ST. LOUIS — Like a curious museumgoer lured by the presence of an ancient artifact, Jack Hughes wanted to see the stick. As the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2019 NHL draft, the teenage center was making the media rounds with fellow prospects on Monday morning when he paused inside the entryway to the home locker room at Enterprise Center. Supervised by a Blues equipment manager, Hughes grabbed one of the black Warrior Covert QR Edge models from the rack and silently ran his hand over the blade. Eyes widening, head shaking, he seemed to be pondering a question that perplexes even its owner’s teammates:
How the hell does Ryan O’Reilly play with that toe curve?
Seriously. Look at this monstrosity. Less of a banana bend than a broken finger at the first knuckle, it wouldn’t seem out of place in the hands of casino craps dealer, raking chips for the house. “I don’t think anybody wants to try that,” defenseman Vince Dunn says. “It’s one of a kind. I don't know how he uses it … [But] I think that’s what makes him such a special player.”
Forty-three seconds after the puck dropped on Game 4, this singular twig was unleashed. Fishing a loose rebound behind the Boston net, O’Reilly had wrapped around to the other side and, at full extension, tucked the puck inside goalie Tuukka Rask’s outstretched left skate. The bushy-bearded center struck again two periods later, hammering another rebound past Rask on the rush and sending St. Louis to a 4–2 win, its first-ever at home in the Stanley Cup Final. “Sometimes you get those bounces,” O’Reilly shrugged later. “Just lucky to be on the end of it.”
Make no mistake, though. The Blues have earned this tied series, two games apiece heading back to Boston for Game 5, with every bit of the same hard work that vaulted them from last place on New Years’ Day to the playoffs. They forechecked ferociously, supported each other smartly, and stayed disciplined enough to avoid a repeat of their Game 3 debacle, a 7–2 loss in which the Bruins scored four times on four power plays on four total shots. “We were relentless tonight,” St. Louis coach Craig Berube said. “We didn’t stop for 60 minutes.”
In hindsight, the only real blip could’ve been a backbreaker. Midway through the second period, thanks to a minutes-long offensive-zone occupation that ended when Boston defenseman Connor Clifton was whistled for an illegal head check, the Blues went on the power play looking to extend their 2–1 lead. Instead it was Clifton’s fellow blueliner Brandon Carlo who pounced on a juicy rebound and scored his first of the playoffs. “It was unfortunate that happened,” Berube said, “because that second period was as good as I’ve seen us play for a while."
The rest wasn’t too shabby either. As they did in the first round against Winnipeg and the conference finals vs. San Jose, these never-say-die Blues stared down a potential 3–1 deficit and spat in its face. Rookie goalie Jordan Binnington was sharp enough after receiving the first quick hook of his NHL career in Game 3, making 21 saves. Back from a single-game suspension, Oskar Sunqvist centered a fourth line that spent more than 11 minutes silencing Boston’s top trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. “Unreal tonight,” Berube said. As a team, St. Louis only faced the Bruins power play twice, killing them both.
Still, Game 4 belonged to the big guns. In the first period, Vladimir Tarasenko whacked his 11th goal this postseason and 33rd of his playoff career, pulling within two of the franchise record in both categories. “He scores a lot of the pretty ones too,” winger Zach Sanford said, “but to see a superstar like that going to the net hard and poking that in, that just gives the team a lot more confidence, too.” Captain Alex Pietrangelo added two assists, setting a Blues record for helpers by a defenseman (13), while first-line center Brayden Schenn provided the empty-net cushion in the third period. “We pressured them well,” O’Reilly said. “Rolled the lines, use that momentum with each other to keep building off it. We were wearing them down.”
Then there was O’Reilly himself. “Maybe our best consistent player all year,” Berube said of the 28-year-old, who was acquired in a blockbuster with Buffalo last July. “It’s hard to find a guy who works harder at his game.” This includes the mental side too. Earlier on Monday, before he and his Frankenstein stick moved the Blues halfway to their first championship, O’Reilly dialed his father Brian, a sports performance coach, for a pep talk. The results spoke for themselves.
“I was just getting back to that mindset of [leaving] it all out there, stop overthinking the game, just trust yourself more,” O’Reilly said. “That’s what we did as a team, from start to finish.”