When the Tampa Bay Lightning woke up on Jan. 3 atop the NHL standings, the St. Louis Blues were dead last.
Tampa had won 31 of its first 39 games, while St. Louis had won just 15 of its first 37. The Lightning staked themselves to 30-point lead on the Blues before the season’s halfway mark.
The rest is league history: The Lightning got swept out of the playoffs in the first round, and the Blues went from the basement to lifting the Stanley Cup in triumph. That the Blues struggled for so long and didn’t hit their stride until January could make much of the marathon regular season seem pointless, though players suggest it actually shows the importance of ups, downs and adversity during the 82-game grind as a way to prepare to win playoff games.
”You’ve got to understand in the bigger picture if you’re going to have a four, five, six-game losing streak at some point, it’s no reason to hit the panic button,” said Jonathan Toews, who won the Cup as Chicago Blackhawks captain in 2010, 2013 and 2015. ”You almost have to go through that so when playoffs do come around, you’re ready to turn that switch and you’ve got that energy and you’ve got that confidence that if you work, you’re going to get the results for it.”
Players who watched all four division champions bow out in the first round and the Blues grind to the first title in franchise history came away with some important lessons on how to approach the regular season. St. Louis showed a midseason coaching change can work, a goalie can come out of nowhere and have success, and momentum can snowball in a positive direction.
”It was good at understanding that it’s a roller coaster, and the more you can stay even keel and keep staying with things and keep pushing each other to think that sometimes things will change, you’ll get a bounce and things will start to go your way,” Blues playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly said. ”It was very awful at the start. We couldn’t seem to string wins together. But guys kept working. Guys didn’t shut down. They kept working for each other and the next thing you know, things started to change. Once that belief happened, it kind of steamrolled.”
Tampa Bay wound up on the flip side having not lost more than two games in a row all season and lacking the struggles to draw from when things went poorly in the playoffs. They went four and out against Columbus.
”We were good in the regular season and probably thought we’ll be all right in the playoffs because we were good in the regular season,” Vezina Trophy winning Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy said. ”The regular season was great. We were on a good run. In the playoffs, I think our tank was empty because of that and we just went straight down because of that.”
The Lightning tied the NHL record with 62 victories and finished 21 points ahead of the next-closest team. They also became the 10th Presidents’ Trophy winners in 11 tries to fall short of winning the Stanley Cup.
All of which supports the believe that standings and seeding matters little in the playoffs, where matchups take precedence. It also apparently doesn’t matter where a team is at by Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day, which used to be important markers about who will make the postseason.
”We started well and we ended bad,” said Jack Eichel, whose Sabres went on a 10-game winning streak, were first in the league at Thanksgiving and missed the playoffs. ”You look at St. Louis and they did the complete opposite. It’s a long season, and a lot goes into it. Consistency is one of the most important things in this league.”
Is it, though? The Blues didn’t put together a winning streak longer than two until mid-January. They got a boost from rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, tied a franchise record with 11 consecutive victories and became the poster boys for coming together at the right time.
”It’s just something to rally behind,” Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop said. ”Usually that’s kind of what it comes down to. Something happens, and usually a team rallies behind it.”
For Vegas in 2017-18, it was the hometown shooting that killed 58 people and bonded an expansion hockey team with its community. The Golden Knights shocked the league by winning eight of their first nine games of existence and reached the Cup Final before losing to Washington. For St. Louis, Laura Branigan’s ”Gloria” became a popular rallying cry and young fan Laila Anderson battling a rare auto-immune disease was a heartwarming touchstone for the players as they made their run under Craig Berube, who was an interim coach until the celebrations had begun.
Rallying points are impossible to predict, and there’s no way to control when and how a group comes together. Still, general managers, coaches and players are always searching for that recipe of how to peak at the right time.
”You want to keep climbing,” said goaltender Tuukka Rask, whose Boston Bruins pushed St. Louis to Game 7 of the Cup Final. ”I don’t think you want to peak early and then slowly decline from there. That’s what everybody’s looking for. But you’re just trying to make the playoffs, always. You’re just trying to make the playoffs on a good note and not feeling like, ‘Oh, we dodged a bullet here. We barely made it.’ And then you’re kind of starting the playoffs not knowing what your game’s going to look like. You want to be feeling great as a team entering the playoffs.”
Toews pointed out a hot start never hurts. Points banked in October, November and December count just the same.
But St. Louis is perfect evidence that games lost early don’t spell the end. That’s how Jaccob Slavin sees the regular season now that he and the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to back up a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference final and every other team is looking to find the Blues’ rhythm and win it all.
”Until you’re out of it, don’t give up,” Slavin said. ”If you get on a roll at the right time, anything can happen.”