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Wednesday Night Hockey

'Wednesday Night Hockey': 5 Storylines

Blues continue push toward playoffs against Blackhawks

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / NHL.com Managing Editor

The St. Louis Blues have gone from last place in the NHL after games of Jan. 2 to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They'll have their sights set on moving up in the Central Division when they play the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on the final regular-season edition of "Wednesday Night Hockey" (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

The Blues are two points behind the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators for first place in the Central Division. The Blackhawks will miss the playoffs for the second straight season.

Here are 5 storylines to watch:

 

Binnington fuels Blues rebirth

The Blues were going nowhere until they recalled 25-year-old rookie goalie Jordan Binnington from San Antonio of the American Hockey League on Jan. 5. Binnington shut out the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 in his first NHL start two days later and has since been superb. He's 22-5-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and five shutouts in 30 games (28 starts). He's also 5-1-0 in his past six games, his GAA is the best by a rookie since Harry Lumley of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1950-51 (1.77), and he was the NHL Rookie of the Month in February and March. Binnington has a convincing case for the Calder Trophy despite playing half a season in the NHL.

Video: VGK@STL: Binnington absorbs Tuch's wrist shot

 

Berube orchestrates turnaround

Much was expected of the Blues this season, but a 7-9-3 start cost coach Mike Yeo his job Nov. 20. He was replaced by Craig Berube, who was an assistant on Yeo's staff and coached the Flyers for two seasons, guiding them to the playoffs in 2013-14 after replacing Peter Laviolette three games into the season. Berube appeared to be a short-term fix, but after the Blues bottomed out Jan. 2, they've torn through the NHL during the next three months and returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Though Berube wasn't hired until the season was nearly seven weeks old, it's hard to imagine he won't get several votes for the Jack Adams Award, given to the top coach in the NHL.

 

O'Reilly breaks out

The Blues traded three players and two draft picks to acquire center Ryan O'Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres on July 1. Nine months later, it looks like a bargain. O'Reilly leads the Blues in assists (47), points (74) and plus-minus (plus-23), all NHL career highs. He's won 1,044 face-offs, the second-highest total in the NHL, is fourth with a 57.1 winning percentage (minimum 1,000 attempts), and scored the shootout winner against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday. O'Reilly has been a good two-way center for several years despite not playing for a playoff team since 2013-14. He's stepped to the forefront with the Blues this season and is arguably the biggest reason (aside from Binnington) they're headed back to the postseason after missing them in 2017-18.

Video: COL@STL: O'Reilly beats Grubauer in shootout

 

Disappointing end for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are also on their second coach of the season. They were 6-6-3 on Nov. 6 when they fired Joel Quenneville, who guided them to the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, and replaced him with Jeremy Colliton, who was coaching Rockford in the AHL. The Blackhawks went 3-12-2 in their first 17 games under Colliton, reaching the bottom of the NHL standings in mid-January. They've been better since then, but the first-half struggles were too much to overcome. 

 

Chicago's big guns go quiet

The Blackhawks have two forwards who are 40-goal scorers (Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat), a center (Jonathan Toews) who's having his best NHL season offensively (78 points; 34 goals, 44 assists), and a defenseman (Erik Gustafsson) having a breakout year at age 27 (59 points; 17 goals, 42 assists). What they haven't had is much production from their bottom-six forwards, which has led to increased ice time for the big guns. Kane (22:29) is third in average ice time among NHL forwards, and Toews (21:00) is 12th. That appears to have taken a toll on Kane and Toews, whose offensive numbers have dropped off after they helped get the Blackhawks within sight of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

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