ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Blues have proved the importance of the collective in these playoffs, but even the most workmanlike teams in the NHL have to possess star power. And when it comes to that particular facet of the game, there might not be three more important players on their roster than defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, center Ryan O’Reilly and right winger Vladimir Tarasenko.
Those names might sound familiar. They should because while the Boston Bruins' top players have struggled to find their groove at 5-on-5 in the Stanley Cup final, the Blues' trio were the most prominent difference makers in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. All three have had their struggles, both in the playoffs and in this series, but if they can seize the momentum and play the rest of the series the way they played Game 4, St. Louis could find themselves in a Stanley Cup parade.
There’s an old, and rather obvious, adage in hockey that your best players have to be your best players. And that’s the case even on teams where most of the roster shows up in hard hats and work boots. It’s no different for the Blues, who look to a solid two-way defender, one of the most well-rounded centers in the NHL and a pure sniper to lead the way. It was certainly the case in Game 4 when O’Reilly, the best player on the ice, turned the game with a two-goal performance and gave his team almost as much of a boost from a chance on the penalty kill when he came inches from scoring shorthanded. Tarasenko jumped on a greasy rebound by Tuukka Rask and scored and Pietrangelo was excellent on the back end, providing the shots that resulted in two rebound goals for St. Louis.
“ ‘Petro’ was a force out there,” said fellow Blues defenseman Colton Parayko. “It seemed like he was out there the whole game and continued to every shift make something happen. He’s been a leader all season, all playoffs and that’s just the way he plays. He steps up at big moments and that’s the best part about him.”
O’Reilly was demolished in the faceoff circle in the Blues’ 7-2 loss in Game 3, including going 0-for-6 shorthanded. The Bruins scored four goals on four power-play opportunities on four shots as a result. O’Reilly spoke with his father Brian, a high-performance coach, prior to Game 4 and heeded his dad’s advice.
“It was just kind of getting back to that mindset of leave it all out there,” O’Reilly said. “Not overthinking the game and just kind of trust yourself more.”
O’Reilly’s approach to the game is well documented and legendary. Teammates have long marvelled at how hard he works, both during in-season practices and in the off-season. It’s a mindset he brought with him to the Blues this season and even when the team was spectacularly underperforming, O’Reilly was still playing like one of the best two-way centers in the league. “He’s always out there, whether it’s an optional practice,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “Always working at things and trying to be better. And that stuff pays off. I thought he had a hell of a game (in Game 4). Not just the goals, but just his approach to the game. I thought he was moving really well and strong on the puck. He did some real good things in all facets, penalty kill, power play, everything.”
After Game 4, Tarasenko was asked whether or not O’Reilly’s approach to the game rubs off on his teammates and Tarasenko’s reply was, “What does 'rub off' mean?” When told the meaning of the term, he was in full agreement with the notion. “He makes all of us better,” Tarasenko said. “His work ethic during games and his attitude, I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the way he responds and the way he practices all the time and the way he is in the locker room is unbelievable.”
All O’Reilly has to do now is drag his teammates into the battle a couple more times and have his efforts supplemented with monster games from the players the Blues rely on most. If that happens, the Blues stand an excellent chance of making their Stanley Cup dreams a reality.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.