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Conference Final

Blues happy with playoff success but 'have a lot of work left,' GM says

Armstrong discusses rise from last place to reaching Western Conference Final against Sharks with NHL.com

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS -- Doug Armstrong sees a lot of similarities in the way the rosters of the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks have been constructed.

Consistency has been a common thread between these two teams, who will start the Western Conference Final with Game 1 at SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday (8 p.m. ET: NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). The Sharks have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 14 of the past 15 seasons; the Blues have made it in seven of the past eight.

The faces may have changed, but the goal of being serious Stanley Cup contenders remains the same.

 

[RELATED: Sharks vs. Blues series coverage]

 

"San Jose is an experienced team," the Blues general manager said. "They have a lot of guys who have been though the wars. (Sharks GM) Doug Wilson has done a great job of sort of what we try to accomplish here a little bit, which is to retool on the fly."

The two teams last met in the Western Conference Final in 2016, with San Jose winning the best-of-7 series in six games.

"We're a different team, so are they, and we're going to find out just how far we can go," Armstrong said. "We're one of four teams remaining and that's where you want to be. We're not going to play anyone who's not very good right now. We just have to be ready, put our best foot forward, and see where it takes us."

That the Blues have made it this far is remarkable. They were last in the NHL on Jan. 3 but have shown the type of resiliency and fight that has made them one of the top stories of the 2018-19 season.

"The difference is that in October, November, December, we were finding ways to lose. In January, February, March, we were finding ways to win," Armstrong said. "It sounds simple, but with the parity in the League now, that's how slim the margin between winning and losing is.

Video: Blues down Stars in seven, move on to West Final

"Going into the season, I thought that Winnipeg and Nashville were the premier teams in our division. They've proven it the past couple of years. And then I honestly thought the rest of us would be fighting for the remaining spots. I didn't think there was a big difference between the other teams that were competing. And then to have that start we had it was frustrating because we actually had played good hockey in October and November. I think in 12 of our first 14 games we were something like tied or winning heading into the third period and we were under .500. We were finding ways to not have success."

Coach Mike Yeo was fired and replaced by assistant Craig Berube on Nov. 19. Less than six months later, St. Louis is one of four teams still vying for the Stanley Cup, following a Game 7 win in double overtime in the second round against the Dallas Stars.

"Game 7 was a great portion of the story but not the end of the story. We have a lot of work left ahead of us," Armstrong said.

With the Blues and Sharks preparing for Game 1 of the conference final, Armstrong talked to NHL.com about several key topics including Berube, goalie Jordan Binnington and his own job security.

 

Why has this team responded so positively to Berube?

"The thing that Craig has taught me in this time together is that you look at hockey players as hockey players and not so much delve into what makes these kids tick in today's society. I find now is that at the end of the day, they're hockey players. They want to be coached. They want to be held accountable for what they do. And they want direction. You don't need to use all these things you maybe have to do if you are, say, working at Google, to keep their attention. They're hockey players. And Craig treats them like men. He holds them accountable like men. He doesn't play mind games because he doesn't have to. He doesn't BS them. You have to play mind games in tough times or cover lost ground if you're messing with their heads or trying to motivate them artificially. Craig's motivation is, "This is what needs to be done. If you get it done you get to play. If you don't get it done you don't get to play." 

 

Six weeks after making the coaching change, did you ever worry about your own job security?

"Not really. Not to be a wise guy but you can't really control it. Quite honestly, I wasn't worried about it one day and then I was fired the next day in Dallas when I was GM there. So you never know when the axe is coming. The reality is, the axe is going to come in this business at some point. You just sort of do your best until they tell you they don't want you to do your best anymore and hope that when that day comes you've done well enough that someone else thinks you're worth the risk."

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Blues move on to Conference Final

 

Binnington started his first game Jan. 7 and never looked back. Are you as surprised by this Cinderella story as the outside world seems to be?

"I've never been part of it where a guy comes in and does what he's doing. Like everyone you wonder how the story is going to end. He's made me a believer in that he looks like he's very good at the job. He's not getting lucky, he doesn't have a lot of puck luck. He makes sound saves. He makes tough saves look easy. His mental toughness, I was fortunate to spend a few years with Marty Brodeur here, and the mental toughness is what's necessary of how you bounce back from a bad goal or a loss. That's one of Jordan's strengths. He can put things behind him and look ahead."

 

Your power play was just 2-for-22 in the Western Conference Second Round against the Stars. How much does that concern you?

"Power-play goals are hard to come by this time of year. You're going up against the best goalies, which is the No. 1 reason. And you're only going to see on average three to five penalties a game in my estimation. Players don't want to put their teams in precarious situations. At this time of year, you're going to get the best referees too. So I don't see those power-play percentages go up much. Five-on-five scoring is going to be as valuable as ever."

 

How special was it to see a St. Louis kid like Pat Maroon be the double-overtime hero in Game 7 against Dallas in what will go down as one of the more memorable nights in St. Louis sports history?

"I think the games are different now than they are in the regular season. When you look at where the goals are being scored from right now, very few are scored from distance. They're scored from 15 feet and in. That's where a guy like Pat makes his living. He's done a heck of a job for us playing in those harder, dirtier areas. Certainly, from the top of the circles down."

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