NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Ryan O’Reilly walked into the room where his trophy bounty from the 2018-19 NHL season was being held and stopped to process the moment. A year ago at the time he was a member of a Buffalo Sabres team that lost so frequently he told the media the season had caused him to question his love of hockey.
Now there he stood eyeing his trophy haul — Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy, Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, Selke Trophy — from the past season and couldn’t help but say to himself, “Pretty good year.”
The St. Louis Blues’ summer of celebrating comes to an end Wednesday night when they raise their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Enterprise Center ahead of their opening night matchup against the 2018 champion Washington Capitals (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live stream).
The parades are over. The celebratory singing of “Gloria” has come to an end (for now). The beverage intake has gone from various alcohols to protein shakes. The rings have been handed out. And it’s time to go through the grind all over again.
“I think [the banner raising is] the last reflection before you start the journey again to the next one,” O’Reilly told NBC Sports. “Not changing a lot on our team, having a lot of the same guys, looking up [at the banner], it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be an electric night.
“Once it’s up, it’s back to work to do it again. I’m excited for that. The best part of the journey is playing the game and being together as a group.”
One year before the Blues won the first Cup title in franchise history, Vladimir Tarasenko watched as his best friend, Dmitry Orlov, celebrated the Capitals’ championship win back home in Russia, along with fellow countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Tarasenko wanted to experience that for himself after years of disappointment in St. Louis and was inspired by what the Capitals had done.
“It shows if you follow your goal you can make it happen,” said Tarasenko.
Now that they’re champions and coming off the short summer that comes with that achievement, the Blues realize they will have a target on their backs. The roster will be just about the same as it was that glorious night in Boston, outside of Patrick Maroon and Joel Edmundson. That’s one reason why O’Reilly and Tarasenko feel they can repeat, something only the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to achieve in the last two decades.
[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]
“It’s never easy because every team is gunning for you,” O’Reilly said. “I think a good lesson for us, and we’ve talked about it with guys, is that we’re not going to do it the same way. We’re going to have to do it a completely different way; still keep the staples and the things we learned throughout last year, but we’re going to have to find a new way. We’re going to have to come out in games and jump on them right away, we can’t wait a bit until we find it. We have to be more aggressive in situations. There’s going to be that adjustment, too, of us finding new ways to have success.”
The way the 2018-19 Blues found success is something no team wants to repeat, of course. Crapping the bed in the first few months of the season, firing your coach in November, and finding yourself 31st in a league of 31 teams in early January, and turning to an unknown goalie isn’t a recommended approach if you have Stanley Cup dreams.
So what challenges lie ahead for the Blues, aside from the usual injuries and cliche’d “Stanley Cup hangover”? Getting your opponent’s best, for one.
“Every team’s going to play against you a little bit differently because you’re Stanley Cup champions and everybody wants to prove that they can beat the Stanley Cup champion when they have the chance to do that,” Ovechkin told NBC Sports.
For some teams, they can start to feel the effects of a short summer and the compact schedule.
“I don’t know if it was so much the start but once the heaviness of the season starts to set in in December, January that’s when reality sets in, that’s when those dog days of the year are tough, when teams start to feel the schedule a little bit and some teams fall off,” said Jonathan Toews, whose Chicago Blackhawks had to defend three Cup titles. “That’s a time when you run on fumes a little bit and you’ve got to catch yourself and say Hey, we’ve got to do our job, we’ve got to stay with it.”
The first half schedule for the Blues isn’t too bad, but following their January bye week and the NHL All-Star Break, which St. Louis is hosting, that’s when it gets tough.
In February, the Blues are playing practically every other night with 15 games in 29 days, including six away from home, four of which come against Central Division opponents. In a division that is promising once again to be highly competitive, those will be vital points on the line during a grinding portion of the schedule.
All the Blues can do is try to best prepare themselves for another 82-game slog towards the playoffs. It will be a learning experience no matter how this season ends for them.
“I guess once you’ve been through it once you definitely figure out what you could’ve done better the next time around,” said Toews. “Every situation is different depending on how many guys you lost in the offseason. The bottom line is you want to get back to the playoffs, you don’t want do make excuses. It’s always nice to acknowledge what the difficulties actually are so you can find ways to deal with it.”
It remains to be seen if Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” will return as the Blues’ post-win anthem, or if the shelf that held pucks from their 61 wins will be back, empty and ready to be filled again. Those are memories from last season and the time has called for the page to be turned.
While the roster is nearly the same, and head coach Craig Berube no longer has “interim” attached to his title, the Blues are ready to go again. Just drop the puck.
“It’s funny, the best thing about the whole winning the Stanley Cup was playing the games,” said O’Reilly. “Those were super intense games, just so much fun. No one’s out there thinking I’ve gotta do this, I’ve gotta do that, you’re just doing it. That’s something I crave again, being in that situation and having those amazing opportunities to do great things. That’s what excites me.
“For me, it was kind of an easy transition. It’s our Cup and we’re going to keep it. It goes in a case and we’re going to get it again at the end of it. I can’t wait to play in the games and compete for it again.”
Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with a special 90-minute edition of NHL Live, as host Kathryn Tappen, analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie preview the evening’s doubleheader and the upcoming 2019-20 season. Jeremy Roenick will be on-site in St. Louis to capture the scene outside Enterprise Center prior to the raising of the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship banner.
Mike Emrick, who returns for his 15th season as NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play commentator, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Blues from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.
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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.