By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)
This is not Brayden Schenn‘s first rodeo with a lot of things this season.
It is his second time playing under Craig Berube as an interim coach and the third time his name has been prominent in trade speculation. For Schenn and the St. Louis Blues, those things are related.
A bad start to the season cost coach Mike Yeo his job in November and started talk that just about anyone from Schenn to star winger Vladimir Tarasenko to young defenseman Colton Parayko could be dealt away. But over the past two month as interim coach, Berube has turned things around – so much so that the Blues could make a run at the playoffs and keep general manager Doug Armstrong from selling ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
”Guys are playing hard right now and (Berube) obviously commands a lot when it comes to the work ethic side of the game,” Schenn said Monday in Washington. ”We’ve had high expectations right from the beginning, we didn’t meet them, then there’s tons of rumors about everyone. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re not winning and you’re not meeting expectations.
”Now we’re in a position – closer, anyways – to make a playoff push, and we feel like we can in this locker room. Now it’s up to us to try and save ourselves, each other, from getting traded and staying here together.”
Berube has pulled the Blues together by getting them back to basics. They’ve gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to move within four points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and can now think about the postseason.
”This is such a good team here, and we’re starting to get back to our game,” leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly said. ”We can get into the playoffs. We can make a difference.”
After trading for O’Reilly and signing forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon last summer, the Blues were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Twelve losses in their first 19 games led to the coaching change, and Berube has instilled some badly needed consistency.
”He’s one of those guys that wants you to make plays, but he demands a lot,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”He wants you to work. And we’re working right now. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re winning hockey games.”
Berube, who also was interim coach for Schenn and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14, has helped the Blues win games by changing their mentality to become more of a north-south team. There was never a shortage of talent, but now the direction of the action is straight toward the net with the kind of direct style more suited to the group’s size.
”We control the puck in the offensive zone a lot,” Berube said. ”We shoot the puck and get to the net. That’s our game.”
It helps that the Blues are getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington and veteran starter Jake Allen of late. Binnington is 3-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his first four NHL starts after getting called up at age 25 and being asked to steady the ship.
”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity,” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”
Blues skaters look at their rough start not as a case of subpar goaltending but disastrous play in front of the net. Schenn said it was ”ugly” early on, and Pietrangelo said the team has done a better job cutting down on rush chances against, which has made life easier for the goalies.
”We’re playing more of a 60-minute hockey game,” said Allen, who has a .910 save percentage this season under Berube (it was .879 under Yeo). ”We were finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot prior to that. We’d play 20 minutes of good hockey, 20 minutes of bad hockey, 20 minutes of mediocre hockey and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But right we’re getting goals and we’re hunkering down, but at the same time we’re still finding a way to capitalize on opportunities.”
More than anything, the Blues need to pile up the points to go from last place in the Central Division at the time of Yeo’s dismissal to the playoffs after missing by one point last season. Berube gets a lot of credit within the locker room for establishing a foundation of success.
”He’s just brought some stability to the group,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”He’s definitely made an emphasis on character and compete. I think that’s something we all needed as a group and something we’re going to need night in and night out.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno