I really believe that the Blues are set up for postseason success. Seriously. Yeah, I know, you’ve heard it all before. You’re telling me to dump the Kool-Aid, and come back home to reality.
I get it.
The Blues have existed as an NHL resident since 1967 and have never won a Stanley Cup.
When spring kicks in, two things happen on an annual basis: The Cardinals’ baseball season begins, and the Blues’ season ends prematurely with another postseason ejection.
The Blues always let the fans down.
The postseason is an exercise in futility and torment.
The Blues are Sisyphus. In case you don’t know, he was a grinder. Played on the fourth line in ancient times. And every time he’d push the humongous boulder up the hill, the big rock would roll back down.
(Look, I’m reaching for a lame metaphor here, and trying to be silly with it. Work with me, OK?)
Anyway, the weight of expectations made the puck feel like a huge slab. No wonder Sisyphus was left exhausted by the endless task. (Not only that, but he was older that Jay Bouwmeester — who is playing great by the way.) But Sisyphus refused to capitulate and give in to gravity. He kept trying to push that boulder to the top.
A lot of sports towns had — or have — their own Sisyphean burden.
A few examples:
The Cubs won a World Series in 1908 … and didn’t do it again until 2016 to end about 15,000 made-up curses that served as a cover for a bad organization.
The Red Sox won a World Series in 1918… and didn’t break their fictional curse until 2004.
The city of Cleveland was waiting and waiting … having last won a major-league team championship in 1964, when the Browns captured the NFL title. The blight ended in 2016 when LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the NBA mountaintop.
The Houston Astros: “born” in 1962; first World Series title in 2017.
The Philadelphia Eagles: didn’t win their first Super Bowl until the 2017 season. The first Super Bowl was played at the end of the 1966 season.
More on point, the Washington Capitals entered the NHL as an expansion team in 1974, and didn’t party with the Stanley Cup until 2018. Like the Blues, the Caps had many outstanding regular seasons along the way before winning the sacred chalice.
And the Blues are hardly alone historically as they stand outside in the cold while other franchises are inside winning the Stanley Cup. The Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs each have gone 50 seasons without picking up the Stanley Cup — the two longest streaks in the NHL. Buffalo and Vancouver are next in line at 47 years.
But the 2018 Capitals were the latest NHL team to ride those blades of glory to the ultimate triumph after decades of slip-sliding into postseason flops.
The NY Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1940 — and not again until 53 seasons later.
The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup in 1961, and skidded through 47 seasons until hoisting the Cup in 2010. And the ‘Hawks won two more after that (2013 and ‘15.)
The Los Angeles Kings were part of the NHL’s aggressive size-doubling expansion in 1967, but didn’t win ol’ Stanley until 2012. (And then again in 2014.)
It’s gotta be the Blues’ turn one of these years, right?
After a horrendous start to the season, this Blues’ team (41-27-8) is shaping up handsomely as a legitimate contender.
They have several key factors going for them:
1. Hot goaltending. Since rookie Jordan Binnington moved in as the primary starter back on Jan. 7, the Blues are 25-8-2 and have the league’s second-best save percentage (.941) in 5-on-5 play. That includes the second-best save percentage (.863) on high-danger chances. And the No. 1 save percentage (.912) on all scoring chances at 5-on-5. It’s hardly a coincidence that the Blues also own the second-best NHL points-won percentage since Jan. 7. After defeating Vegas 3-1 on Monday night, the Blues rank 6th in NHL with a 2.68 goals-against average.
2. The balanced scoring. The Blues are tied for the league lead for the most number of players (11) that have scored 10 or more goals this season. During their 4-0 home stand capped by the victory over Vegas, the Monday’s home game against Las Vegas, the Blues got goals from 12 different players — and 18 different players had at least one assist. And over the last six games (5-0-1) the Blues have prospered on goals from 14 different players.
Coach Craig Berube can roll four lines and realistically expect a jolt of offense from each group. During the 4-0 home stand at Enterprise, the fourth line of Ivan Barbashev, Alex Steen and Zach Sanford combined for six goals and eight assists.
And Blues’ defensemen score lots of goals and make slick passes to trigger scoring chances. During the team’s current 5-0-1 hot streak, Blues defensemen have combined for four goals and 15 assists. And seven of the setups were first assists.
Blues defensemen have scored 45 goals overall this season. That leads the league.
3. Ryan O’Reilly wins faceoffs, and that’s crucial for possession time and a territorial edge come playoff time. Only two centers have taken more faceoffs than O’Reilly this season. And how’s this for consistency? He’s won 57 percent in the defensive zone and 57.6% in the offensive zone.
4. The Blues top line is formidable: That would be O’Reilly centering Vladimir Tarasenko and Brayden Schenn. Since banding together on Jan. 23 — and despite some interruptions because of injuries to Schenn and Tarasenko — the No. 1 line has combined for 28 goals and 45 assists over a 28-game stretch. But they haven’t played together in all 28 games because of injuries.
5. The Blues are an excellent possession-based team. Since the unofficial season-turnaround point, Dec. 11, the Blues are fourth overall in the NHL and own the No. 2 record in the Western Conference (30-13-4, .681.) Much of the reversal can be attributed to these jump-out metrics: they rank first in the NHL since Dec. 11 in shots-for percentage (54.4), second in scoring-chances percentage (54.96), and first in high-danger scoring chance percentage (58.45.)
(Related note: the Blues are ranked No. 1 in the West since Jan. 3 with a 26-9-4 mark. And they are No. 1 in the West and third overall since Feb. 1 with a record of 19-5-3.)
6. Berube has done a stellar job as coach, period. He has keen instincts for assembling line combinations. Nothing rattles this man, and the players appreciate his honesty and personal character. They’re gung-ho about competing for him. The team chemistry — so detrimental for so long — has improved substantially under Berube’s leadership.
7. The Blues have been at their best against the most elite NHL teams. Because of their horrendous start to the season, the Blues presently are 13th overall in the NHL. But they’ve done very well against the 12 teams ahead of them in the overall NHL standings.
In 32 games against Tampa Bay, Boston, Calgary, San Jose, Washington, Toronto, Winnipeg, NY Islanders, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Las Vegas and Nashville the Blues are 20-9-3. Against the big boys the Blues have seized 43 of a maximum 64 points for an exceptional .672 points percentage.
Since Dec. 11, the Blues are 12-5-3 against the top 12 teams (.675.)
Against Western Conference teams that would be in the tournament if the playoffs started today, the Blues are 15-8-2 (.640.)
8. The young players are maturing, and it’s a nice look. I’m primarily talking about forwards Robert Thomas and Ivan Barbashev, and defenseman Vince Dunn. And kudos to another young forward, Oskar Sundqvist, who has 14 goals this season after entering the campaign with only two career goals.
9. The Blues are an outstanding team that plays with an underdog edge and mentality. And that’s exactly what you want.
10. The Blues’ inner steel was reinforced by the awful start to the season. This team already has shown that it can handle adversity by pushing through the worst of times. That mental toughness should serve them well.
Part of the Blues’ problem is living and co-existing with postseason ghosts of the past. These players carry a load of psychological poison around — all because of past failures they had no part of. One of the NHL’s most prominent stars had to overcome anxieties based on postseason shortfalls.
“Sometimes you just want to be in history. You want to be all-time — I don’t want to be the guy who wins almost every year but isn’t successful as a team,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said a few years ago, after the Caps endured another premature postseason exit.
“It’s something I want to do right now. I want to be successful — but not by myself. I want to be like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who led their teams to (NBA) championships. It’s something I think about.”
But between now and the start of the NHL playoffs, the Blues must leave the past behind and create a new history.
Thanks for reading …