Carter Hutton

The 10 dates from the ’18-19 season that led Blues to Stanley Cup Final

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The Cinderella story for the St. Louis Blues continued on Tuesday night.

A convincing 5-1 win pushed the Blues past the San Jose Sharks and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 long years. St. Louis will get its chance at redemption, nearly a half-century in the making, when they face the Boston Bruins beginning next Monday.

But while it is a little less than a week’s wait for the Cup Final to begin, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on just where the Blues came from over the past five months. Truly, the Blues started from the bottom and now they’re here, competing for hockey’s grandest prize.

Here are 10 dates from the 2018-19 NHL season that changed the course of history for the Blues.

Nov. 19, 2018

We’re going to skip back a month and a half before things really kicked off for the Blues on the ice, and look back at the date they made a change behind the bench. A troubling 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings — their third shutout defeat in their past four games at the time — and limping along with a 7-9-3 record despite going guns a-blazin’ in the offseason, attracting the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, general manager Doug Armstrong pulled another trigger, this time firing Mike Yeo as head coach and replacing him with Craig Berube, who was an associate coach of Yeo’s.

Jan. 3, 2019

Things under Berube didn’t get off to the best start. The Blues lost their first game with him behind the bench 4-1 to Nashville and two games later got obliterated by Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets in an 8-4 rout. Losses to Arizona (6-1) and Edmonton (3-2 SO) is how the Blues began December. They’d go on to fall twice to Vancouver in 2018’s final month and came back from the Christmas break to post a 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh and a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers. All the losing meant that when the Blues awoke on Jan. 3, they were wallowing in last place in the NHL. Happy New Year.

Jan. 6, 2019

A few players ventured to a bar in Philadelphia the night before they were set to face the Flyers. Presumably, we could assume they were drowning their sorrows of a season that had gone completely off the rails. Instead, Laura Branigan came on over the speakers during the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff game against the Chicago Bears. The song, “Gloria,” would end up turning into their victory anthem. Who knew it would be played so many times in the weeks and months to come. “When I hear it, that’s a good thing, right. That means we’ve won the game,” Berube would later say.

Jan. 7, 2019

The Blues lost Carter Hutton to free agency several months earlier and had placed all their faith in starter Jake Allen. Allen’s play certainly hadn’t helped the team in the first half of the season, a stretch summed up quite succinctly by a .896 save percentage. Enter Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer who played a grand total of 13 minutes in the NHL, and had never started a game. By now you know the name, but back then, you didn’t. Nevertheless, Binnington started to push his way into the spotlight, first by blanking the Flyers in a 3-0 win. Binnington stopped 25 shots that night. The next several days and weeks, even, everyone wondered if the skinny kid with the iceman demeanor was just the next Andrew Hammond. We know the answer to that now.

[RELATED: Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues]

Jan. 23, 2019 – Feb. 21, 2019

Twelve St. Louis skaters figure into the points in a 5-1 win against the lowly Anaheim Ducks on a Wednesday night in late January. The game by itself isn’t especially important but is the start of something much more grandiose. The Blues began that day four points adrift from the league’s basement but would go on a season-defining 11-game winning streak over the next month that would eventually end in a 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 21. The Blues gained a whopping 12 places in the overall league standings, going from 25th to 13th. More importantly, they went from sixth place in the Central Division to third.

March 6, 2019

If we’re looking for a date where the Blues announced their intentions to the rest of the league, it may have been an early March game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues owned a 3-1 lead midway through the game when a very poor Ducks team staged a comeback. They scored twice to close out the second period to tie the game and then Adam Henrique gave the Ducks a 4-3 advantage. Knowing the Ducks, no lead is safe, and sure enough, Robert Thomas found the back of the net to tie the game. Overtime, surely:

April 6, 2019

The final day of the regular season for the Blues, who won 3-2 in a shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks. For a brief moment, they were first in the Central Division before the Nashville Predators eventually won it later in the day and the Winnipeg Jets slotted into the second spot, tied on 99 points with the Blues. They closed out the season winners of 14 of their final 16 games and narrowly missed out on going from worst to first in a four-month stretch. Still, U.S. Thanksgiving statistics be damned, the Blues were headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and were the hottest team entering the postseason.

May 7, 2019

The Blues had won Game 6 two nights earlier to force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. Two third period goals, including one after a Colton Parayko point shot that drilled Stars goalie Ben Bishop, sealed Dallas’ fate on that night. Two days later, they had to do it all over again. Bishop was shaken up, but the Vezina Trophy finalist dressed for Game 7 and was spectacular. A 1-1 deadlock after 60 minutes meant overtime, and the first period of play solved nothing. Bishop had made 52 saves in the game up until the 5:50 mark of double OT. It was then that Bishop didn’t get all of a puck that dropped behind him, allowing St. Louis native Patrick Maroon to get his stick on it to push it over the goal line. The Blues, in front of a sold out Enterprise Center, were off to the Western Conference Final.

May 15, 2019

The San Jose Sharks had caught a tremendous break in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Essentially, a missed call resulted in a major penalty for Vegas’ Cody Eakins. The Sharks, who trailed 3-0, scored four on the ensuing power play and would go on to win in overtime. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Sharks were on the receiving end of what could have been another series defining missed call. This time, the Sharks are in overtime against the Blues in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Timo Meier appears to bat the puck (a blatant hand pass) into the front of the net where an anxiously awaiting Erik Karlsson sits. Karlsson makes no mistake, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead. The Blues were irate on the ice but Berube went into the dressing room after the game and calmed the troops. Unlike Vegas, the Blues had a chance to right that wrong.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

May 21, 2019

The Blues kept a level head after Game 3’s debacle and came out and took Game 4 by a 2-1 margin. Now a race to two wins, the Blues took the path of least resistance, beginning with a 5-0 blanking of the woeful Sharks in Game 5. Injuries began to mount for San Jose, who were without Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl for parts of Game 5 and all three for Game 6. There, the Blues secured a 5-1 win, putting themselves into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 years.

From Jan. 3, where they sat last, to discovering “Gloria,” and finding their diamond in the rough in Binnington, the Blues have put together one of the most memorable and impressive comebacks in NHL history. Now, they have one more hurdle in the Bruins (minus Bobby Orr), the team they last faced in the 1970 Cup Final. Does redemption, nearly 50 years in the making, await?

It would add the final chapter to what’s been a storybook season in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wednesday Night Hockey: Nikita Kucherov is a master of deception

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Nikita Kucherov had three options. Carter Hutton had no chance.

The Tampa Bay Lightning superstar could have dished the puck off to Brayden Point on his right or set up Tyler Johnson for a one-timer from the faceoff circle. Instead, the likely winner of the 2019 Art Ross and Hart Trophies did what he does best: wristed a shot by another NHL goaltender using a bit of deception.

Kucherov patiently waited just long enough to use Zach Bogosian as a screen while leaving Johnson available as a dangerous option to his left.

Patience. Awareness. Deception. A killer shot. That’s the essence of Kucherov’s game. He can shoot, and he can pass, and he does it all by keeping opponents unsure of what he’s going to do with the puck, especially skating in one-on-one on a poor goaltender as he prepares his “no-move” shootout move.

“I’ll be honest, he can almost surprise you on a daily basis with some of the plays he makes,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “It’s once every couple of days he makes a play and I’m glancing at one of the assistant coaches like, ‘I hope we got that on tape.’ He just makes plays that most players don’t see. But to watch his growth every single year, and he’s just gotten better and better. It’s a testament to him with what he’s done and how he works.”

Kucherov’s year-by-year improvement has come to this: 117 points with nine games remaining this season. His previous career high in points was 100, which he reached last season. He scored 40 goals during in 2016-17 and has a good chance at passing that mark as he’s scored 35 through 73 games this season.

His scoring prowess is something this league has not seen in a long time. Kucherov is the first NHL player to reach 115 points since Sidney Crosby’s 120 during the 2006-07 season. Helping hit that number has been his six four-point games this season.

Kucherov’s ascension to elite superstar status has been helped by his off-ice work ethic. The inside of his two-car garage is taken up by synthetic ice. It’s a place he’s able to go during his down time or even after a game to hone his skills. There might work with weighted pucks, some shooting to sharpen his accuracy, or tightening up his stick-handling. It could have been a winning night for the Lightning, but if he’s not satisfied with how he played you’ll find him there. It’s also not a rare sight to see him inside the dressing room stickhandling with a ball. There’s always room for improvement, right?

Everything we see on the ice from Kucherov is connected to what he does off of it.

“People don’t understand how hard he works away from the rink,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “Like, it’s all hockey. He’ll text me the night before a game if there is a game going on and be like, ‘Did you see that?’ or ‘Did you see this guy’s move?’ or ‘Did you see that goal?’ or ‘Did you see how many minutes this guy played tonight?’ He just loves hockey so much.”

***

It’s not just Kucherov’s ability to shoot that makes him so dangerous. His vision allows him to create as well, which explains his 260 assists since 2014-15, placing him tied for sixth in the league over that span. In fact, if you take away his 35 goals this season, he would be tied for ninth in NHL scoring.

Kucherov’s 82 helpers are the most since Henrik Sedin’s 83 in 2009-10. He’s also only the fourth different player to reach the 80-assist mark in a season since 1999-00 (Joe Thornton did it twice).

Knowing not just where his teammates are on the ice but also opponents is what makes Kucherov a dangerous playmaker. Always one for wanting to be unpredictable, his vision allows him to survey the ice and read the play so well in order to create scoring chances.

Take for example this Stamkos goal from last season. Kucherov could have easily taken not one, but two different one-timers on a single power play shift, but both times he saw an opening in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ penalty kill setup that he felt he could exploit. They were both high-risk, cross-ice passes to Stamkos, with the second opportunity leading to a goal.

But with great risk comes great reward.

On the first pass, Kucherov uses his patented deception. He fakes the one-timer, freezing the Blue Jackets long enough to thread a seam to Stamkos. The second one, through a bit of a mad scramble, he catches Zach Werenski, who isn’t 100 percent sure where the puck is, flat-footed, and with Seth Jones going for the shot block and Boone Jenner still getting back to his feet, a slot opens up to find Stamkos again for the goal.

Opponents can try and read Kucherov’s body as he possesses the puck, but that isn’t going to give them an edge in trying to take it away. More often than not when you think you’ve got him closed up, he’ll find an outlet.

***

The great ones never rest on what they’ve already achieved. Kucherov’s point totals have increased every season since he broke into the NHL, including his back-to-back 100-point seasons. He’s averaged 35 goals a year since 2014-15 and will very likely hit the 40-goal mark for the second time in his career within the next three weeks.

Kucherov, who has an eight-year, $76M extension kicking in next season, doesn’t turn 26 until June. He’s only improving as the years go on and shows no signs of being satisfied.

“The one thing about Kuch, when he got to the NHL he didn’t sit down and say, ‘OK, exhale, I made it,'” said Cooper. “He was one of those guys that now the work’s just beginning, and he’s been putting it in ever since that day.”

“When you have the skillset he has, his hockey mind is so elite, his physical skills and all that is catching up. The improvement you see year after year after year is he just keeps working at it; and not only on the ice but studying the game and where guys should be and how they should play and how other teams play you. 

“He’s educated himself on what other teams do and defensemen and all the other things. This is the product you get.”

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues

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The St. Louis Blues are the hottest team in hockey and in a little less than a month-and-a-half have gone from being one of the worst, most disappointing teams in the league, to what now looks to be a sure-fire playoff team with less than a quarter of the season to go.

It is not hard to see what the turning point has been for them, and it happened on Jan. 7 when they gave Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old goalie that had appeared in just three NHL games in his career to that point, all of them in mop-up duty, his very first start.

He stopped all 25 shots he faced that night in a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, and he has simply not stopped winning since.

The early numbers so far are more than impressive

  • In his 20 appearances this season he has recorded a 15-2-1 record for the Blues.
  • He has a .936 save percentage that is tops among goalies that have appeared in at least 20 games. Tampa Bay’s Andre Vasilevskiy is second at .930.
  • Along with that, he has a .948 save percentage at even-strength, that is also far and away the best mark in the league. New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss is second at .938.

When the Blues lost Carter Hutton in free agency this past summer to the Buffalo Sabres, it left their net in the hands of Jake Allen and Chad Johnson to start the season. That experience did not go well for either one of them individually, or for the Blues as a team. Through Jan 6, one day before Binnington’s first career start, the two Blues’ goalies had combined for an .891 save percentage, a performance that was, at the time, the third-worst in the league ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers.

The Blues had their share of problems early in the season, but none of them were bigger than the black hole that was their goaltending situation. Neither Allen or Johnson were able to do anything to secure the position, and their performance was helping to sabotage a team that probably should have been at least a little bit better than their overall record showed.

Then Binnington showed up and everything for the Blues has been different ever since.

After being selected in the third-round of the 2011 draft by the Blues, Binnington spent the first seven years of his pro career in the American Hockey League and really started to see his performance improve over the past three. Still, he never really got his chance until this season and so far it has been a somewhat historic run that is kind of reminiscent of the improbable starts that Patrick Lalime and Andrew Hammond had to their careers when they came out of nowhere to lift their teams in their debut seasons.

Going as far back as the 1987 season, Binnington is one of just seven goalies to win at least 15 of their first 21 appearances in the NHL, joining a list that includes Brent Johnson, Hammond, Matt Murray, Semyon Varlamov, Lalime, and Frederik Andersen.

At some point Binnington’s individual performance is going to regress. It did for all of the goalies just mentioned, and there is no way he is going to maintain a .936 overall save percentage and a .948 even-strength save percentage. Lets be realistic here, it is a hot start to a career that could still go in any direction. Nobody, not even the Blues and Binnington himself, knows what that direction will ultimately be because projecting goalie performance is an almost impossible task, even for the people that are paid big money to have to figure it out. But this hot streak is still happening, and it came at just the right time for a Blues team that spent its offseason spending big money in an effort to get back into the playoffs and was dangerously close to having it all go to waste because nobody could stop the puck for them.

They found somebody to do that, and the season is headed right where they hoped it would be when it began.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Sabres on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game figures to be crucial as both teams chase the Hurricanes and Penguins, who are tied with 72 points for the final Eastern Conference wild card spot. Though the Sabres (10th in East) sit one point ahead of the Flyers (11th), their recent play has them going in opposite directions.

Philadelphia is 13-3-1 in its last 17 games and are coming off dramatic 4-3 overtime win vs. the Penguins in Saturday’s Stadium Series game. Meanwhile, the Buffalo is 1-4-1 in its last 6 games, including Monday night’s 5-3 defeat at Toronto. The Sabres have not won two in a row in over two months.

After snapping a four-game losing streak on Saturday against Washington, and then taking a 1-0 lead into the first intermission yesterday against Toronto, it appeared that the Sabres were building some momentum. However, Buffalo allowed four goals in the second period, saw Carter Hutton get pulled, and ultimately lost 5-3.

The Flyers have had a couple days off since their improbable comeback victory in the Stadium Series game at Lincoln Financial Field. Trailing 3-1 with just over three minutes to play, Philly rallied to tie the game before Claude Giroux – in his 800th career game – scored the OT winner.

Just when it appeared that Carter Hart was finally providing some stability in net, he was pulled in back-to-back starts last week before getting ruled out for at least 10 days with a lower-body injury in advance of the Stadium Series game. In stepped Brian Elliott, who made 40 saves to defeat the Penguins in his first start since November 15 (he did appear twice in relief of Hart earlier in the week). Elliott will start again in this game.

Since winning their 10th straight game on Nov. 27 to claim 1st place in the entire NHL, Buffalo has been a very below-average team. They have a 12-19-6 record over that span and have dropped from first in the NHL in 17th.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Buffalo Sabres at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sabres-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Jeff SkinnerJack EichelEvan Rodrigues
Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtSam Reinhart
Scott Wilson – Vladimir Sobotka – Jason Pominville
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Marco ScandellaBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

FLYERS
Claude Giroux – Nolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van RiemsdykScott LaughtonMichael Raffl
Corban Knight – Ryan Hartman

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRadko Gudas
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald

Phil Myers

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

Gord Miller (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

The Buzzer: Markstrom backstops Canucks to big win; Schneider continues resurgence

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Three stars

1. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks needed a good effort from everyone involved if they were going to gain some ground in the log jam that is the Western Conference wildcard race.

Step up Jacob Markstrom, who made 29 saves for his first shutout of the season.

Markstrom’s solid performance came as the Canucks entered the day six points back of the Minnesota Wild for the second wildcard. The Canucks got two goals from Bo Horvat in the win and are now just four points out.

2. Cory Schneider, New Jersey Devils

It’s been a minute since Schneider has played this good for a decent stretch, but it appears the old Schneider is back between the pipes.

The 32-year-old picked up his fourth win in his past five games after making 34 saves in a 2-1 win for the Devils against the Montreal Canadiens. Schneider was 0-17-4 in 24 regular-season games prior to getting his first win since Dec. 27, 2017, earlier this month.

Schneider appears to be getting back into the groove now, with a shutout sprinkled into two games with an identical .971 save percentage in each and another game where he stopped 15 shots in relief and the Devils rallied from a 4-1 deficit to the Minnesota Wild to win 5-4 in overtime.

The Devils felt good enough about it all to trade Keith Kinkaid at the deadline on Monday.

3. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Nothing sucks the will out of a team quite like a shorthanded goal.

Kapanen provided that marker — the insurance goal — in the third period for the Maple Leafs in a 5-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres looked deflated after that one.

Kapanen provided the primary assist on Auston Matthews goal, which ended up being a Kapanen shot that was bobbled by Carter Hutton, then a defender and then potted home by Matthews.

The 22-year-old had six shots in the game.

Highlights of the night

Dirty move:

Beauty pass:

Vasilevskiy doing his thing:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 5, Sabres 3
Devils 2, Canadiens 1
Lightning 4, Kings 3 (SO)
Predators 3, Oilers 2 (SO)
Panthers 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)
Canucks 4, Ducks 0


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck