SAN JOSE, Calif. — St. Louis’ season started to turn around as soon as goalie Jordan Binnington came up from the minors to help lead the Blues from the bottom of the standings.
The key moment for their opponent in the Western Conference final came much later in the year when San Jose coach Peter DeBoer made the decision to stick with struggling Martin Jones in net midway through the first round. Jones found his game and has helped carry the Sharks into the final four.
The decision to change goalies in St. Louis and stick with one in San Jose now has these two star-crossed franchises eight wins away from a first Stanley Cup title.
”When we put him in Philly as the starter, we haven’t looked back,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said Friday on the eve of Game 1. ”It would be disingenuous to say that this was anywhere part of the plan. This is the Jordan Binnington story in the sense that he’s made the best of the opportunity.”
Binnington was called up from the minors in December and then had a shutout in his first start against the Flyers on Jan. 7, becoming a big reason why the team in last place in the NHL on Jan. 2 is still alive.
He helped anchor an 11-game winning streak that got the Blues back into contention and became a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie at age 25. He’s been steady in the playoffs with a .915 save percentage and 2.39 goals against average.
”There were some years there where I wasn’t sure,” Binnington said when asked if he ever doubted he’d become an NHL goalie. ”It took a lot of maturing and experience. I was in the right place.”
Jones came into the season with much pedigree, having led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final just three years ago. But he was one of the worst goalies in the league this season with an .896 save percentage and then was pulled twice in the first four games of the opening round against Vegas.
But he rebounded from there with a .928 save percentage in the last 10 games, including a franchise-record 58 in a double-overtime win at Vegas that helped spark a comeback from 3-1 down in the series.
”There was never a doubt in anybody’s mind that he’d go out and play well,” teammate Logan Couture said.
DeBoer said all Jones needed was a few small adjustments as he had overcompensated from being too passive late in the season to being overly aggressive in the first four games against the Golden Knights.
Having found the happy medium and getting better support from his teammates, who have limited odd-man rushes, Jones is playing at a high level once again.
”It’s tough as a goalie, you want to go out and make a difference and make a big save,” he said. ”You just have to be a little bit more patient and wait for the game a little bit more.”
Here are some things to watch in the series:
CHECKERED HISTORY: Both franchises have had their share of playoff disappointments. The Blues reached the Cup final their first three years as the top team in the all-expansion Western Conference but were swept all three times. They haven’t been back to the Cup final despite making the postseason 39 times since.
They lost in the conference final in 1986 to Calgary, in 2001 to Colorado and three years ago to the Sharks as they’ve too often had quality teams that just weren’t good enough.
”Over the last eight years we’ve averaged 99 points, we’ve been a solid team,” Armstrong said. ”But we haven’t gone to the promised land of winning a championship.”
The Sharks have also been one of the most consistent teams in the league without winning the ultimate prize. They lost in the conference finals in 2004, 2010 and 2011 before finally breaking through with the win against the Blues. But they fell to Pittsburgh in six games in the Cup final and are running out of time to deliver a title for 39-year-old star Joe Thornton.
”It’s not just win one for Joe, it’s win one for all of us. Win one for San Jose,” captain Joe Pavelski said. ”It would be a cool story.”
CAPTAIN COMEBACK: Pavelski has also provided inspiration this postseason. He was knocked out with a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas, leading to a major penalty and four power-play goals that erased a 3-0 deficit in the third period. Pavelski then made it back on the ice for Game 7 last round against Colorado where he had a goal and an assist in the first period to spark the win.
WHERE’S VLAD?: Vladimir Tarasenko led the Blues with 33 goals in the regular season but has struggled so far in the playoffs, especially at even strength. Tarasenko has four power-play goals but only one point at even strength through 13 games. Tarasenko was shut down by Marc-Edouard Vlasic when these teams met in the conference final three years ago. He had no points the first five games before scoring two late goals in San Jose’s decisive Game 6 victory after the game had been decided.
STICKING AROUND: Coach Craig Berube still has the interim tag after taking over early in the season from the fired Mike Yeo. But after leading the Blues to the conference final, Armstrong said a long list of candidates for the full-time job has been whittled down.
”Now we’re at a list of one,” he said. ”When the season is over and the right time comes, we’ll sit down and discuss it.”