Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles this millennium. That’s the challenge St. Louis Blues coach Craig Berube has as he tries to lead his team to an NHL championship for the second straight season.
His job has been made harder by injuries and because the Blues aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. After famously being in last place in the NHL on Jan. 1, the team followed an interim coach (Berube) and a rookie goaltender (Jordan Binnington) all the way to the title.
Now, Berube, Binnington and the rest of the Blues are known commodities and getting everyone’s best efforts.
“You have a bit of a target on your back,” Berube said. “You’re going to get a highly competitive game from the team you’re playing. I think there have been nights where we’re not aware of that. It’s just about motivating your guys to be at their best night in and night out. It’s a mental thing more than a physical thing for me.”
Not that the Blues haven’t had their share of physical challenges.
Star right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, who has the eighth-most goals in the league over the past seven seasons, has been limited to 10 games because of a right shoulder injury. Forwards Oskar Sundqvist, Zach Sanford, Sammy Blais and Alexander Steen also have missed time.
The Blues have handled the adversity well, with an 19-8-6 record entering Saturday that puts them second in the Central Division.
“It can be tough with injuries,” said center Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) and Selke (best defensive forward) trophies last season. “There’s a lot of shuffling around. Definitely (you’re) trying to find that chemistry and connection. But at the end of the day, it’s just as a team we need to do a good job working for each other. We know what that looks like. No matter who’s playing with who, everyone in this room works well together.”
Even at less than full strength, the Blues are formidable. Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said he thinks their blue line is the best in the league. Their forward group is deep. And Binnington is playing excellent after receiving a two-year contract extension last summer.
It’s still going to be difficult to repeat as champions. But after the challenges the Blues overcame last season, their current issues must seem like first-world problems.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of it so far,” Berube said. “Just understanding that every team you play, it’s going to be a hard game.”
Stars hope for sameness
The Dallas Stars are the rare team that fires their coach without wanting much to change on the ice.
The Stars fired coach Jim Montgomery on Tuesday because of a “material act of unprofessionalism,” according to general manager Jim Nill. Rick Bowness, who had 463 games of NHL head coaching experience, took over and doesn’t plan to tinker much with a team that’s 13-3-3 since Nov. 1. That should help players adjust to the change.
“I think we put it beside when we’re playing out there,” Stars defenseman Esa Lindell said. “No one is thinking about that stuff that happened earlier. So just play like normally before. I don’t see (the coaching change) affecting us.”
RJ’s best and worst
Review-Journal hockey writer Ben Gotz gives his best and worst NHL teams each week (Record and goal differential are through Friday):
1. Capitals (23-5-5, +25)
They take the top spot by virtue of beating the Bruins 3-2 at Washington on Wednesday.
2. Bruins (20-7-6, +27)
Based on Wednesday, a Bruins-Capitals playoff series would be must-watch hockey.
3. Avalanche (21-8-3, +31)
They’ve been on a tear since getting healthier. They’re 8-0-1 in their past nine games.
4. Islanders (21-7-2, +19)
They’ve allowed nine fewer goals than anyone else in the league.
5. Blues (19-8-6, +8)
Their forwards have been hit with injuries, but their defensemen keep them consistent most nights.
27. Blue Jackets (12-14-5, -18)
They have the third-fewest goals in the league, so their famous Blue Jackets Cannon hasn’t fired too often.
28. Sharks (15-17-2, -28)
They fired coach Peter DeBoer on Wednesday. He didn’t play goaltender, so their main problem isn’t fixed.
29. Kings (13-18-2, -22)
Weird stat: They’re one of two teams, along with the Avalanche, that have yet to participate in a shootout.
30. Devils (9-16-5, -37)
Antennas were raised across the NHL when left wing Taylor Hall, a potential trade candidate, was held out of the lineup Friday.
31. Red Wings (8-22-3, -59)
Their victory over the Jets on Thursday ended a 12-game winless streak (0-10-2).