Discussing Stanley Cup contenders from either conference may seem like a moot point considering how outstanding the Tampa Bay Lightning have been from start to finish this season. But truly, very few teams have been as good as the St. Louis Blues in recent weeks.
It’s inarguable that rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington has been incredible for the Blues and had he played the entire season with the club, he would be a top contender for the Vezina Trophy. His 21-4-1 record, 1.83 goals-against average and .929 save percentage make him one of the best goaltenders in the NHL this season. But there’s a lot more to St. Louis’ success than great goaltending, like one of the hottest first lines in the league. In fact, dating back to Jan. 21, the Blues have gone a perfect 17-0-0 when all three players on the top line – Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn – have suited up.
It’s hard to ignore the play of O’Reilly, who is St. Louis’ leading scorer and in the midst of the best offensive campaign of his career with 71 points in 76 games. He is the only forward on the team who has played every game this season and, in cases where Tarasenko and Schenn have been sidelined, O’Reilly has been the principle offensive catalyst for the Blues. But just imagine what kind of success St. Louis’ offensive core could’ve had this season had they stayed healthy – Tarasenko, who has missed six games, has 60 points, while Schenn, out of action for 10 games, is two points away from 50.
While St. Louis has been perfect in the past 17 games their big three have participated in, they have played 28 games since Jan. 21, posting a 20-5-3 record overall and a 3-5-3 mark when Tarasenko or Schenn have been out of action, including three consecutive losses when Tarasenko was sidelined in March. It’s not like secondary scoring has been a problem – all 12 of St. Louis’ active forwards are on pace to finish the season with at least 10 goals – but it isn’t a coincidence that the Blues have been dominant with their top line intact. Since Jan. 21, the Blues’ top two wingers have produced at a better rate than any other St. Louis skater. Tarasenko has seen his production leap to 1.25 points per game over that span, up from 0.65 points per game in his first 46 games of the season, and Schenn’s points-per-game rate has risen 0.59 to 0.96 since Jan. 21.
With the late-season success the Blues are having, there’s substantial hope this can be the beginning of a long playoff run, and a team that looked down and out early has emerged as one of the Western Conference’s biggest threats, along with the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators. The Blues haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, but with a 6-2-2 record over the past 10 games, St. Louis has opened up a six-point advantage over the wild-card Dallas Stars and are within striking distance of the Predators in the Central Division.
It’s clear the Blues are a very strong team with O’Reilly, Tarasenko and Schenn healthy – you can’t exactly get better than a perfect record over the past two months with all three on the ice – and it’s proof that St. Louis’ recent success isn’t only tied to Binnington’s strong play.