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Blues face challenges, embrace 'new opportunity' in Stanley Cup defense

Will raise banner, begin quest for consecutive NHL championships against Capitals

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

The appreciation for the St. Louis Blues' first Stanley Cup championship remains evident around the city nearly four months after their clinching win against the Boston Bruins on June 12.

"You go into the grocery store and people shake your hand and just start crying and say, 'Thank you,' still now," forward Vladimir Tarasenko said this month.

The Blues enjoyed it so much they'd love to do it again.

They'll raise their first Stanley Cup banner and begin their title defense when they play their season-opening game against the Washington Capitals at Enterprise Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

"It's going to be tough, that's the thing," said center Ryan O'Reilly, winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "We have to completely reinvent ourselves but at the same time keep certain staples that we learned in the playoffs and over the course of the year: how even-keel you have to be when the highs are there and the lows are there, and just keep going back to work." 

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The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, but there hadn't be a repeat winner before that since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. The Blues can ask the Capitals, the 2018 champions, how difficult repeating can be. 

Like the Blues, who are without forward Pat Maroon (signed with Tampa Bay Lightning) and defenseman Joel Edmundson (traded to the Carolina Hurricanes) from their Game 7 lineup against Boston, the Capitals brought back most of their Cup-winning roster last season. But despite finishing first in the Metropolitan Division for a fourth straight season, they were eliminated by Carolina in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Mental fatigue was as big a challenge for the Capitals as was the physical toll coming off a short offseason. 

"I don't think the beginning was that hard, but halfway through the season and the last part of the season, that's the toughest part mentally, I think," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "You've got to work through it even if you're tired and you had a short summer. That's where it really gets tough mentally."

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong mentioned potential fatigue as part of his reasoning for acquiring defenseman Justin Faulk in a Sept. 24 trade with the Hurricanes for Edmundson and prospect Dominik Bokk (and an exchange of draft picks). Along with Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko, Faulk gives St. Louis three strong right-shot defensemen to balance lefties Jay Bouwmeester, Vince Dunn and Carl Gunnarsson.

"When you play late into the spring, fatigue can set in, and I think now having three sets of defensemen that, for (lack of) a better term, you don't have to shelter or hide is going to be very advantageous," Armstrong said.

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St. Louis' uncommon road to the Cup last season has been well documented. The Blues were 15-18-4 and in last place in the NHL on Jan. 3 and went a League-best 30-10-5 the remainder of the regular season to finish third in the Central Division. That surge carried into the playoffs with series wins against the Winnipeg Jets (six games), Dallas Stars (seven), San Jose Sharks (six) and the Bruins (seven). 

The Blues know it would be unwise to try to come back from last place again this season, particularly with a target on their back as the reigning champions. So they will have to forge a different path.

"It's a new opportunity" St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington said. "Obviously, it's a different situation. We're at the top right now. [Opponents are] going to come at us every game. It doesn't really change. The second half of the season, we had to be at our best every game and keep progressing the right direction. It doesn't change."

Maybe Binnington won't be able to duplicate his numbers from his rookie season, when he was 24-5-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average and .927 save percentage following a Dec. 10 callup. But the Blues will need the 26-year-old to provide elite goaltending and others to play similarly to how they did from Jan. 3 on last season.

"A lot of times when you win, you have every single guy playing at his maximum capability and it's hard for every guy to reach that level, especially when you're a little bit mentally drained the second year," said Capitals forward Carl Hagelin, a member of the Penguins' 2016 and 2017 Cup-winning teams. "You might think back that it was kind of easy to win, but once you're in there you realize how hard you had to work to get there."

Video: 31 in 31: St. Louis Blues 2019-20 season preview

The first step is to qualify for the playoffs in a deep Central Division that had five teams make it last season: the Blues, the Stars, the Jets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Nashville Predators. For that reason, Blues coach Craig Berube has stressed the importance looking ahead instead of being caught up in what they accomplished last season.

"When we talk about moving on, we can't sit there and [say], 'Aw, we're Stanley Cup champions.' You've got to work," Berube said. "It's a tough league. It's tough to make the playoffs. There's a lot of good teams. Our division's very good. We've got to get ready."

But the Blues can look around their locker room and no longer wonder if they're good enough to win the Cup. They know.

"I've never been in this situation, but, obviously, the story is not done, yet," Tarasenko said. "We know it takes a while to build something special. We did it and everybody stayed except [Maroon and Edmundson], so why not try to do this again?" independent correspondent Louie Korac contributed to this story

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