If there is one word that shows up most often in any conversation about how the Blues turned their season around, it is confidence.
This takes the place of the word often used to describe them in those dark days: fragile.
The team’s current six-game winning streak is testament to that turnaround. Each of the past four games had moments, whether it was falling behind by two goals, losing a two-goal lead or wasting chances, that not that long ago would have doomed the Blues. The new Blues shrug off those problems, responding with quick goals and staying in control of their game. Now, the Blues are tightening their grip on their game and on a playoff spot.
So which came first, confidence or wins? Has the team’s confidence grown because they’re winning, or are they winning because they’re more confident?
“Is that a trick question?” coach Craig Berube asked Saturday. Assured that it wasn’t, he said, “It is complicated. … I thought that we were playing some real good hockey and not getting wins that we deserved maybe. And that’s the way it goes, too. But guys can sense that. Guys liked the way we were playing, liked what we were trying to do, and I think that created confidence.”
And that confidence has set the team free.
“I think it shows,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We’re scoring right after they score. It doesn’t matter who makes the mistake, we’re picking that guy up and scoring right away. We’ve got a belief right now that anybody’s going to score. We don’t know what line’s going to score. Everybody’s chipping in. … We have a good mindset right now. Whatever happens happens. We’re going to keep going. If we have to win the game 5-4 or 1-0, we’re going to do it. We’re going to keep going. Sometimes it takes the whole game or overtime. It doesn’t matter to us right now.”
Another common thread is this: The team is playing more as a team than it was earlier in the season. It took longer than many expected for this team to come together, but once it did, it played like many thought it would.
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“(Before), we don’t get pucks out, don’t get pucks in, doing turnovers, trying to skate through the whole team. Now, we know when it’s time to make a play and when it’s time to chip it out, chip it in. That’s the biggest difference, I think. Before, we never did those adjustments. We thought we could make a play the whole time, and obviously in this league you can’t. Sometimes you have to get it out of your own zone or get it in and get a change. We’re doing that a lot better now.”
“It’s taken a long time,” goalie Jake Allen said, “but I think a lot of guys are playing for each other again and I think at the start of the year, we were playing as individuals. We weren’t winning or coming close. Now we’re finding ways to keep ourselves in the game and keep battling. It’s impressive and I think it’s fun, it really is. I think it’s enjoyable to come to the rink. At the beginning of the year, at times it wasn’t.”
Berube said he saw the first signs of the Blues’ turnaround on the Western Canada trip right before Christmas, where they won two out of three, but various analytics show the Blues play took a big jump about a week before that. What actually brought it on is hard to say.
The jump happened right around the Blues’ overtime win over Colorado, when Ryan O’Reilly scored a short-handed goal after Vladimir Tarasenko was penalized for using Colton Parayko’s stick. It was also about the time that Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford fought in practice. Less dramatic, it could have been that it just took a while for Berube’s methods to kick in (it was about three weeks after the coaching change) or just that players started playing how they were supposed to independently of anything.
“I think (Berube) helped us get back to … finding that identity,” O’Reilly said, “(that) hard to play, hard-on-every-puck mentality. I think once we got consistent within that, we started to play better, we started to get bounces. We invested in the game in the right way and it obviously turned things around for us.”
“Craig always talked about having the right mindset, being stronger mentally,” Sundqvist said. “He was saying for that whole first month, basically every single day.”
“I didn’t know how long it would take,” Berube said. “Obviously, when you’re winning, it’s gonna create confidence for sure. Before Christmas, on that road trip out west, I thought it was really coming. But we weren’t winning as much, enough, at the time. But I thought it was coming. I thought our game was coming and the way we wanted to play. And I thought the confidence was really starting to come then.”
The confidence has arrived. So have the wins.
“It’s unbelievable how much we’ve stepped up our game since the beginning of the year,” Allen said. “We were all part of this. We were all over the place. Some guys were in it, some guys weren’t. But the last month maybe, everyone’s jumped on board. It’s unbelievable. Obviously I’ve been watching from a distance, but it’s night and day the way we’re playing. If you ask any one of the players, coaches, we’re all on the same page and it’s gut-check time because a lot of us have been in this situation before and we rally to get points and we found our way back into the picture, but we’re still not done.”
Goalie Jordan Binnington was named the NHL’s first star of the week after going 3-0 with a .954 save percentage and a 1.31 goals-against average. It’s the second time in a month Binnington has been honored by the league. He was the second star the week of Jan. 7. He’s the first Blues goalie to be the league’s top star for the week since Chris Mason in March of 2009.