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Coaches Room

Blues' rise sparked by Berube's influence, Binnington's ascent

MacLean says St. Louis playing looser, thanks to confidence in rookie goalie

by Paul MacLean / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2018-19 NHL season by one of three former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Don Nachbaur will take turns providing insight.

In this week's edition, MacLean, former coach of the Ottawa Senators, breaks down the keys to the recent success of the St. Louis Blues, who have posted 11 consecutive victories, the longest winning streak in their history.

The St. Louis Blues were in last place in the NHL on Jan. 3. There were questions surrounding the team about general manager Doug Armstrong's future and about which players might be moved at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline on Monday at 3 p.m. ET, including the likes of foundation defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko.

Seven weeks later, the Blues (32-22-5) are on an 11-game winning streak, lead the Dallas Stars by six points (69-63) for third place in the Central Division and have gone from likely sellers to potential buyers on the market.

What a remarkable turnaround.

As a coach in that position, when things suddenly are trending this well, you sit in that dressing room almost hoping management doesn't become a buyer in the days before the deadline because you don't want to disrupt the vibe that's going on with your team. You want to say: "Don't do anything, we're playing good, leave us alone."

Here's the thing: Any changes to the chemistry going on right now, well, you never know. You change one player and it can make a huge, huge difference in the chemistry of your team. So I think a lot of the guys in that room are saying: "Just leave us alone, just let us keep going, we've got things going on."

It will be interesting to see what Armstrong does - or doesn't do - in the coming days.

When you break down the reasons for the Blues' incredible turnaround, it has been a combination of factors that have led to the success. The obvious ones would be the influence of coach Craig Berube and the Cinderella story that is rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, but there are some X's and O's alterations in the team's system of playing that have played a major role as well.

Berube replaced Mike Yeo as coach on Nov. 20 and seems to have given the Blues a bit more freedom out on the ice. Under his watch, they've seemed to have found their game.

Video: STL@MIN: Binnington shuts out Wild, sets rookie mark

Then you have Binnington come in and start winning games. Goaltending consistency gives a team confidence, especially from an unexpected source. This kid has just kept winning and winning; he's 12-1-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and four shutouts, including an active eight-game winning streak, the longest by a rookie goalie in Blues history.

What Binnington has done is taking the concept of "being careful" out of the game for the rest of the team. They don't have to worry that one little slip-up will end up in the back of their net because they know Binnington, more often than not, will be there for them. Everything just flows and becomes liquid from there.

One thing I've noticed is the Blues look to be playing a faster-paced game. They're not the fastest team in the League in terms of skating ability, but they are playing a quicker more up-tempo game, in terms of puck movement, breakouts, all of it.

Where you really notice that aspect of their game is on the forecheck. They hardly spend any time in their own zone. Knowing Binnington has their backs, they are preoccupied with attacking, attacking, attacking. And when they lose the puck in the offensive zone, the step on the gas pedal to get it back.

Very rarely do we see them have extended shifts in their own zone when they are defending. It happened in the third period Tuesday night when forward Zach Hyman and center Auston Matthews scored 31 seconds apart for the Toronto Maple Leafs to tie the game at 2-2, a game the Blues ended up winning in overtime on a goal by center Ryan O'Reilly. 

Certainly that little lapse in the third period was the exception to the rule. Normally the Blues are the ones putting pressure on the opposition, creating zone time in the offensive zone, spreading the ice and using the points.

When they don't have the puck, their back pressure and gap control from the defense has been really, really tight above the red line. It's hard for teams to get into their zone with any kind of numbers. They haven't been giving up many odd-man rushes. It's not going to happen. And that's made a big difference.

Video: MTL@STL: Bouwmeester beats Price on breakaway

When opponents do have the puck in the Blues end, St. Louis has the beef on defense to disrupt the other team's cycle. Parayko is 6-foot-6, Pietrangelo is 6-foot-3, Jay Bouwmeester is 6-foot-4. Size still does matter when it comes to certain aspects of NHL play, including knocking forwards off the puck or cutting off the east-west passes opponents like to use these days. The key is all three of those guys are moving the puck quickly up ice once they get it, which makes for an effective transition game.

The Blues have been better in so many aspects of the game: mentally, systematically, physically, emotionally, you name it. Through all of it, they seem to be having fun, and that's reflected in the standings. Who knows where they'll end up in the Central Division, but they look like they're pretty solid in third.

In the process, they're sending a message they're looking to do some damage come Stanley Cup Playoff time. 

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