ST. LOUIS — When the St. Louis Blues traded for Ryan O’Reilly in the off-season, they received an All-Star calibre player still seeking post-season success.
He fit right in with a franchise still seeking its first Stanley Cup after 52 years of existence.
While neither has found what they are looking for yet, they are both one step closer.
The Blues’ win over the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs was welcomed by the team’s long-suffering fans, who watched their team climb into the post-season from the bottom of the standings in January.
It was also the first series win in three tries for O’Reilly, a 10-year veteran centre now on his third team.
“It’s an incredible relief and excitement,” he said. “To where we were at the beginning of the year, to crawl our way and how hard guys have worked for each other and to get in, it’s amazing. It just provides that excitement because that’s the most important thing when you’re training in the summer and you look at the beginning of the year you want to get in and compete for a Stanley Cup.”
O’Reilly Hasn’t Played in April Very Often
Success in April has been fleeting for O’Reilly, a 28-year-old Canadian. His teams failed to make the playoffs in four of his six seasons in Colorado and he was a spectator in all three seasons at Buffalo.
Colorado lost in six games to San Jose in 2009-10 as a No. 8 seed during O’Reilly’s rookie season. After a three-year absence, O’Reilly and the Avalanche won the Central Division, only to be upset by Minnesota in seven games.
“Usually at this time, it’s a frustrating time,” O’Reilly said. “You’re just trying to salvage a decent season personally. Now to have the meaning and this purpose, to prepare for the playoffs, going in there, trying to sort out our seed, playing meaningful hockey and getting ready for what we train for, it’s what you dream of doing, which is competing for the Stanley Cup. It’s what I’ve wanted, and unfortunately it’s taken me a long time to get back in there, but I’m excited. I’m happy with this group, and to be part of it is special.”
It didn’t start that way.
Rocky Start in St. Louis Turned Around Nicely
O’Reilly’s departure from Buffalo was rocky. Days after the team finished with the worst record in the NHL, he told reporters he had lost his love of the game.
The losing followed him to St. Louis as the team had a league-low 34 points on Jan. 2. Coach Mike Yeo was fired and was replaced by Craig Berube. It seemed like the O’Reilly curse was just another chapter to add to the heartbreak of Blues fans.
But the curse turned into luck as O’Reilly was the only player on the ice for all 82 regular-season games. He scored 28 goals and finished with 49 assists.
And the team came together after rookie goalie Jordan Binnington was called up. St. Louis won a franchise record 12 straight games and finished the season with 99 points.
O’Reilly continued his strong play into the playoffs, scoring a pivotal goal in the third period in Game 5 at Winnipeg to start a three-goal comeback that turned the series to the Blues’ favour.
Related: Blues’ Improbable Run Continues
Suddenly, Blues fans have started to allow themselves to believe that the team can make their first run to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970.
“Obviously on the ice, his performance every night, since day one he has been a real good player for us,” Berube said. “He goes against top line on other team. He scores, he plays on the penalty kill, the power play, so his leadership and his play on the ice has been outstanding and I think he’s become a real good leader in the locker room.”
O’Reilly’s versatility sets him apart.
“He can play on the power play, he can play on the half wall, he can play the middle, he can play on the goal line,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn said. “There’s a lot of attributes that make him as good as he is. It’s funny. He’s not just a one dimensional player with a great shot, great speed and good vision. He has all of those things.”
And now O’Reilly has a chance to showcase those skills on hockey’s biggest stage. The Blues open the second round at home against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night.
“I don’t think it just happened overnight,” Berube said. “It took some time. I think they’ve always been a good group outside the rink, but we weren’t and we didn’t have the chemistry on the ice that we have right now. That had to come. And getting that chemistry and playing and working for each other has brought them tighter in the locker room.”
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Joe Harris, The Associated Press