In the 108 days between the Blues finding themselves in last place in the NHL and the conclusion of their winning a first-round playoff series with Winnipeg, I’ve asked team members several times if the opposition they play really matters. It’s my belief that if the Blues play THEIR game, they can beat anyone. That’s what they were able to do in the last two games against Winnipeg, and to be honest if they can do it against the Jets, they really can play their game against everyone and expect to win.
What IS the Blues game? I’ll try to take you through my perception and what they tell me, from back to front.
Jordan Binnington being great: On December 9, recognizing that his evaluation of backup goalie Chad Johnson had been incorrect, Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong made a move. He called up Binnington from San Antonio. Anaheim’s backup, Ryan Miller, had suffered a long-term knee injury, and Armstrong quickly placed Johnson on waivers with the expectation that the Ducks would claim him. They did, and Binnington became a Blue. The 25-year-old got his first start on January 7, and quickly displayed greatness. A Blues team that had concentrated so much on protecting Jake Allen in the defensive zone soon returned to their preferred style of getting the puck deep into the offensive zone, not worrying so much about making a mistake. There’s more to Binnington that being great than just making saves. His team’s style changed because of their confidence in him. They scored more, and allowed fewer goals because of their ability to possess in the offensive zone.
The veteran defensemen returning to form: There are a couple of things at play here. Number one, Jay Bouwmeester had hip surgery last spring, and played like a guy whose career was winding down in the first three months of the season. Once he got his mobility back, Bouwmeester returned to being the world class defenseman the Blues had seen for his first two and a half seasons here. He needs to be able to skate to a spot, get the puck and pass it out of the zone, and he can do that. And Bouwmeester is one of the best in hockey at using his range and stick to deflect passes and get between a shooter and the goalie.
The other thing that happened with the defense was spending time with Larry Robinson coaching them. Robinson came down from the front office to join the staff on November 19 when Mike Yeo was fired, and stuck around until Christmas week. Before Robinson’s arrival, Bouwmeester was a minus-9 performer. From then on, he was a plus-6. Alex Pietrangelo was a minus-6 before Robinson, and a plus-8 after his arrival. Colton Parayko was a plus-6 before and a plus-14 after. Vince Dunn was even before, plus-14 after. And Rob Bortuzzo played in only four of nineteen games under Yeo, but played in 55 of 63 games under Craig Berube, going from a minus-2 before Robinson to a plus-11 afterward.
Robinson got defensemen to stay on their feet and use their sticks more, deflecting passes, shutting down lanes and stealing the puck. His defensive system dramatically changed the Blues fortunes.
Getting their “north” game going: This is what we saw, notably, in the Winnipeg series. I re-watched game five and was astounded that the Jets had possession of the puck in their offensive zone for just thirty seconds of the final 10:58. The Blues aren’t set up to weave in and out and play an international style, dipsy-do, east-west game. Their personnel allows them to get great passes out of the defensive zone to a forward, to speed through the neutral zone and then to keep the puck deep in the offensive zone. This requires willingness to take a hit, the ability to maintain the puck, and unselfishness to go into a corner and get the puck back out to teammates.
When the Blues are going well, they do this. If there were an official “time of possession” stat in the NHL, the Blues would dominate that stat when they’re going well. Almost all their forwards can play that game, and that’s why Berube can roll four lines consistently…because they’re all willing to sacrifice, and strong enough to keep possession.
The fact that they did what they did against a team as big, strong and agile as Winnipeg says something. No other team in the playoffs has a defense crew featuring the size and ability of Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Tyler Myers. Doing what the Blues did to the Jets must send a message to the rest of the league.
Playing hard: This is where Berube comes in. With each of the Blues previous coaches since the lockout, there were effort problems. Mike Kitchen, Andy Murray, Davis Payne, Ken Hitchcock and Yeo each had to deal with seemingly entitled, high draft picks that the organization placed a great deal of value in. When those players decided they wanted different leadership, they seemed to stop giving effort. Under the brusque yet positive Berube, they provide tremendous effort. Players appreciate knowing where they stand, but understand that if they don’t display effort, there’s a chance they’ll be benched. Berube is honest about it, and players have responded. For THIS group, he’s a great fit.
If the Blues are prepared to offer up the effort they did against Winnipeg, and if they get the solid fundamental defense, they can beat anyone. And I don’t see a team out there that Binnington can’t beat. Some dramatic changes made by Armstrong have led to a team that, if they play their game and don’t worry about the opponent, can hoist the Stanley Cup in June.