BOSTON – Jaden Schwartz surveyed the media scrum calmly and stoically. He wasn’t beaming, wide-eyed at the notion of playing in his first Stanley Cup final. Instead, he gave off the laser-like focus of someone who expects to be where he is right now.
It’s clear the Blues haven’t wavered in their self-belief all year, not even when they sunk to last place in the NHL standings, and the principle applies to each player individually, too. By the end of January, Schwartz had amassed three goals in 36 games. An upper-body injury had cost him 11 games during that stretch, messing with his rhythm, but the numbers were too ugly to blame completely on health. They were nowhere near the standard set by a feisty bulldog of a left winger who’d amassed the third-most goals and points among all Blues in the five previous seasons combined.
“During the year, it’s a long season, so certain times you’re more frustrated than others, and sometimes this year was longer than others,” said Schwartz, 26, Monday after the morning skate before Game 1. “But you go through scoring slumps. Obviously it’s frustrating, and you want to contribute. You expect more out of yourself, so when the playoffs came around I was excited.”
The post-season provided a clean slate for a player who, under the hood, was a ticking time bomb ready to explode with positive regression. Schwartz finished the season with 11 goals in 69 games, but he’d converted a career-worst 6.0 percent of his shots on goal, less than half his career rate of 12,3 percent. So it wasn’t a matter of getting down on himself – because he wasn’t actually playing poorly.
“I don’t think anything really clicked – I think his work ethic has paid off,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “He was struggling to score offensively, but his work ethic didn’t change, and the way he played didn’t change. He kept doing the things he always does. And in the playoffs he’s been hot for sure. The goals are going in. But he’s going to the hard areas around the net, and he’s obviously a big part of our team and why we’re here today.”
Schwartz’s tremendous post-season breakout, in which he’s sniped 12 goals in 19 games, already beating his regular-season mark, isn’t a tale of a player wiping the whiteboard clean and re-evaluating his game. It was more about having faith that the bounces would start going his way. Despite possessing the type of skill worthy of being first-round picks two slots apart in 2010, Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko also have a workmanlike approach to their game alongside their center Brayden Schenn.
“We’ve played together for a long, long time now,” Tarasenko said. “Me and ‘Schwartzy’ have played almost six years together. Not every time, but sometimes. We don’t talk a lot, do some simple stuff, get together on the forechecks and create a scoring chance.”
That’s the type of approach that would typically lend to more consistency, as it gets the forecheckers to high-danger areas, so it was only a matter of time before Schwartz busted out. He actually averaged the most shots per game of his career this season at 2.65. Other career bests for him in 5-on-5 play: shots per 60 minutes, individual shot attempts per 60 minutes, individual scoring chances per 60 minutes and individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes.
Schwartz was getting to the net with high-quality looks better than he ever had. Now, it seems the statistical gods are paying him back and then some, to the point he’s the Conn Smythe Trophy favorite on the Blues side. To counter the Bruins’ star-studded offense, the Blues have to hope that trend continues for another four to seven games.
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