At this time last year the St. Louis Blues were nearing rock bottom. They dropped to last overall after games played on Jan. 2 and seemed hopelessly out of playoff contention, much less Stanley Cup contention, in a league where the standings tend to change little after Thanksgiving.
They weren’t a bad team, but they lacked direction and defensive structure, and replacing Mike Yeo with interim coach Craig Berube in November didn’t produce immediate results.
They came around gradually, as they figured out how to best balance their size and skill and as Jordan Binnington emerged as a franchise goaltender. Their unlikely worst-to-first journey ended in June with the franchise’s first championship, followed by a three-year contract for Berube that erased “interim” from his title.
Winning the Stanley Cup takes such a deep physical and emotional toll that winners often suffer a Cup hangover and rarely repeat: The Pittsburgh Penguins’ wins in 2016 and 2017 made them the first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998.
The Blues are showing signs they can repeat — and do it without having to rise from the depths again.
Despite losing top goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko to shoulder surgery in late October, the Blues have built a seven-game winning streak and own the top spot in the Western Conference.
Minus Tarasenko, who isn’t expected back before late March, several players have stepped up: Brayden Schenn (17 goals) has matched the total he scored in 72 games last season, and Jaden Schwartz (11 goals) has as many as he scored in 69 games last season. David Perron, who has four game-winners among his 16 goals and team-leading 39 points, is on pace to exceed last season’s 23 goals and 46 points.
As a team, the Blues ranked fifth in power play and penalty killing and were fourth in goals-against through Friday’s games.
“It’s crazy what a little bit of winning and confidence will do for a hockey team, and we’re feeling it as a hockey team,” Schenn said last week in Los Angeles. “We believe in one another.”
That belief can carry them far again, but Schenn said he’s not looking ahead.
“After what we’ve been through last year, we don’t try and get too high or low because it can eat away at you,” he said “I think that what we’ve been through last year has helped us this year.”
The big difference is they’re now the target, not the hunter.
“We’re getting the best of every team. One, because of what we did last year, but two, where we are in the standings. Teams are trying to catch us,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has contributed 10 goals and 30 points and should eclipse the 13 goals and 41 points he had last season. “We’re going to expect the same thing the rest of the way.”
They’ve handled that pressure well so far.
“I think it comes from last season when we were relentless and we faced a lot of adversity and we realized you’ve got to play hard every night to be successful, and thankfully we started the year off well,” Binnington said. “Those early games are important, getting those points, and we want to keep that going throughout the rest of the season.”
They do things big in Texas …
The annual New Year’s Day Winter Classic, which will match the Dallas Stars against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday at the Cotton Bowl Stadium, will showcase all things Texan and pay tribute to the famed state fair.
Cotton Bowl Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Ricky Williams will participate in the ceremonial puck drop, and according to the NHL, second-intermission festivities on the field surrounding the rink will feature jugglers, a rodeo clown, a sword swallower, a fire breather, trick roping and horse riding, dance teams and a rodeo show.
Sounds like fun, but can they top the Vegas Golden Knights’ standard intermission entertainment?
The Winter Classic has become the NHL’s second signature event, after the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the league risks reducing the novelty by staging too many other outdoor games under the Heritage Classic or Stadium Series labels.
Wednesday’s game will be the second of three scheduled outdoor ventures this season: Winnipeg defeated Calgary in Regina, Canada, in October, and the Kings will face the Avalanche at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs on Feb. 15.
The most memorable games were in iconic venues such as Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Notre Dame Stadium, and at Dodger Stadium in 2014 between the Kings and the Ducks. There aren’t many comparable settings that can preserve the freshness that makes outdoor games appealing.
Ticket sales for the Winter Classic reportedly hit 84,000 by Friday, with 20,000 fans expected to make the trip from Nashville. The attendance record for an NHL outdoor game is 105,491 at the 2014 Winter Classic between Toronto and Detroit at Michigan’s Big House.
The weather forecast called for clouds and temperatures in the 50s, which shouldn’t be a problem for the refrigeration unit that makes outdoor games possible almost anywhere.
World junior tournament proving perilous
Forward Alexis Lafreniere, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL draft, was helped off the ice without putting weight on his left leg after he collided with Russia’s goalie during Canada’s loss on Saturday at the world junior tournament. Lafreniere’s left knee was being tested after he left the game.
The skillful Lafreniere, who plays for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, had lived up to his billing by earning four points in Canada’s tournament-opening 6-4 victory over the U.S. on Thursday. Here’s hoping his injury is minor and won’t affect his future.
The Kings also have reason for concern because forward Rasmus Kupari, the 20th overall pick in the 2018 draft, sustained an apparent knee injury in Finland’s opener and was ruled out of the rest of the tournament. Kupari, 19, had six goals and eight points for Ontario of the American Hockey League before joining his country’s junior team.
Ducks prospect Trevor Zegras was named player of the game on Friday for earning four primary assists in Team USA’s 6-3 victory over Germany. The tournament began on Dec. 26 and will run through Jan. 5. The NHL Network scheduled 20 live telecasts from Ostrava and Trinec.
Ovechkin says nyet to NHL All-Star game
Call it the some-stars game, because Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin said Friday that he will skip the event for the second straight season. Ovevchkin, 34, said he prefers to rest to prepare for the second half of the season, and he will get enforced rest in the form of a one-game league-imposed suspension before or after the All-Star weekend in St. Louis next month.
“The most important thing is not the regular year, it’s the playoffs,” he told reporters.
It’s difficult to criticize him for bowing out. The current three-on-three mini-tournament All-Star format is better than most ideas the NHL has tried but it’s still a lot of fuss for nothing.