Was this the type of game that would finally get to Jordan Binnington?
Sure, he’d done the surprise rookie thing last year. He’d helped carry a last-place team into the playoffs over the course of one winter. He did the Ken Dryden/Matt Murray thing and won a Stanley Cup as a freshman goaltender. So it was well established that Binnington did not spook easily. But Monday night’s game between his St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs brought a new kind of heat.
This was his first hometown NHL game. He grew up in Richmond Hill, Ont., a short-if-traffic-ridden jaunt down Highway 404 from downtown Toronto, and he’d never played a road game against the Leafs before. That meant roughly 50 friends and family members were on hand to watch him at Scotiabank Arena.
“It was cool,” he said. “I saw a couple of my buddies in the stands, and they were pretty excited.”
Factoring in that Binnington can no longer sneak up on the league, that he’s expected to prove he wasn’t a fluke and that he carries a new $4.4-million price tag for the next two seasons, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he was under pressure Monday. But…nope. Same old Binnington. The ice man. He turned aside 32 Leaf shots in a 3-2 victory, and it took two highlight-reel plays to get any pucks past him. Frederik Gauthier scored from in close after Jason Spezza dribbled a puck twice in mid air on the blade of his stick, and William Nylander deked to finish a tic-tac-toe. Binnington handled everything he was supposed to stop, albeit with a bit of help from his goal posts.
“A lot of pressure to come home, but you guys have written about 50 stories on him about ice in his veins, right?” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “Nothing really seems to bother him, so tonight’s no different.”
Asked if he ever gets tired of the “ice in the veins” story, Binnington replied in his usual, so-deadpan-that-you-almost-think-he’s serious tone.
“No. I like that quote. It’s a good one.”
Asked if the homecoming game was what he imagined, he shot back two words:
Is Binnington being witty, or difficult, or simply maintaining his brand as a stone-cold killer in net when he fires off quips like those? Whatever his motivations are, his shtick works. It’s only three games into the 2019-20 season, but he’s looked exactly like the goaltender who shocked the world in 2018-19, following up last year’s .927 save percentage with a .928 in his first three starts. The sample size going into this season was small enough to keep certain prognosticators skeptical of a repeat performance, but the underlying regular-season numbers in 2018-19 actually suggested Binnington was the exact opposite of a fluke. Per naturalstattrick.com, he was one of 56 goalies to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. Among them, he was first in SP, second in goals saved above average per 60, fourth in high-danger SP, fourth in medium-danger SP and 17th in low-danger SP. Binnington was so elite on a per-game basis that he probably would’ve won the Vezina Trophy over Andrei Vasilevskiy with 15 more appearances. Binnington didn’t appear in a game until Dec. 16 and didn’t start one until Jan. 7, yet he still finished fifth in the Vezina vote, earning two second-place and three third-place nods.
So, really, instead of 2019-20 setting up a “prove it” narrative, maybe it’s fairer to consider Binnington excellent until proven otherwise. So far, he’s done nothing to suggest he can’t be a top-tier NHL goaltender going forward. No Stanley Cup hangover to speak of for him or his teammates early on, either.
“So far, so good,” he said. “This league’s incredible, so we’ve got to stay on top of ourselves and keep working just like we did before."
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