Back on Feb. 17, I wrote a piece here about the reasons behind the St. Louis Blues’s struggling ways.
In the time since, the team hasn’t lost a single game. They have fired off seven straight wins, taking back the Central Division and sending a fierce reminder to the rest of the NHL that the road to the Stanley Cup still goes through them.
I don’t want any credit, but I did want to examine five ways why St. Louis got their swagger back. Note: Every reason won’t be included here. I’m bound to miss one or two. A player or event, but I’ll try to encapsulate the idea how this team has created their franchise record-setting third winning streak of seven games or more in a single season.
5) Binnington and Allen brick wall office reopens
This is more about Binnington, because he got most of the starts during the rough patch and seemed to think giving up three goals in a game was mandatory. He’s gotten back on his horse, delivering the kind of shutdown performance in net this team needs in order to be successful. It’s not just the shutout or the number of saves, but the key game-saving stops Binnington can make that propels this team. Allen was there too, delivering two key wins over Dallas that helped push them back in the standings. Together, this duo forms the best 1-2 punch in the NHL.
4) The Sundqvist Effect
There’s something about Oskar being in this lineup. It’s weird and not easy to track. Whenever I get choked up about Ryan Reaves no longer being around to punch an asshole’s face off, I remember the Blues received not only Klim Kostin but Mr. Sunny as well in that trade. Sundqvist plays a complete game, attacking each end of the ice equally. He can make a play around the dot, disrupt a defender in the corner, and break up a fast push the other way. He’s only put up four points in the seven games, but there’s a unique value to his game that stats can’t cover. Oh, and there’s this:
With Oskar Sundqvist out of their lineup, the Blues have a 5-7-2 record (.428 winning %). When he DOES play, the Blues are 31-10-8 (.714 winning %).— Randy KaKarraker (@RandyKarraker) February 24, 2020
Make that 34-10-8, Randy.
3) Marco Scandella
Yep, that guy. The Blues’ big trade deadline acquisition. The left-handed super tall defenseman who came over from Montreal (his second trade of the season) has fit perfectly into the St. Louis system. He’s a Berube guy, through and through. Scandella got my attention when he singlehandedly broke up a potential breakaway in his first game. I said it then and will restate it now. The guy is a smart hockey player. He’s able to dismantle plays in the defensive zone, make wise decisions in the offensive zone, and manage the puck in the neutral zone. He’s not flashy and doesn’t score a ton but moves the needle in many ways. I could provide a few cool hockey sabermetrical tactics to convince you of his effect, or I could simply tell you the Blues are undefeated since he arrived.
He had large shoes to fill in Jay Bouwmeester’s absence. He’s done more than fill them; Scandella has given the team a younger, better version of Jay Bo.
2) Brayden Schenn
There’s something integral about this guy on the ice. He does several things well, including throw his weight around when needed, but it’s his work in the offensive zone that stands out the most. He’s going to set a career high for goals in a season soon. All he needs is five to hit 29, which would beat out his total from two years ago, his first season in St. Louis. Schenn can do it all down there: make a slick pass, take a good, accurate shot, and complete all the little tasks that lead to a goal. He can screen a goaltender, set up a wicked one-timer, and makes his entire line better. He’s also got four goals in his last four games.
1) The Defense as a whole
They were the #1 culprit behind the temporary demise of this team. When the Western Conference turned into a three-team race for a few days, it was the defensive unit’s fault. They looked sloppy, misguided, and made every game a gamble. They were allowing more shots, their penalty kill was breaking down, and other teams had the Blues on their toes too often. Short-handed attempts were the norm and a deficit were almost certain early on in the game.
All of that has changed. Shot attempts are kept at a minimum. The Blues held the New York Islanders without a shot for over 30 minutes. They are ferocious on the forecheck, shutting down other team’s top lines, and making it easy for Binnington and Allen back in net. Scandella pairing with Colton Parayko has taken some pressure of Alex Pietrangelo and company, but it’s also the forwards buying in too and making big defensive plays. When it comes to a strong defense, it’s a roster effort.
The Blues remain in a tight battle with Colorado but have pushed Dallas seven points back. The Golden Knights are behind them with 80 points, so it’s a two-team race for the West right now with 16-17 games remaining around the league. There are only seven home games for St. Louis left on the schedule. We are getting down to the wire and without the rebound, you could see the Blues sitting in third place instead of first. It happens that fast in this league.
The Blues are just a very deep club, built to fight off losing streaks and injuries. When they were winning big in the first part of the season, I made a point about this high point total making the team less vulnerable to a rough losing streak. It happened, hopes got low, but the team got their shit together and are primed for another run.
Stanley Cup primed? Sure, why the hell not? If Vladimir Tarasenko not only finds his way back to the lineup but is able to make a dent, this team is just as deadly as they were a year ago. That’s four lines that teams will have a hard time dealing with in a seven-game series.
At the heart of it all is Craig Berube, the steady and strong presence pushing this team to higher altitude. It’s his calm and cool yet fiery demeanor that helps this team exceed when the chips are down. He should be an easy Coach of the Year candidate this year, because his work is much different and more complete this season.
That’s all I have for now. Until next time, always buy more bourbon.