By Lou Korac
The climb to the top of the mountain was treacherous, at times tumultuous, but now that the Blues have reached the pinnacle of the Central Division standings despite that it could be short-lived, it’s quite the achievement for a team left for dead three months ago.
It was short-lived, all the way up to 9:35 p.m.
The Blues did their part, albeit the hard way, with a 3-2 shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday at Enterprise Center to close the regular season at 45-28-9, good for 99 points.
They sat back and waited for the results to come from Nashville and Glendale, Ariz. where the Predators were hosting the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets were playing at the Arizona Coyotes.
The Predators won the division by overcoming a 2-0 deficit and defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 to win the Central for the second straight season.
The Blues finished where they started on Saturday, in third place and will face the second-place Winnipeg Jets, who downed the Arizona Coyotes 4-2 to claim home ice edge.
The Blues and Jets are expected to open Game 1 on Wednesday at Bell MTS Place, with a likely Game 2 on Friday before Games 3 and 4 in St. Louis. The league will announce dates and times on Sunday.
But who could have imagined anyone seeing the Blues being where they are when they were 15-18-4, good for 34 points, on Jan. 3 when they were last in the standings?
What an achievement for a team that was left for dead, after so much promise that started with the packed house at Ballpark Village to the disappointment of the season’s start to finishing 30-10-4. It’s been quite the ride.
“Very proud,” said Blues interim coach Craig Berube, who replaced Mike Yeo as coach on Nov. 19. “Where we were and where we are now, those guys deserve a ton of credit for the turnaround. They did a great job. Great leadership from our leaders. A lot of character in our dressing room, and it came through. Did a good job, everybody. We needed everybody and everybody helped.”
The Blues, who won their final seven home games and 14 of 16, had to wait the results of the games Saturday night to know their fate.
“Arizona’s playing good hockey right now even though they’re out and Chicago, they’re known to score some goals,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said. “They’ve got a lot of offensive firepower. Anything can happen. We’re looking forward to watching, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who you play. The league’s so tight and teams are so good, but hopefully we’ll end up with some home ice advantage.”
Jordan Binnington made 23 saves to finish with 24 wins, a Blues rookie record. Binnington was 24-5-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and five shutouts after making his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Vladimir Tarasenko and Schenn each had a goal and an assist for St. Louis, which went 9-1-2 in its final 12 regular-season games.
Binnington finished 3-0 in shootouts this season, stopping 10 of 11 shooters. His goals-
“That’s pretty awesome (to be in first place),” Binnington said. “It’s been a good second half so hopefully we can keep building off that and prepare for the playoffs.
“I’m very humbled and it’s been a lot of fun being part of this team and this League is incredible. It’s been a great experience for me so far and I’m excited for what’s to come.”
Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron scored in the shootout, and Binnington made saves on Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.
Thatcher Demko made 36 saves for the Canucks (35-36-11), who failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight season.
The Canucks didn’t make this easy on the Blues by any stretch. Trailing 1-0, Vancouver got two power-play goals to tie the game twice and force the Blues to play for the extra point.
Tarasenko scored a power-play goal at 10:29 of the third period to give the Blues a 2-1 lead before Pettersson scored on the power play at 17:51 to tie the game 2-2.
Schenn scored to give the Blues a 1-0 lead at 11:50 of the first period, his 17th of the season when he received a cross ice pass from Tarasenko.
“I think we’re reading off each other pretty good right now, finding each other, getting chances, shots on goal,” Schenn said of his line with Tarasenko and O’Reilly. “We’re obviously going to get a tough matchup in the playoffs. We’ve got to keep on working and working for our chances.”
Tanner Pearson tied the game at 1-1 with a power-play goal at 3:53 of the third period.
But the Blues were resilient, as they’ve been since the turn to 2019. Playing their fifth overtime or shootout game in the final five games to close, and they poured everything they had into putting the pressure on their foes trying to now supplant them from the top of the perch.
“That’s really a big turnaround for this year and obviously it feels nice to be there,” Tarasenko said. “Now we just need to wait when other teams finish their games, and we will see who we’re going to play.”
“We’ll see what happens during the rest of the day, but as a whole we’re happy with where we came from and how we were able to find our game and the biggest part was chemistry and fine tuning our group mojo and where we wanted to be,” Blues forward Alexander Steen said. “It got extremely important for us to turn it around and I think it showed in the way that we played.”
The Blues finished the regular season without defenseman Colton Parayko, who missed his second straight game with a minor mid-body injury that Berube said needs rest more than anything but expects to have him ready for the playoffs, and center Tyler Bozak, who was expected to play but was held out for precautionary reasons after he was involved in a car accident on the way to the game.
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports