Thursday, March 28, 2019

March, April games meaningful again for O'Reilly

Veteran center, despite being just 27, savoring opportunity to play 
in games that matter when it comes to competing for a Stanley Cup

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Games in late March and April, especially the past three seasons playing for the Buffalo Sabres, meant little to nothing for Ryan O'Reilly in regards to achieving team goals.

Being a persistent observer of the Stanley Cup Playoffs can take its toll on a player. And in the case of O'Reilly, fighting for Lord Stanley's prize quickly became a foregone conclusion playing for the Sabres, who were 31st in the NHL last season with 62 points.

Games in March and April only meant the season was winding down and another round of questions would follow having to explain for another lost season. And early this season, even as late as January 3 when O'Reilly and the Blues were last in the NHL with 34 points, this has got to be the most gratifying feeling.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Games are meaningful for Ryan O'Reilly (90) late in the season again, and
he wouldn't have it any other way.

So if you see O'Reilly, the Blues' No. 1 center, on the streets of St. Louis anywhere or if fans notice his continued perseverance on the ice this season playing in meaningful games for the first time since the last time he was a participant in the playoffs (2013-14 with the Colorado Avalanche), remember those moments because O'Reilly sure is. He's represented Canada on the international level, but it all pales in comparison to this, his first with the Blues.

And now with the Blues (41-27-8) on the cusp of returning to the playoffs after missing out last season for the first time since 2011, O'Reilly may be the most grateful of them all in the locker room.

"It’s awesome," the 28-year-old said, who leads the Blues in points (71) and assists (44) this season. "It’s one of the best things in hockey, when you’re kind of playing these meaningful games and preparing for playoffs. It’s what it’s all about. It’s what you train for in the summer, going the distance. It’s nice to be in this position. It feels good, but there’s still a lot of work left, too. We keep preparing for the next game."

Even going back to his days with the Avalanche, O'Reilly only got to taste playoff hockey twice, including his rookie year of 2009-10. So March and April games for him were usually spent just keeping his game polished for perhaps personal goals, but rarely in the concept of helping the team achieve one of 16 entries into the dance.

"The last couple years, they've been out of it early too," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of O'Reilly and the Sabres. "It's not easy to play. You always want to have something to play for and with us last year, even though we didn't make it, those last, whatever, eight or nine games you're pushing to make a playoff spot so at least you gave yourselves a chance and you go into games knowing how big they are. 

"He feels it. I think he's excited about it. He's excited about the opportunity, excited that even catch some teams in front of us. It's an exciting time for us."

When the Blues acquired O'Reilly on July 1, 2018 for a package of forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, along with a 2019 first-round pick and 2021 second-round pick, it was a heavy price to pay but one that is currently proving its value. 

"I think even not just him, to a lot of guys, they're important games," Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. "I think that there's just a real good feel right now with the guys. They all feel like they're real meaningful games.

"What I look at is, you may not play your best, every game, game in, game out, as a team or as an individual, but these guys are all finding ways to win the game. Not everybody is going to play good every night, but as a team, we're covering up for each other and finding ways to win. That [Ivan] Barbashev line over the past four games or three games, have been excellent. They're doing a good job and they're scoring for us. That's important right now. Without them scoring and producing right now, who knows, right? It's good that we've got everybody coming together and helping out and doing all the little things right and working and covering up for each other."

Not that O'Reilly's play has slipped at any juncture, but the level of intensity is even greater now that the Blues are on the cusp of punching their ticket. 

"We've been around him all year, if you ask him, it's probably more exciting to come to the rink this time of the year now than it was for him in previous years for sure," Pietrangelo said. "You always want to wake up and come here and be excited about it. When you have a chance to do something, make the playoffs and go from there, it's exciting. 'Bouw' probably went through the same thing when he came here, right? It is something to be proud of in this organization. We might have missed last year by one point, but we've been competitive every single year. We've given ourselves a chance and made the playoffs or at least be close enough to give ourselves a good push."

As Berube pointed out, there are a number of players on the roster that have yet to taste playoff hockey, and they are also savoring these pressure cooker games. But when you've been around the league for 727 regular-season games, these moments only come so often, and for O'Reilly, this is exactly what he signed up for when he was traded here.

"Yeah, you constantly have that building mentality, where everyone is just working together, working for each other," O'Reilly said. "It’s just such a collective effort that it’s nice. When you’re not playing in those games and you’re out of the playoffs, it’s tough. You want to win, but you also want to have success and things don’t go your way. So to be on the other end of it and see the way as a group, we’re just constantly working together and still trying to grow our game. It’s exciting and it’s fun to be around."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Ryan O'Reilly (90) and linemates Vladimir Tarasenko (91) and Brayden 
Schenn (10) have been on fire since they've been put together.

And remember those comments O'Reilly made to general manager Doug Armstrong in that first conversation after the trade? Those powerful words of, "Let's go win a Cup. I'm so excited. ... I won't let you down. I can't wait."

Neither can Blues fans. Neither can they, and the fan base certainly doesn't feel O'Reilly's let them down. 

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