Weekend Takeaways: Blues back from the dead, serving notice out West

Vladimir Tarasenko scored the overtime winner to complete his hat trick and give the St. Louis Blues a win over the Nashville Predators.

Ryan O’Reilly was good when the St. Louis Blues were bad, so nobody should be taking more satisfaction from the squad’s startling turnaround in the past four weeks than the No. 1 centre.

The Blues posted home-and-home victories over the Nashville Predators on Saturday and Sunday, and — as winners of six straight and 10 of 13 — they have gone from being an afterthought in the Western Conference playoff picture to seemingly on a collision course with those same Preds in the Central Division’s two-three playoff matchup. (By the way, only three of those 13 contests were home games for St. Louis.)

After losing to the Dallas Stars on Jan. 8, the Blues were last in the Central, a dozen points behind third-place Dallas. Heck, on Jan. 2, St. Louis was last overall in the entire league. Today, the Blues hold the first wild-card spot and trail the Stars by just two points with a game in hand.

February has been a funny time of year in St. Louis the past two seasons, as the club has opted to sell significant pieces — Kevin Shattenkirk in 2017, Paul Stastny 12 months ago — despite holding a playoff spot on the cusp of the trade deadline in both cases.

Last summer, the Blues loaded up by acquiring O’Reilly and former Toronto Maple Leafs centre Tyler Bozak in an effort to solidify the middle of the ice. O’Reilly, who’d had his fill of losing in Buffalo and Colorado before that, was excited to join a seemingly ascendant team. But while he was putting up points at a personal-best rate during the start of his Blues tenure, St. Louis spiralled, eventually firing coach Mike Yeo and replacing him with Craig Berube.

Until very recently, all the speculation in St. Louis was about who would be moving out the door in a year when the Blues really did have no chance. Now they’re starting to look like a club you’d prefer to take a pass on in the first round.

The stellar play of unheralded goalie Jordan Binnington and the resurgence of sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, who notched a hat trick — including the overtime winner — in the second victory over Nashville, have been major factors in the St. Louis 180. But O’Reilly has also continued to be a two-way force, notching 15 points in the past 13 outings to stay on pace for the first point-per-game showing of his career.

There’s always been some twisted irony in the fact a player tailor-made for the high-stakes, tight-checking world of playoff hockey has made only two trips to the post-season in what is now almost a decade-long stay in the NHL. In a shocking turn of events, the third is suddenly very much in reach.


Other Weekend Takeaways

• Don’t worry, Chicago, there’s enough old Norris Division love to go around here. The Blackhawks’ victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday ran their winning streak to seven games and put them within four points of the playoffs in the turtle race that is the Western Conference wild-card chase.

• How good are the league-leading Tampa Bay Lighting? Backup Louis Domingue is 10-0-0 in his past 10 appearances — the most recent of which was a 5-2 win over Florida on Sunday — establishing a new franchise mark for a goalie winning streak. That said, it’s not like he’s had to stop every puck that’s come his way. Domingue’s numbers over that stretch, which dates back to Nov. 29, include a 2.57 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. You’ll take that from your No. 2 every time, but 17 goalies who’ve appeared in at least 10 games over the same period have a superior save percentage and 14 have a better GAA.

• You knew Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray was doing everything he could to see former coach Randy Carlyle through the end of the season, but the axe just had to fall. The gruesome facts: Anaheim is 2-15-4 since Dec. 18 and have been outscored 82–34 in that time. I’d say don’t expect to Carlyle to coach again in the league, but I also would have put big bucks on a lifetime ban for John Tortorella after the Vancouver debacle, and here we are.

• One observation from the rollicking Habs-Leafs tilt on Saturday: Montreal’s goals came on a net-front tip, Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen whiffing on a knucklepuck and a hard net drive by Brendan Gallagher. The goals Toronto used to equalize in the third and win in overtime are as follows:

William Nylander with a perfect shot moments after a Montreal turnover:

Mitch Marner feathering a pass to John Tavares for a backhand roof job:

Montreal is a tenacious team top to bottom, but the quick-strike skill Toronto possesses will be a lot for the Habs to overcome if the two teams do indeed meet this spring.

• Milestone moments from Saturday: Joe Thornton, thanks to two helpers in a win over Edmonton, pulled even with Gordie Howe at No. 9 (of course) on the all-time assist list with 1,049. Sidney Crosby eclipsed Mario Lemieux at the top of the Penguins’ all-time games-played list by appearing in contest No. 916, and Sid is now just five goals shy of Jaromir Jagr (439) for No. 2 on that leaderboard. Finally, Patrice Bergeron capped his 1,000th game with the overtime winner in Boston, giving him a three-point afternoon:

• Oh my God, it’s raining James Neal’s teeth:

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Calgary Flames (34-15-6): It’s going to be really tough to hold off hard-charging San Jose for the division lead. The Sharks are now just one point behind the Flames, who hold one game in hand.

2. Winnipeg Jets (35-18-3): The Jets snapped their first three-game losing streak of the season with a 3–1 victory in Buffalo on Sunday.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (34-18-3): This team’s power-play struggles — 12.5 per cent since Dec. 1, ranked 28th in the league — are truly baffling.

4. Montreal Canadiens (31-18-7): Andrew Shaw hasn’t been able to stay healthy this year, but when in the lineup, the feisty winger is scoring at a 26-goal clip.

5. Vancouver Canucks (25-24-7): Josh Leivo has four points in his past two games and is starting to look like he can fill a significant role for this team.

6. Edmonton Oilers (24-26-5): Chin up, Oilers fans: The rest of the league is preparing to retch in anticipation of you winning the first-overall pick and drafting Jack Hughes.

7. Ottawa Senators (21-29-5): The pending UFA we talk the least about — Ryan Dzingel — scored his 21st of the year in the win over Winnipeg on Saturday.

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In Your Ear

Sportsnet’s Luke Fox joined Rory and me on the Tape to Tape podcast last Friday and dropped some interesting names when it comes to potential stealth buyers at the deadline: Namely, the Vegas Golden Knights and the New York Islanders.

Analyzing the buyers/sellers market a month from trade deadline
February 01 2019

Looking Ahead

• Pittsburgh hosts its red-hot state rivals from Philadelphia on Monday in a game that sets the table for the outdoor clash happening on Feb. 23. The Penguins, 3-6-1 in their past 10, hold the final playoff spot in the East and the Flyers — who’ve won nine of their past 10 — could pull within three points of the Pens with a win.

• Calgary visits Tampa Bay on Tuesday in a battle of the league’s top two clubs and a re-match of the awesome 2004 Stanley Cup Final.

• The Habs visit old pal P.K. Subban in Nashville on Thursday, while desert star Auston Matthews returns home to play the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.

• Fourteen days left until the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. I have to go re-fresh Twitter….

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