A funny thing happened on the way to opening day of the St. Louis Cardinals season: the St. Louis Blues stole the show.
The beloved hometown frozen Notes were lost early in the season, and St. Louis started tapping its collective fingers, waiting for the Redbirds to take flight. We had to endure a Los Angeles Rams Super Bowl appearance. We had to wonder about the free agent destination of Bryce Harper. We cheered the addition of Paul Goldschmidt. But many, except the most hardcore base of Blues fans, nearly missed that something really, really special was happening at the Enterprise Center.
On Jan. 2, the Blues were in last place. When the regular season closed just three months later, the team was just one point out of first.
Hockey people will tell you that there are really only two things you need for playoff success: a bus to get the team to the games and a goalie who is on fire.
They call him “Binner,” and since the calendar turned to 2019, Blues rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington has been arguably the best netminder in the NHL. His win-loss record was 24-5-1. He had a .927 save percentage and a league leading 1.89 goals-against average. In the Blues first playoff game, he let in a first-period goal, and then clamped down for the rest of the game. The Blues won 2-1. Binner has been absolutely standing on his head.
Interim coach Craig Berube deserves a ton of credit for righting the ship. He played for 17 seasons in the NHL, spending most of his time beating people up. Berube – nicknamed Chief – was an enforcer when he played, and as a coach, he forces the Blues to play to their strengths. There is not much nuance to his coaching style and that has been supremely effective in lighting the requisite fire. He has been helped by the improved health and subsequent improved play of Vladimir Tarasenko. The offseason addition of elite center Ryan O’Reilly also has borne fruit. These Blues are awfully fun to watch.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Blues are playing the Winnipeg Jets. By the time you read this, they will have played three more games in a best of seven series. Anything could have happened; the Jets are a really tough opponent and hot streaks do come to an end.
The Blues should know. It’s been 47 very long years since the Blues advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. They have never won.
On the night of their first playoff game, the Blues were head-to-head with the Cardinals on television. According to Nielsen, more local fans watched the Cardinals play game number 12 of 162 than watched the Blues play the first of a seven-game series. That is not necessarily surprising, nor is it disappointing. Both games were well-watched in the market.
We suspect that the Blues viewership is always impacted by fans who are afraid to believe in the team after 50 years of missed chances. These are the fans who turn on the Cardinals game but check their phones for a Blues update more often than is natural.
Blues fans get nervous. Nervous to invest emotion in the team, nervous to watch seconds tick away at the end of games, nervous to believe that things will change after so many years.
But this team might be different. They are led by an enforcer and a rookie goalie without 50 years of baggage.
Following the Blues first playoff win, a reporter asked “Binner” if this brand of hockey was as nerve-wracking as it looked.
“Do I look nervous?” Binnington replied, without looking at all nervous. “There’s your answer.”