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Stanley Cup Final

O'Reilly relishing first trip to Stanley Cup Final with Blues

Forward rediscovered love for game to become key piece against Bruins

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

ST. LOUIS -- Think about where Ryan O'Reilly was standing nearly 14 months ago and where he was sitting late Monday. The difference is so striking for the St. Louis Blues center that even he struggles to believe it.

"At times I've got to pinch myself," O'Reilly said. "It's weird."

In many ways O'Reilly's journey to the podium at the Stanley Cup Final following his two-goal performance in the Blues' 4-2 win in Game 4 against the Boston Bruins started April 9, 2018, when he was standing in the Buffalo Sabres dressing room discussing the end of a dreadful season with the local media, talking honestly about what went wrong and why.

 

[RELATED: Complete Bruins vs. Blues Stanley Cup Final series coverage]

 

"I feel throughout the year I lost the love of the game multiple times," O'Reilly said then. "I need to get back to it because it's eating me up."

Fast forward to the present and it's impossible to miss O'Reilly's passion and love for the game, and how important it is to the Blues.

He started Game 4 with a wraparound goal 43 seconds into the first period and then scored off a rebound at 10:38 of the third period to give the Blues a 3-2 lead. That goal was the difference in tying the best-of-7 series going into Game 5 at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"He just makes all of us better," forward Vladimir Tarasenko said. "His work ethic in games and just his attitude, the way he responds and the way he practices all the time and the way he can be in the locker room, is unbelievable. He gives us a lot of positive emotions and it helps our team a lot."

Video: BOS@STL, Gm4: O'Reilly pots early wraparound goal

It took time for the marriage between O'Reilly and the Blues to start working.

St. Louis acquired O'Reilly in a trade from the Sabres on July 1 for forwards Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson, a first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

Optimism was running rampant in St. Louis after the acquisition of O'Reilly and the free-agent signings of forwards Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Pat Maroon. It didn't last long.

The Blues were last in the NHL on the morning of Jan. 3, and O'Reilly, who was leading St. Louis with 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists) through 37 games, was wondering if he was the problem, if he was the reason losing was following him around the NHL.

He made the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice in his first six NHL seasons (2009-15) with the Colorado Avalanche and never came close in his three seasons in Buffalo (2015-18). The Sabres finished last in the League last season with 62 points.

And now the Blues were last too.

"Coming from a bad year, coming over here and having a great team and not doing it at the start, yeah, I felt I was a big part of the reason why we were losing and needed to do something," O'Reilly said. "I was trying to reevaluate what's going on, how I'm a guy that's playing a ton of minutes on this team and we're not winning. It was very frustrating."

Video: BOS@STL, Gm4: O'Reilly beats Rask for second tally

O'Reilly remembers talking to his father, Brian, and to Blues general manager Doug Armstrong about what was going wrong. They assured him that he wasn't the reason the Blues were losing. They told him he needed to be patient with the process.

"My dad told me that it's not going to be easy, it's going to take time, that this is an amazing hockey league and it's going to take a while to build that chemistry," O'Reilly said. "It was a keep working kind of thing, take it day by day and trust that it's going to click eventually. Looking back on it now, it's amazing how when it did click what this turned into and how this whole thing came together."

There are many reasons why it clicked for the Blues, why they had the best record in the NHL after Jan. 3 (30-10-5), including the hiring of Craig Berube as coach on Nov. 19, and the emergence of rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who went 24-5-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 30 games after making his first NHL start Jan. 6.

O'Reilly's impact should not be minimized. He took on a leadership role, was more vocal in the dressing room and on the bench, and the Blues followed him.

"He really has rubbed off on our team in a lot of ways," Berube said. "He's been maybe our best consistent player all year."

The passion O'Reilly said he lost last season, when he admitted to getting stuck in a rut of playing not to lose instead of trying to win, returned. He finished the regular season with an NHL career-high 77 points (28 goals, 49 assists) and was plus-22 in 82 games, and is a finalist for the Selke Trophy awarded to the best defensive forward in the League.

He has 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 23 playoff games.

"I have the greatest job in the world, but losing [stinks]," O'Reilly said. "Losing is the worst part of it and winning is the best part of it. It's why I play the game, to win. For myself, it's not good enough just to play this, have a job and play hockey. It's more than that. You grew up playing to win a Stanley Cup and that's what pushes you to the next level, what makes you give more for those guys next to you, to do something like this."

Like playing hockey into June, something O'Reilly is doing for the first time on a competitive level, something he couldn't even fathom a year ago.

You bet he's pinching himself.

"It doesn't feel like it's June," O'Reilly said. "I just feel like I'm playing hockey and I'm going as long as I can, but usually at this time I'm not doing anything, just resting, away from the game. This is what the dream is."

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