Don't look now, but the St. Louis Blues are climbing back into wild-card contention

St. Louis had arguably the most disappointing start in the NHL, leading to Mike Yeo's firing and questions about blowing up the roster. Suddenly, though, the Blues are right back in the wild-card race, and coach Craig Berube might be to thank.
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The St. Louis Blues were among the biggest surprises in the NHL through the first quarter of the campaign, albeit for all the wrong reasons. An off-season overhaul included additions of Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon, while an already steady blueline and what was believed to be at least average goaltending had St. Louis positioned for a post-season return after last season’s somewhat stunning miss. But as the 20-game mark approached, the Blues were an unmitigated disaster.

Under coach Mike Yeo, St. Louis stumbled out of the gate and seemingly tripped over every hurdle. The Blues were 7-9-3 through their first 19 games, the goaltending was atrocious, the offense inconsistent and there were far more questions than answers. Not satisfied with the results, St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong answered one pressing question, the one about Yeo’s future, swiftly in late-November. After being shutout by the Los Angeles Kings, at the time the only team in the Western Conference with fewer points than the Blues, Yeo was shown the door and replaced by interim bench boss Craig Berube.

Even after the coaching change, though, everything about the situation in St. Louis seemed to scream write-off. With Yeo gone and Berube installed, there was chatter — some of which persists still — about trading Vladimir Tarasenko and captain Alex Pietrangelo. The goaltending remained a mess, with Jake Allen looking less like the No. 1 he was once believed to be and more like a mediocre backup. Save O’Reilly, no one had been consistent offensively and the Blues’ overall defensive play was shambolic, with St. Louis boasting underlying numbers among the bottom-third in the NHL. It didn’t help, either, that Berube lost five of his first seven games behind the bench.

The thing is, though, St. Louis was never all that far outside the wild-card race. When Yeo was fired, only seven points separated the Blues from the final berth in the conference. By the end of November, St. Louis was only one additional point outside the picture. And since the beginning of December, once Berube was really able to sink his teeth into the task at hand, things have slowly but surely begun to turn for the Blues.

True, St. Louis is fresh off of an overtime loss to the New York Islanders, but that’s yet another point the Blues have piled up in pursuit of turning the unimaginable — a run from sitting in the Western Conference basement on Thanksgiving day to the post-season — into a reality. Tuesday's extra-frame loss marked a fourth-consecutive game in which the Blues picked up a point and snapped St. Louis' three-game winning streak and since Dec. 1, the Blues have racked up 24 points in 21 games thanks to an 11-8-2 record. That’s more points than all but five teams in the conference. Matter of fact, St. Louis has out-paced every other wild-card contender, be it the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars or Edmonton Oilers and Minnesota Wild, over the past six-plus weeks. And now, in a fashion that is almost as stunning as their misfortune to start the season, the Blues’ apparent playoff pipe dream doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Much of the praise, too, has to be heaped upon the coaching staff, led by Berube. St. Louis hasn’t made a single notable trade, with apologies to Jakub Jerabek and Jared Coreau, at any point this season, yet Berube has turned a team that was once dominated in the possession game into a club that has consistently carried the play since his hiring. The numbers don’t lie. In both per 60 minutes rates at 5-on-5 and overall percentage, Berube’s Blues have improved their Corsi rate, shots rate, scoring chances rate and high-danger chances rate. Not by insignificant margins, either.

At 5-on-5, St. Louis’ Corsi percentage, for instance, has risen from 47.4 percent under Yeo to 52.6 percent under Berube, which is the fifth-best percentage in the entire NHL since his hiring. Shooting percentage has risen by 3.4 percent. Scoring chance percentage has risen 4.6 percent. And high-danger chance percentage, since Berube’s hiring, has climbed by nearly nine percent. Formerly in the bottom-third of the league, the Blues are now a top-10 club in every notable underlying statistic. The impact of owning the puck under Berube has paid dividends, too, particularly in goal.

Appearing in 14 of the Blues’ 19 games before Yeo’s firing, Allen posted a meager .895 save percentage and inflated 3.33 goals-against average. At 5-on-5, he faced upwards of 30.3 shots per 60 minutes, including 9.3 high-danger shots. He had a minus-0.3 goals saved above average, which is a measure of GAA compared to that of a league-average netminder. But the Berube factor has impacted the Blues’ No. 1 netminder, as well. Over his past 21 games, Allen has faced 28.2 shots per 60 minutes and 6.7 high-danger shots per 60 minutes, his GAA has dipped by more than half a goal to 2.78, his GSAA has risen into the positives. And the result, while not one that puts Allen into the Vezina Trophy conversation, is a .902 SP for Allen since Berube came aboard.

It’s not just Allen who has been successful, though, as late-bloomer Jordan Binnington has stunned in the St. Louis crease in recent weeks. Earning his first big-league start on Jan. 7, the Blues’ second-stringer has an eye-popping .960 SP in his four starts and has led St. Louis to points in every single outing — three wins and Tuesday’s overtime loss. Like Allen, Binnington has benefitted from St. Louis’ improved possession. Granted, small sample, but he’s facing an average of 26.4 shots and 6.5 high-danger shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 and has a 1.01 GAA and 1.29 GSAA at five-a-side.

So long as St. Louis continues on this path, a stunning run into the final wild-card spot is well within the realm of possibility. No doubt, they’re going to need help, which is exactly what they’ve received in the form of the futility of the wild-card contenders ahead of them. No club has reached out and taken a firm grasp of the post-season spots remaining, and that, in and of itself, opened the door for the Blues to get back into the wild-card conversation. Taking that final step and squeaking into the post-season is going to require continued consistency, continued dominance of the puck possession game and, yes, continued improvement from Allen with equally solid play from Binnington.

But the way things look right now, the Blues’ season is far from over. They’ve fought their way back into the race, and it might turn out that the biggest surprise of St. Louis’ season won’t be their start, but rather their finish.

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