ST. LOUIS, Mo. — It was no coincidence that top draft prospect Jack Hughes sought out Ryan O’Reilly’s stick during his all-access tour of the Stanley Cup Final.
There is not another one like it in the NHL. The left-shot Warrior with a hooked toe stands as a testament to the detail the St. Louis Blues centre brings to his craft, and played a central role in his team’s heavy counter-punch in Monday’s 4-2 victory over the Boston Bruins.
With St. Louis essentially playing for its season in a game contested at 140 beats per minute, O’Reilly was the heart-stopper. He opened the scoring at 43 seconds, struck again for the winner with less than 10 minutes to play and delivered all kinds of useful high-protein shifts in between during a thriller at Enterprise Center.
“We were relentless tonight, I thought,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “We didn’t stop for 60 minutes.”
They were on the Bruins side of the ice more often than not when the line of O’Reilly, Zach Sanford and David Perron was thrown over the boards. That trio had some success together earlier this season and were cobbled back together on a hunch from Berube after Sanford played well enough in Game 3 to keep a spot in the lineup when Oskar Sundqvist returned from suspension.
With due respect to the wingers, O’Reilly is the engine of that second line. He is a details guy; strong on coverages, solid in the faceoff dot (although an uncharacteristic 41-43 so far in this series) and adept at finding seams in the offensive end.
He produced a career-best 77 points this season and earned a Selke Trophy nomination alongside four-time winner Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins and Mark Stone of the Vegas Golden Knights.
The 28-year-old has essentially been your prototypical playoff horse without much playoff experience during a 10-year career. Twenty-three of the 36 post-season games he’s ever appeared in have come this spring.
There are going to be at least two more now that the Blues have tied this series 2-2.
“Every night he plays hard,” said teammate Pat Maroon. “If he doesn’t score he does the little things that a lot of people don’t see. Good sticks, good faceoffs, back pressure. He does the little things that makes him an unbelievable hockey player.”
His stick is a thing of legend.
When Hughes stopped by the Blues locker-room along with four other top draft prospects on Monday morning, he went directly for the No. 90 rack. First he sized up the unusual toe hook curve, then he leaned on a shaft that has virtually no flex.
The O’Reilly model is more of a curiosity than something to be copied. They’re not going to be mass produced any time soon.
“I don’t think anybody wants to try that,” said Blues defenceman Vince Dunn. “That’s just one of a kind and I don’t know how he uses it or how he even flexes it down. It must be the stiffest stick I’ve seen.
“I saw the prospects here this morning, they were really excited to check out that stick of his. I think that’s what makes him such a special player — he uses that to his advantage and he’s very strong on it and he makes very high-end plays.”
The only reason O’Reilly has it is because he’s a rink rat. He started with a Jeremy Roenick model stick, known for its long curve, and went from there. The 28-year-old is notorious for his practice habits and willingness to experiment, and had Warrior pattern the blade he now uses because he believes it helps him keep better control of the puck.
“I don’t know how I got the idea. I was just messing around,” O’Reilly told the ‘31 Thoughts’ podcast earlier this season. “It’s pretty cool, they send you like a plastic blade and then with the heat gun for five seconds [you] heat it up and then you can move it any way you want. And then it settles.
“And then you send it in and then they make the stick of that. A lot of guys think I just jam it in the door and then it was like ‘OK, here you go.”’
No one was laughing after it helped him score his first two goals of the Stanley Cup Final.
O’Reilly typically has to take shots from the heel because of his unique curve, but managed to beat Tuukka Rask with the puck resting on his toe during the wraparound that opened the scoring in Game 4. Then, with the game tied 2-2, he broke towards the slot while defenceman Alex Pietrangelo took a shot and saw it hit Rask’s blocker and land in a prime shooting area.
He swept it home in one smooth motion.
“Great shot,” said O’Reilly. “Good bounce.”
The kind of bounce that is earned over a career of doing things the right way.