Sean Leahy

Blues’ recipe for success hasn’t changed in quest for Cup repeat

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ST. LOUIS — There was one thing Craig Berube wanted to focus on during his first training camp leading the Blues. With his players going deep into June en route to winning the Stanley Cup, the head coach wanted to keep his practices short. After playing 108 games last season, he was aware of the effects of two extra months of hockey.

Instead of longer skates to shake out the summer rust, Berube and his staff kept them short, fast and intense.

Berube also did not place any special attention on hammering home one particular message: avoiding a Stanley Cup hangover. A short off-season that featured plenty of celebrating the franchise’s first championship wasn’t one of his major concerns.

“I don’t think we went into camp with that focus,” Berube told NBC Sports. “We went into camp with getting going again and getting the skating and working. I thought our guys came in great shape and I thought we had really good practices in training camp.”

Roster consistency — Patrick Maroon was the only face gone from the Cup-winning team when camp opened — was also a key that helped drive the Blues off to a strong start to the 2019-20 season. (Joel Edmundson exited week later in a trade that brought Justin Faulk to St. Louis.)

The players walked into that dressing room and saw the same faces that were on the ice that Gloria-ous night in Boston. The way the Blues put a forgettable first few months of last season behind them and started a run in January that ended with a title showed how the chemistry finally came together. Keeping the roster pretty much intact ensured little need to get across an understanding of what made them successful.

“That helps a lot. That really helps us get to our identity,” said forward Ryan O’Reilly. “We kind of know what our best game looks like. We know as individuals what guys can do. It’s easy to have the communication and talk to each other and make the adjustments when we need to and lean on each other in certain ways at those crucial times.”

The Blues entered the NHL All-Star Break with 30 wins in 49 games and the second-best record by points percentage (.643) in the league. Their biggest skid happened right off the bat with losses in five of their first eight game of the season — three of which came in overtime or the shootout. That was followed by a stretch of nine wins in 10 games, setting them on the right course to a first half of dominance in the Western Conference.

Stanley Cup champions can fall prey to a hangover as they begin their defense, but that didn’t hit the Blues for too long. The 29 points earned in their first 20 games is the third-best start for any defending champion since 2006-07. Only the 2008-09 Red Wings (32 points) and 2013-14 Blackhawks (29 points) had better starts.

Defending Stanley Cup champions in their first 20 games since 2006-07 NHL season.

“Over that whole process of last year, of starting with the low point and building our way back up, finding our identity, getting in the playoffs, keep building from there, we really found something in ourselves that we kind of knew how to turn on when we needed to,” said O’Reilly. “That carried over into this year where we know it’s not going to be the same thing. We’re going to have to do this thing a different way. It’s going to be tough because teams are gunning for us, but we just have to find a way to always keep reinventing ourselves — get to our identity, playing hard, build our game from there. We just really paid attention to the details when we needed to.”

The Blues have gone from being the hunter to the hunted now. Every team wants to beat the defending champs, especially their Central Division rivals who are looking to make up ground in the playoff race. Berube’s hammered home the fact that they have targets on their backs and complacency is not an option. They don’t want to waste such a good first half and they understand there’s still a lot of hockey left to play.

“We haven’t had any easy games. We really haven’t,” said Berube, who noted he’s not thinking beyond the regular season at all. “There’s been tough games, no matter who we play, it always a hard game. I think our guys have bought into that and they’re understanding that more and more as it goes along. We’ve got a long way to go yet, we’ve got a lot of hockey to play and we’re going to have to play good hockey. Everybody’s going to be fighting now. Everybody’s going to be dialed in, fighting for a playoff spot, positioning, all that. All these games coming down the stretch are going to be tough.”

The messages Berube delivers every day continue working. He took over a team in Nov. 2018 that was lacking confidence, something he pointed out in his opening press conference. Slowly the turn around began and the players bought in big time. It paid off, as we know, so it’s no surprise that the success has continued into this season. The plan was put in place long ago and no one has deviated it from it. That’s why the Blues are a serious threat to repeat.

“What worked for him last year works for him this year,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “That’s been pretty much the recipe for our entire group. We found something that works from the coaching staff all the way down and we’ve stuck with it.”

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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.

Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

WATCH LIVE: Stars host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Stars meet for the second and final time this season as each club is coming off an extended break. Both Tampa Bay and Dallas enjoyed their bye weeks last week leading into All-Star Weekend. Tampa last played on Jan. 17 (a 7-1 at WPG), while Dallas last played on Jan. 18 (a 7-0 at MIN).

Both the Lightning and Stars enter the second half of the reg. season locked in tight division races. In the Atlantic, Tampa is second with 62 points, eight points behind the Bruins but with three games in hand. Behind the Lightning though are the Panthers (61 pts) and Maple Leafs (57 pts) – each within striking distance of Tampa’s spot. In the Central, Dallas is thirrd with 58 points, four points behind Avalanche in second and 10 points behind the Blues in 1sr . Below the Stars though, the Central is tight. Just seven points separate Dallas in third and Nashville in seventh. Fortunately for the Stars, they have games in hand on the three teams immediately behind them in the division.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was one of the two Lightning players in the All-Star Game this past weekend. The honor was well deserved as he leads the NHL with 24 wins to go along with a 2.54 GAA and .917 SV%. While he’s been great all year, the 25-year-old comes into Monday’s game as hot as any goalie in the NHL.

Dallas’ lone All-Star representative Tyler Seguin tallied a goal and assist in the Central Division’s loss in the All-Star Game. The Stars are hoping their top centerman will bring the scoring back home when they take the ice Monday. Seguin has zero goals in the last nine games. With 11 goals through 48 games, he is on pace to score just 18 goals this season, which would be his fewest in a non-shortened season since 2010-11, his rookie year.

The Stars average just 2.56 goals/game, which is tied for the fourth-fewest in the NHL. But they also allow just 2.46 goals/game, which is best in the league. Seguin maintains his lack of offensive output has to do with the team’s defensive frame of mind rather than a lack of production.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars
WHERE: American Airlines Center
WHEN: Monday, Jan. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Stars stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven StamkosBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Ondrej PalatAnthony CirelliTyler Johnson
Alex KillornCedric PaquettePatrick Maroon
Yanni GourdeMitchell StephensCarter Verhaeghe

Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Mikhail SergachevKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

STARS
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Alexander Radulov
Denis GurianovJoe PavelskiRoope Hintz
Andrew CoglianoRadek FaksaBlake Comeau
Mattias JanmarkJason DickinsonCorey Perry

Esa LindellJohn Klingberg
Miro HeiskanenRoman Polak
Jamie Oleksiak – Stephen Johns

Starting goalie: Ben Bishop

Brendan Burke will handle play-by-play duties alongside analyst Pierre McGuire at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Tonight’s studio coverage will be hosted by Liam McHugh with Anson Carter and Keith Jones.

Blue Jackets sign forward Robinson for 2 more years

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets signed forward Eric Robinson to a two-year contract extension on Monday.

The 24-year-old Robinson was pressed into action at the NHL level this season because of rash of injuries to regulars. He has responded with five goals and four assists and a +10 plus/minus rating in 31 games. He got his first NHL goal on Nov. 12 at Montreal.

Robinson, who played college hockey at Princeton, would have been a restricted free agent this summer. Contract terms were not disclosed.

General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced the move as the Blue Jackets began their NHL-mandated winter break. They return to action Feb. 1 at Buffalo.

Ovechkin sits as Caps return to ice against Canadiens

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The Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals own a one-point lead over the Boston Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy as they return from a nine-day break to face the Canadiens in Montreal on Monday night.

The Capitals, who went into their bye week and the All-Star Game break on a three-game win streak, will be without Alex Ovechkin for the contest. Ovechkin must serve a mandatory one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game in St. Louis to rest up for the second half of the season.

Ovechkin was red-hot before the break, scoring eight goals over a three-game span, including back-to-back hat tricks in a 5-2 win over New Jersey and a dramatic 6-4 come-from-behind victory at the New York Islanders on Jan. 18 in their final game before the layoff.

Washington trailed 4-1 after two periods against the Islanders before exploding for five third-period goals, with Ovechkin scoring two of them — including an empty-netter to seal the win.

Ovechkin is tied with Toronto’s Auston Matthews for second place in the NHL in goals with 34, three behind Boston’s David Pastrnak (37). His last goal was the 692nd of his career, tying Steve Yzerman for ninth place on the NHL’s career goals list.

“It’s something special,” Ovechkin said. “It’s history. It’s pretty cool.

“I just left out there everything I had because I have a week off. Now it’s time to regroup and get ready for the second half of the year.”

Montreal also will be playing its first game in nine days and brings in a two-game winning streak. The Canadiens entered the break off a 5-4 shootout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights with leading scorer Tomas Tatar (17 goals, 26 assists) scoring the winner in the fourth round of the shootout.

Montreal is tied for fifth place in the Atlantic Division with the Buffalo Sabres with 51 points, 10 points behind third-place Florida and also 10 points behind Carolina for the second wild-card spot.

“A little reset here for the mental side of things and also the physical side of things, and now it’s time to hunt,” center Max Domi told NHL.com. “We believe in each other as a group, and we want to win some hockey games. We proved it time and time again and we know we can do it. We’ve just got to find ways put the right foot forward here.”

One Canadien who didn’t get the whole eight days off was All-Star defenseman Shea Weber, who won the hardest shot competition on Friday night with a blast registered at 106.5 mph. Washington defenseman John Carlson was second at 104.5 mph.

“Obviously, the fun’s kind of over with,” Weber said. “It’s time to get back to work in Montreal.”

This is the second of three meetings between the two teams. Montreal, behind a goal and three assists by Tatar and 26 saves by goaltender Carey Price, won the first one, 5-2, in Washington on Nov. 15.

The Capitals enter Monday night’s game with a 18-6-1 road record, best in the NHL. No other team has won more than 14 games away from home.