ST. LOUIS – “How surreal is it to look back just one year, knowing you were climbing out of last place, and today, you’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, hosting an All-Star Game?”
St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo thought about the question, turned to his left and looked goaltender Jordan Binnington up and down.
“Surreal, yeah,” Pietrangelo said. “We were talking about it earlier. He wasn’t even here last year at this time. Or at least it was close.”
Technically, Binnington’s amazing run as a starter, which sparked St. Louis’ worst-to-first crusade to its first Stanley Cup title, began with his shutout Jan. 7, 2019. But for the sake of the philosophizing Pietrangelo did Thursday evening from his podium at 2020 NHL All-Star Media Day, 381 days basically qualifies as a year.
Things couldn’t be more different for the franchise today. And it’s not just the Stanley Cup rings, or, as Pietrangelo added, the new practice rink or downtown renovations. It’s the experience of going from the upstart, the horse charging from the back of the pack, to the frontrunner, pursued by every other top team. Sitting 30-11-8 at the break, the Blues have six points more than any other Western Conference team and hold the league’s second-best points percentage. Working from the top of the standings isn’t something these Blues players are experiencing for the first time by any means, but Pietrangelo does believe it brings out the best in them.
“It’s made us a better team knowing every single night we’re getting the best,” he said. “It’s pushed us to keep that consistency up as opposed to maybe taking some nights off.”
Consistency is right. The 2019-20 Blues have put together five winning streaks of at least three games, four streaks of at least four games, a seven-game streak and an eight-game streak. They’ve scored multiple goals in 89.8 percent of their games. They’ve scored four or more goals in 42.8 percent of their games. They’ve allowed two or fewer goals in 46.9 percent of their games. They’re top 10 in power play percentage, faceoff percentage, goals against and shots against, albeit their 5-on-5 possession numbers are middling. On the whole, they’ve been rock solid despite spending most of the season minus star goal-scoring right winger Vladimir Tarasenko.
For center Ryan O’Reilly, who, along with David Perron, gave the Blues four representatives at all-star weekend, a big reason for the sustained success this season has been the lack of needing to gel, which the team had to do early last season with so many new faces, including his own.
“This year having been our group together more, we’ve been so good at…we just know our identity,” O’Reilly said. “When things don’t go well, we’re able to get back to it a lot quicker. Hence why we’re able to be at the top of the division and maintain it.”
Coach Craig Berube, also on hand as the bench boss for the Central Division all-star squad, said Thursday that he, in a sense, has less work to do with this version of the Blues.
“I think last year, I had to do some different things to get our team to believe in itself to try to pull our team together to play like a team and take that onto the ice,” Berube said. “So there’s different things I had to do last year until we got to that level where we were playing the right way and doing the right thing. I haven’t had to do that this year. Knock on wood, the team’s been good. There are obviously things you have to do as a coach day in and day out, fix things, manage people and players, but overall, we’ve got good leadership, and they handle a lot of that stuff. And that’s a big thing for us.”
Maybe that increase in overall mental strength has offset the loss of Tarasenko. And if he recovers from his shoulder surgery in time for the playoffs and shakes off the rust quickly enough, he’ll qualify as a major upgrade for a team that already appears to be playoff ready. The Blues certainly won’t catch anyone off guard this time around, but they’ve responded extremely well to that idea so far this season.
“I think we’ve got as good a chance as anyone to win again,” O’Reilly said. “I’m very confident in that. At the same time, it comes with a lot of work. That’s our mindset. We can’t win a Cup right now. It starts by building and building. We want to be playing our best hockey by the time the playoffs come, and we’ve got to take it one game and one series at a time.”
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