Blues find identity, provide optimism for futureby Dan O'Neill / St. Louis Blues
ST. LOUIS - On Jan. 31, 2017, the Blues were searching.
A 5-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets that night had completed a stretch of five losses in six games.
For the previous five seasons, familiarity, among other things, was a key component to the Blues' success. For the previous five seasons, their regular season success under Ken Hitchcock was unparalleled. For the previous five seasons, they were captained by David Backes and backstopped, in large part, by Brian Elliott. Over that span, they had seen key contributions from reliable veterans like Barret Jackman and Steve Ott. And, just as recently as 2016, acquisitions such as Troy Brouwer had etched their name into Blues playoff lore.
But, on Jan. 31, 2017, the Blues were searching. They sat in a tie for the final playoff spot. The momentum from a 2016 Western Conference Final appearance, the adrenaline from a new-look roster and the familiarity from seasons past had faded. The next morning, General Manager Doug Armstrong announced that the Blues would be turning in a different direction and named Mike Yeo as Head Coach - a position he wasn't slated to assume until the 2017 offseason.
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Yeo's impact was immediate. The Blues blasted the Maple Leafs 5-1 in his first game behind the bench. At the time, it was just the second game in which the Blues beat an opponent by four goals. The honeymoon, however, was threatened the following game. Blues second-year forward Robby Fabbri suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But Yeo and the revitalized Blues answered the bell, sweeping a five-game road trip for the first time in franchise history. Fast forward three weeks and the Blues fielded another roster alteration when then second-leading point-getter Kevin Shattenkirk was dealt to Washington. Again, the Blues' resiliency was tested, and again, the Blues were equal to the task. They went 15-4-2 without Shattenkirk and finished with a 22-8-2 regular season record under Yeo.
Yeo's appointment also came with a resurgence of key individual players. Goaltender Jake Allen had lost four straight decisions and posted a 4.96 goals-against average and a .811 save percentage in his six appearances prior to the coaching change. The change brought the guidance of Assistant GM and newly-named Goaltending Coach Martin Brodeur, and Allen responded with a 16-7-2 record, a 1.85 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage in his final 25 starts. First-year captain Alex Pietrangelo had 25 points and a minus-5 rating in 49 games prior to the switch. He finished with 23 points and a plus-8 mark in his final 31 games.
The uncertainty was starting to wane, the identity was beginning to form, and the momentum was building for the postseason. The Blues had gone from teetering on the brink of missing the playoffs to earning third place in the Central Division and a first-round date with the Minnesota Wild.
A prohibitive favorite, the Wild were coming off one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. They were also the NHL's sixth-best home team during the regular season and were set to host the Blues in Games 1 and 2.
Despite the absence of top-line center Paul Stastny, who was sidelined with a lower-body injury for Games 1-4, and skepticism from the media - 11 of 15 analysts between ESPN and USA Today picked Minnesota - the Blues accomplished the improbable. They defeated the Wild in five games, including three wins at Xcel Energy Center. It was just the second time in team history that the Blues won three road games in a playoff series, while the Wild suffered only their second three-game home losing streak of the year.
Their reward was a second-round date with the Nashville Predators, who were coming off an improbable feat of their own after sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. It was the first-ever postseason meeting between the Blues and Predators.
The margin of error in the playoffs is always tight, as had been the regular season history between these Central Division rivals. The 105 regular-season matchups had yielded just a 28-goal differential in the Blues' favor. Their inaugural playoff series was equally tight. The Predators prevailed in six games after outscoring the Blues by a total of four goals.
In the end, the Blues fell short. No player would tell you that the goal was to upset the Wild in the first round and then relax in satisfaction. But, heading in to the offseason, the Blues have regained familiarity, calmed some concerns, and established grounds for optimism.
With the guidance of Yeo, the resurgence of Allen, and the forecast of their prospects, the Blues aren't searching anymore.