In a season filled with inconsistencies, Ryan O’Reilly has been the one consistent on the St. Louis Blues. When he’s in the lineup things happen.
Take the second game in their three-game series against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday in St. Louis, a 3-2 overtime win. O’Reilly was the quarterback in the Blues’ final game-winning stretch down the ice in the waning seconds of overtime. He wrapped around the goal and flicked the puck high over a stunned Cam Talbot for their third straight win after suffering seven straight losses until last week.
Scored with just two seconds remaining, it was the latest overtime goal ever scored in franchise history, and O’Reilly’s fourth goal in two games, giving him 17 for the season (‘O’Reilly’s OT thriller makes it three in a row for Blues,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/11/20). He has also been a beast in the face-off circle with a 60 percent success rate on home face-offs and 58.1 percent on the road. (The league average is 50.7 percent at home and 49.3 percent, according to Puckbase.)
“I had a general idea, kind of, as I was coming into the zone,” O’Reilly told the Post-Dispatch of his game-winner. “I knew we didn’t have much time left and still trying to make a play obviously. But I knew as I was coming toward Schenner (Brayden Schenn) to finish something at the net here and try to attack. Luckily my timing was good.”
O’Reilly is in his 12th season and has played in 845 games, scoring 212 goals, and adding 387 assists for 599 points. He averages 19:46 of ice time in his career.
Navigating the Honda West Division
When the Blues have needed a spark this season, they have leaned on their captain to ride the rough waters of the West Division.
In the first game of the series against the Wild on April 9, O’Reilly had a hat trick and an assist, and he was plus-four. He has 16 goals and 22 assists on the season, and he is neck-and-neck with David Perron for the team lead in points and goals. O’Reilly is the team’s leader in goals ahead of Perron who has 13 goals. Perron leads the team with 26 assists.
According to The Hockey Writers, raised expectations have been laid on the 2019 Conn Smythe winner‘s feet this season. “Having already been a key locker room leader, being rewarded the C on his jersey clearly indicates an increased role in team leadership. There is also an unspoken expectation of increased on-ice production. Not only is he expected to be Ryan O’Reilly, but he’s also filling the shoes of the esteemed former captain Alex Pietrangelo.”
In 2017, the Avalanche tried to sign O’Reilly to a long-term contract extension before he finally became an unrestricted free agent. According to THW, adding to the tension was O’Reilly’s dad and agent who both publicly blasted the Avs for “mistreating” him. It was the tipping point and Joe Sakic pulled the trigger on what has been one of the most talked-about trades since it happened.
In 2015 he was traded by the Colorado Avalanche with Jamie McGinn to the Sabres for a second-round draft pick in 2015 (later traded to San Jose – San Jose selected Jeremy Roy), J.T. Compher, Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov.
O’Reilly became a fan favorite from the moment he was traded to the Blues. He came exactly as advertised, as he was the petrol that powered the Blues to their 2019 Stanley Cup.
That year, he scored 28 goals and added 49 assists in his first season with the Blues. Even more importantly, he was averaging 20:46 of ice time per game and had a plus-22 rating. In his previous season in Buffalo, O’Reilly was minus-23, but scored 23 goals and added 37 assists for 61 points.
Captain, My Captain
Coach Craig Berube made O’Reilly the franchise’s 23rd captain on December 23, 2020, following Pietrangelo (four seasons as captain), David Backes (five seasons as captain), Eric Brewer (four seasons) and Hall of Famers Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis.
“Ryan’s work ethic on and off the ice, and his commitment day-in and day-out is second to none,” Berube said in a statement released by the team (‘Ryan O’Reilly named 23rd captain in St. Louis Blues history,’ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 12/23/20). “He leads by example with how hard he works during practices and our games, and he relays the right message from our coaching staff to our entire team.”
“It’s unbelievable to play with a guy like that,” Perron said after the Blues won the Stanley Cup in 2019.
Fans and players love O’Reilly because he is down-to-earth, and never speaks as if he is larger than the team. This is surprising in that he has carried that rap in Colorado and Buffalo a bit before landing home in St. Louis. He makes his way around the St. Louis community offering cheer and personal encouragement to kids in hospitals, front-line workers, and even the fourth-grade class at Renfro Elementary in Collinsville, Illinois.
According to a story on Fox2 in St. Louis, the team said O’Reilly checked in with Stephanie Vandeford’s fourth-grade class via Zoom. Vandeford had been nominated to be one of the front-line workers invited to a Blues game once the team was able to allow for a limited number of spectators, which led to the web visit.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Ryan would give us his time to meet with fourth graders and talk to them,” Vandeford told the team’s website. “Especially in a year that has been really hard for kids, and nothing seems normal. They’re not socializing and communicating the way they normally would, they’re not having field trips. Ryan did a great job talking to the kids, understanding what they want to see and hear.”
According to Fox 2 in St. Louis, O’Reilly has also shown a sense of leadership in the community. Recently, he offered words of hope and inspiration to a medical doctor who was battling cancer. “Dr. Colleen McEvoy’s phone lit up with text messages and phone calls from friends last November saying she had to go check out the Blues’ Instagram ASAP,” Fox2 reported.
“They all said ‘Oh my God, Ryan O’Reilly is on there talking about you!'” McEvoy told the television station.
When McEvoy opened Instagram, Fox 2 reported that she saw a personal message from the Blues captain that said: “We know you’re strong and you have a wonderful family to fight this battle alongside you. On behalf of myself and the entire Blues team, we wish you the best and we will stand beside you as you continue your fight.”
“The message was incredibly uplifting to McEvoy, who just two months earlier was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer and was going through an aggressive 16-round chemotherapy treatment,” Fox 2 reported.
An uplifting voice is what O’Reilly has provided – a sense of steady and calm amid the turbulence that is the West Division opponents.
When the Blues have been horrific, O’Reilly without hesitation has stepped to the mic to face the media. He’s even thrown shade on himself when he turned a puck over that lead to a Colorado goal. He admitted he got crossed up which led to the goal.
O’Reilly was quoted by stlouisgametime.com as saying after the Avs pummeled the Blues in mid-January: “We embarrassed ourselves tonight. That was very disappointing. The thing is, we came into the game and you could tell we didn’t have the detail in it. The little things steamrolled into big things. It was everyone.
“That was very disappointing,” O’Reilly told stlouisgametime.com. “We came into the game and you could just tell we didn’t have the detail. I think everyone right now, we’re embarrassed. That was not what we do. We stick with it. We compete to the end, and we didn’t.”
The Voyage Ahead
Back to the current state of affairs, the Blues have a daunting task ahead of them as they teeter on the brink of the playoffs in the West. Those two wins against Minnesota helped the Blues statistically climb back into the fourth and final playoff spot – for now. St. Louis can ill afford to lose many games, if any at all, in April. Important games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche, and five more meetings with the Wild await O’Reilly’s Blues. Points are at a premium.
It is make-it-or-break-it time. Put-up-or-shut-up. The season’s test awaits.
He’s been spectacular against Minnesota, for instance. He’s scored four goals and added an assist in just three games against the Wild. The Blues and Wild will meet five more times this season. Games against Vegas and Colorado, as well as Arizona, await the Blues.
With six points in his last five games, O’Reilly is providing the type of leadership and production the Blues have sorely lacked this season. If O’Reilly continues his torrid offensive pace, will it be enough for the Blues’ ship to set sail into brighter sunsets?
All aboard the SS O’Reilly.
Rob Staggenborg covers the St. Louis Blues for TheHockeyWriters.com, as well as hosting several NHL podcasts. He enjoys St. Louis style pizza with gooey cheese, and sitting for hours on end in metro St. Louis traffic listening to sports podcasts. He is a proud U.S. veteran. Visit his website at brockbanner.com
Follow his Blues coverage at STLFanReport.com and on Twitter @RealBrockBanne1