In a season with a later than anticipated start, with a shorten 56 game season to boot, the St. Louis Blues sit at 26 games played, just over the halfway point into the season. Aside from Covid, this St. Louis Blues team has seen many challenges, foreseen and unforeseen.
Coming into the season, the departure of two prominent leaders: arguably the best captain in history Alex Pietrangelo to free agency, and Alexander Steen to retirement. New faces to the roster in Torey Krug, Kyle Clifford, and a steal in free agency in Mike Hoffman, have adjusted very nicely and slotted well into the lineup, despite the shortened camp and no preseason games. Did we mention the injuries? The injury bug has bitten the Blues hard this season, yet the depth this team has risen and has kept the team getting wins and near the top of the standings.
Currently the Blues sit 2nd in the West Division at 32 points with a 14-8-4 record, one point behind the first place Vegas Golden Knights, the team the Blues have a 2-game series with next. To say this series is pivotal may be underscoring it. The Golden Knights have 3 games in hand on the Blues and have injury problems of their own too. They’ve been playing great hockey despite them, led by their captain and public enemy in St. Louis Marc Stone, whose late hit on Tyler Bozak left him injured since these teams met last.
With all the injuries the Blues have taken on and the challenges, they’ve kept winning & staying atop the division. To watch it, it’s been a breath of fresh air in a way to see how the team has adjusted with the new faces in the lineup as well as the new leadership core in O’Reilly wearing the ‘C’. Krug has found his role with the team; him and Justin Faulk have become one of the league’s best defense pairings, holding opposing teams off the scoresheet at 5-5 and generating scoring chances at the other end of the ice. Kyle Clifford has filled a void that the Blues haven’t had since the departure of Pat Maroon: a big body, physically intimidating presence; a style of play that fans in this city have grown to love and appreciate. Doug Armstrong has kept the present team a contender while keeping the future of the team stable for years to come as well. The “Chief”, coach Craig Berube, has done a fantastic job balancing the problems of injuries with keeping everyone accountable on the ice, demanding every player best every night, no matter who it is he inserts in the lineup and playing a 2-way 200-foot game. He has kept the next man up mentality nicely. And Mike Hoffman. Wow. Doug Armstrong may have gotten the steal signing of the offseason with him.
I was weary of this signing with the Blues, given readings and rumblings of past experiences with other teams. I thought he’d mess around with the team’s chemistry, albeit a new chemistry and system with so many new faces replacing old faces. However, Mike Hoffman has been a clutch player once he got settled in with the club. His one timer is threatening, and his offensive instincts have been a danger to goalies and defensemen alike. With Tarasenko’s injury, Hoffman has stepped up in a big way, and has left many doubters, including myself, wrong about the signing. And now with Tarasenko healthy, imagine him on a line with Hoffman centered with O’Reilly, Schenn, a healthy Bozak, or even the budding star in Robert Thomas? Tarasenko and Hoffman alone could make any center look great, however imagine throwing any one of those 4 in there, and you have a deadly offensive trio. Armstrong showed his genius (again) with this signing of 1 year at $4 million, and if the price is right with the future in mind too, I would love to see Hoffman on this team longer.
Jordan Kyrou has snagged a spot and has been great all season long. Teams are taking notice too and are defending him more. He is adjusting to it too and has embraced the challenge. Ville Husso has adjusted nicely since the season’s start, and Jordan Binnington keeps doing what Jordan Binnington does: winning and getting in the heads of opposing players (looking at you San Jose). When Binnington plays with the edge, it’s when he’s at his best, and you love to see the fire that he has.
Which leads us into this upcoming series with Vegas. There will be a lot of firepower on both sides, despite the injuries both teams have. Will we see some fire on the scoresheet? Both teams have the ability to score whenever. The Blues have scored more goals than any team in the West Division. Will we see some fire when Marc Stone takes a shift on the ice? We already saw Justin Faulk drop the mitts with him earlier this season; will there be more? This series could be very indicative of how the Blues handle adversity not only between Vegas, but also this season. If the Blues get a split or even win both, it would be very big momentum booster for the club. However, if Vegas takes both games, will it be a forewarning? It’ll be an opportunity to learn from the losses no doubt, however we don’t want to see the Blues go ice cold in big games later in the season come playoff time.
The Blues past winning experiences from two seasons ago will be crucial to lean on in a two-game series like this. One guy that knows that as well, will be wearing a Vegas jersey: former captain Alex Pietrangelo, making his return to St. Louis for the first time since his signing with Vegas. Think he won’t be fired up for this matchup?
This has the potential to be a matchup in the playoffs. The Blues need to play with fire in this series, and everybody in the locker room knows it. Both teams know how crucial this two game series is. The Blues have taken the tasks this season has dished to them in stride, and have done great given the stories of injuries, and new faces. This midterm season test is the biggest one this season may have to offer. And Binnington bringing the fire as he left the ice against San Jose really reignited this team. Will the fire burn bright against Vegas, or will the Golden Knights extinguish it and put it on ice?
One thing I know for certain: fire and ice make a great combination. It’s been a great ride to this point. I look forward to seeing it all unfold; in this two-game series, and the rest of the way this season.