“When I look at [the Stanley Cup], I also see lots of magic moments. I see the dreams of thousands of young people who, at least once, have pictured themselves at hockey’s ultimate moment of triumph, hoisting the Stanley Cup.” — Ken Dryden, 6-time Stanley Cup Winner, lawyer.
We sit here today, a far cry from my last article, impelling St. Louis Blues’ executives to rid the team of Doug Armstrong – architect of a team full of effete players with a poor attitude spreading like a pestilence through the locker room. Blues fans were consigned to ennui and despair with, at best, a chance to draft Jack Hughes.
But I was wrong (though you’ll never get me to admit it). Today, April 10, this new, resurgent version of the Blues begins their quest for the Cup against the Winnipeg Jets. Both teams finished the regular season at 99 points, with the Blues having a record of 1-2-1. That might not seem particularly lopsided, but it was with the Jets winning 5-1, a laughable 8-4, and, what might have been the Blues’ worst loss of the season, a 5-4 OT loss when leading 3-1 going in to the third.
All that said, the firing of Mike Yeo marked an important epoch in the Blues’ season. Since taking over, the Blues have gone 38-19-6 under new coach Craig Berube, good for a .651 points percentage. Contrast this to the Jets, who have posted only 35 wins during that time, and the disparity only grows once a grace period is accounted for to give Berube time to implement his system. Since January 1, the Blues have been one of the, if not the, best teams in the league. Unfortunately, the Blues and Jets have not matched up since December 7 (thank you, NHL?), so it is hard to use results of head-to-head matchups to offer predictive value for the playoffs.
Regardless, one key for the Blues to win this series is to contain Patrick Laine. As one of the game’s elite scorers, he torched the Blues for 6 goals in 4 games, including a 5 goal performance. Even looking outside of this season, Laine has scored 13 goals against the Blues in his short, three-year career.
As far as offensive production, the Blues season stands or falls on the production of the top line of Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Brayden Schenn. According to Murat Ates, who covers the Jets for The Athletic (a great follow on Twitter for those looking for a perspective from the Jets, @WPGMurat), 5 on 5, O’Reilly, Tarasenko & Schenn have a mark of 55.8 xG% and 22-9 lead in goals scored. Their+13 goal differential is 8th best line in the NHL. As a comparison: Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler finished the year as a -6 as a line.
Simply put: Line 1 bad = loss.
A wildcard to some, though not to me, is rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Binnington who has put up an out-of-this world 1.89 GAA, .927 save percentage, and 24-5-1 (!!!) record this season, but has yet to start a playoff game. Fresh in the mind of all fatalistic Blues fans (myself included), is the disastrous performance of playoff neophyte Roman Turek back in 2000. A series of unfortunate events, too numerous and disheartening to rehash, led to an early exit and a shortened career for Turek because he was never able to fully, and consistently, recover. My hope is that even if some minor things go wrong for Binnington, he has an unyielding calmness that gives me great confidence that he will be able to weather any storm and play valiantly regardless of circumstance.
So here we go. One more year. One more chance. I’ll watch. I’ll hope – just as I’ve done every year since 1993 – that the Blues can muster the strength to string together 16 wins. I’ll predict that they’ll be the one team left at the top of the mountain at the end, and tell you all that I am but simply part of the clerisy if they are.
And if not, I don’t want to talk about it.