sometimes, a coach just needs time. Berube made the choice to run with Binnington, and didn’t juggle the lines as much as he could have. There’s some expected levity in the lines, and the players have taken the consistency, and ran with it. He had coaching experience before, but for the first time in his coaching career, he’s locked into a team. The defensive turnaround, overall performance from the offense, and the attitude of this team is different.
I am of the firm belief that if a team isn’t listening to the coach, they better be supremely gifted, because sooner or later the team will collapse. They weren’t listening to Yeo’s ideas and plans; the attention just wasn’t there. With Berube, they are listening and trying to be better. A different face can do wonders, but I think there’s more. There’s credence to the fact that the Blues have adapted Berube’s no bullshit methodology. It just took time.
Berube for an extension? Maybe. He’s nudging his way into the Jack Adams award short list.
The comeback doesn’t make sense, and it’s far from complete. The special teams are still middle of the pack or worse. The schedule isn’t going to let up, but every team in front of the Blues and close behind them have played less games.
The St. Louis Blues don’t make sense. They never have. Sports never completely make sense. Teams don’t play exactly how they should, and the season doesn’t go accordingly to plan. Sometimes, though, a few things click, another player or two responds to that change, and the record goes uphill. Unity and identity latch onto each other, and crazy happens.
I can’t tell you what the next 10 games will bring, but I can assure you Blues hockey won’t be depressing. They’ve are the hottest team in the NHL. The sky isn’t the limit, but the barren wasteland of last place in the West is no longer a probability.
Yes, they are doing it again, so hang on for another bumpy, yet entertaining, ride.