ST. LOUIS — Last in the NHL in early January, the St. Louis Blues keep making history and celebrating an unlikely run.
After having a league-worst 34 points on Jan. 2, St. Louis became the seventh team to make the playoffs after being in last place at the start of the new calendar year.
Beating the Winnipeg Jets in six games made the Blues the first such team to reach the second round from that far back.
“Within this locker room we had a lot of tough conversations and honest conversations of what we needed to get better,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said.
“We still had belief in this room, as hard as it was or maybe as hard as it was for some people to believe, we felt like we still had a chance and we just kept pushing.”
The Blues set a franchise record with 12 consecutive wins in January and February and have continued their strong play since. They’ll play the winner of the other Central Division series between Nashville and Dallas, which the Stars lead 3-2 with Game 6 at home Monday.
The team’s turnaround is especially meaningful for St. Louis native Pat Maroon, who signed with his hometown team last summer.
“It’s round one, now we go to round two,” Maroon said. “It’s not over.”
Central to the Blues surge was the midseason arrival of goalie Jordan Binnington, who set franchise rookie records with 24 wins and five shutouts. He had a 2.63 goals-against average and .908 save percentage against the Jets to continue the torrid run he and the Blues have been on since January.
“Things are more fun when you’re winning and we’ve been enjoying it,” Binnington said. “We’re a resilient group.”
He stopped 24 of 25 shots in the Blues’ 2-1 win in Game 1 at Winnipeg with all of those saves coming after Jets centre Mark Scheifele sent Binnington sprawling in a collision behind the net in the opening seconds. Binnington wasn’t rattled.
“He’s been composed for quite some time,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. “Mentally never getting out of character, just even keeled, just like our team. That’s what we talk about all the time, staying even keeled. Ups and downs are going to happen and stay with it and he’s done that.”
Berube led a team to the playoffs for the second time after taking over as interim coach. But this is his first series victory after his 2013-14 Philadelphia Flyers bowed out in the first round.
“I think that they are a relentless bunch,” Berube said. “They don’t quit, they just keep going. They’re a tight group in there and they really play for each other.”
After Berube changed up his lines late in Game 5, winger Jaden Schwartz epitomized the Blues’ season with his own furious comeback. The three-time 20-goal scorer had just 11 in 69 regular-season games, and shot a career-low 6%.
Reunited with linemate Brayden Schenn, Schwartz found some chemistry instantly, scoring the Game 5 winner with 15 seconds left and had a hat trick in Game 6.
“Whenever you can step up and help the team out, it’s nice,” Schwartz said. “We’re a team that, it seems like every game we’ve got different guys stepping up in different ways and that’s why we’re so successful.”
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Joe Harris, The Associated Press