Sunday, April 21, 2019

Blues haven't looked back since starting climb from bottom

Fourth months after seeing nobody below them, Blues now focused on second 
round after tough conversations, long journey, eliminating Jets in first round

ST. LOUIS -- When the weather was hot, the Blues felt they assembled a roster that could not only compete for the Stanley Cup Playoffs but make a deep run.

That was the feeling last summer in July when general manager Doug Armstrong retooled a roster that failed to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Captain Alex Pietrangelo (27), here checking Winnipeg's Mathieu Perreault
while trying to win a puck Saturday, said the Blues got to where they are by
beginning the process with "tough conversations."

The Blues were a cap team and made significant improvements through signings and a massive trade for Ryan O'Reilly, but a disastrous start, one in which had the Blues change coaches (Mike Yeo was fired on Nov. 19 and replaced by associate coach Craig Berube), then had them sitting last in the league in points (34) with nowhere to go but up. 

Not only did the Blues go up, but they ascended there so quickly, so rapidly, it earned them a berth in the postseason, the seventh team in league history to do so after being last in the NHL at any point on Jan. 1.

And in the process of going up, there was a diamond-in-the-rough named Jordan Binnington that stepped into the spotlight in goal on Jan. 7. He hasn't looked back since.

And as things sit on April 21, the Blues not only are still working but they'll begin on Monday preparing for an opponent in the Western Conference second round after eliminating the Winnipeg Jets in six games following a 3-2 Game 6 win on Saturday.

To think that the Blues are in the position they're in all things considered, when they turned the page on a disastrous ending to 2018 and moved into 2019. Now they're the first team in league history since the NHL's expansion era (1967-68) to win a playoff series after ranking last overall at any point after New Year’s Day (minimum of 20 games played).

Who saw this coming? Well, they did.

"Well, I guess within this locker room, we had a lot of tough conversations and honest conversations about what we needed to do to get better," Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "We still had belief in this room, as hard as it was for some people to believe. We felt like we still had a chance and we just kept pushing. That’s what we did in this series. We didn’t play the way we wanted to in Games 3-4 here, but we just kept pushing, looked hard in the mirror.

"... I’m proud of the guys in this room, and I really do mean that. There’s a lot of tough times you go throughout a year, a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and all the way through this group, I really am proud."

That's what a veteran presence, guys that have been there and done that, guys that need to have the intestinal fortitude to keep a locker room from breaking down.

Guys stepped up and let their voices be heard, even ones that normally remain quiet. It wasn't just Pietrangelo, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko or other guys that have worn a letter.

"Oh yeah. ... When I say we had conversations behind closed doors, it’s not just me and Vladi and Steener and guys who have been here," Pietrangelo said. "Everyone’s got a voice in this locker room and at this time of the year, everybody’s got an impact on the game, so this is a collective effort. Tonight was a good example of that."

The Blues started finding their way, sifting through the rubble of a 15-18-4 start. They would pull out of the gutter a franchise 11-game winning streak that fueled a 30-10-5 finish, and the rest is history.

And now, they're in the second round for the first time since 2017 and third time in the past four seasons.

"They're a relentless bunch. They don't quit. They just keep going," Berube said. "They're a tight group in there. They really play for each other. We talk about working and playing for each other on the ice all the time, and that's what they do.

"We all have a goal in mind. We got through one part of it, basically. We wanted to get in the playoffs which we did. We ended up beating a real good hockey team over there, Winnipeg Jets, and now we're moving on to the next opponent. And that's where we're at right now."

The Blues got healthy, slowly but surely, they -- knock on wood -- are relatively-speaking healthy, or healthy enough to play, and they keep riding that wave of momentum and emotion.

"I think once we got everybody healthy," Pietrangelo said of when he felt things started to click. "I know you don’t want to use injuries as an excuse, but once we got everybody healthy … and again we had some good meetings behind closed doors that are going to stay behind closed doors. Sometimes it’s not easy to look in the mirror when things are going tough, and going good, but we did that and I’ll tell you what, like I said, I’m proud of this group that we grabbed this thing and we’re moving on."

And then there's Binnington, who took the league by storm. First, winning 24 of his first 30 starts (24-5-1) and finishing with a league-best 1.89 goals-against average and fourth in the league in save percentage at .927. He took every punch, body blow and opposing chant from the Manitoba 'Whiteout' faithful, only to resist every challenge and found a way to persevere.

"I wanted a sweep to be honest, but I learned it's a tough game in the playoffs and teams are good and every game you have to prepare the same way and stay composed," Binnington said. "There's a lot of adversity there. It was fun and exciting for me. This team has been great all year that I've been here. We're excited. It's a great feeling for us and it's great to close at home.

"... Those are some good numbers for the second half. We've been great and things are always more fun when you're winning. We've been enjoying it and we're a resilient group."

That they are, and bow the Blues have their eyes set on the Dallas Stars or Nashville Predators for round two, which Oakville High product Pat Maroon said won't be a problem.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jordan Binnington for all intents and purposes, took over the Blues goal on
Jan. 7 and has not relinquished it since.

He was asked what this meant to him in terms of being from St. Louis, the challenging season he had and how far he's come. The succinct reply pretty much typifies everyone in the locker room: unfinished business.

"It's round one. Now we go to round two. It's not over," Blues forward and St. Louisan Pat Maroon said. "The crowd was unbelievable [Saturday]. They were into it. It's great to see, being from St. Louis. Coming to playoff games as as a kid and seeing the crowd, it was exciting. They were into it and we got off to a good start. They were crazy the whole game. It's round one, emotional game. Glad the boys hung in there, got the 'W' tonight. We've got to focus for round two."

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