When the St. Louis Blues fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 1, current coach Mike Yeo was seated alongside general manager Doug Armstrong at the press conference.
At the time, Armstrong was not shy about talking about how the struggling Blues were not all on the same program.
“We’ve let our group become independent contractors,” Armstrong said at the time. “One of the things I’ve learned about being around St. Louis is the Cardinals, they don’t have independent contractors and when they do, they get rid of them. We have a situation now where I trust these guys and believe in them, but I have a sense of independent contractors.
“When you see independent contracting going on out on the ice, whether you’re a fan or not, it’s easy to see. What we have to do is we have to become a team again. We have to take pride in doing things for each other, for the betterment of the team.”
There was no mistaking Armstrong’s direct language or his message to the players. The Blues turned things around quickly, finishing the season under Yeo 22-8-2 and opening the NHL playoffs with three straight wins over the Minnesota Wild.
Yeo said Wednesday morning he couldn’t remember everything that Armstrong was saying.
“My head was still spinning at that time,” said Yeo, who was already the Blues’ coach-in-waiting scheduled to take over next season before Hitchcock’s early departure. “We went through a difficult time and quite often, it’s easy to look at that time and say, that’s what you are, but how you come out of it is really the determining factor of who you are— and our guys showed that.”
There may have been lingering doubts about the Blues’ direction and playoff worthiness, but those have all been answered.
“There was a time that there was a lot of question marks about our group as far as the direction that we were going when we traded (Kevin Shattenkirk),” Yeo said. “I think maybe there was some people that thought we were going to pack it in or look to the future or whatever the case may be; our group did not let that happen.
“This is a group that’s won a lot. This is a group ... they haven’t got a Stanley Cup, but you look at going to the Western Conference finals last year, the success they’ve had over the last six years, there’s a lot of pride. There’s a lot of good hockey players; there’s a lot of character over there so we knew we weren’t far away.”
Yeo talked about how the Blues moved forward from the Hitchcock firing and Armstrong’s pointed commentary.
“I can’t put my finger on one thing,” Yeo said. “We hit rock bottom, and we had to get better. What happened when we were doing that, we got better together, and the guys, just fully committed to each other, to the type of game we wanted to play, and then once that happens, you get a belief that’s very strong, that’s where we’re at.”
Trying for the sweep
After scoring first in the first three games before Wednesday, the Wild grabbed a 1-0 lead toward the end of a strong opening period,
A rare mistake by Blues goaltender Jake Allen, who had stopped 114 of 117 shots in the first three games, led to the goal with 3:10 remaining in the first period. Allen was behind his net and tried to clear the puck along the boards, but Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle intercepted in and quickly rifled it into the net before Allen could get back into position.
Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo was also in the vicinity as the puck found a path to the net.
Allen had done virtually nothing wrong before Wednesday, entering Game 4 with a 3-0 record, 0.91 goals-against average and .974 save percentage.
Injured Blues forward Paul Stastny (lower-body injury) skated with the team again Wednesday morning, but did not play in Game 4.
“It’s great,” Blues forward Patrik Berglund said of Stastny rejoining his teammates at the last two workouts. “It’s great to see him out there skating. He always somehow puts a smile on my face. It’s good to see him out there for sure.”
The Blues had a chance to sweep a playoff series for the first time since 2001 in the conference semifinals, when they took out the Dallas Stars in four straight. Heading into Game 4, the Wild had lost four straight to the Blues and eight of the last 10 games counting regular season and playoffs.
This is the eighth time in Blues franchise history they have held a 3-0 playoff series lead. They won all seven of the previous series when holding the commanding lead.
Only four of 182 NHL teams trailing 3-0 in a playoff series have come back to win the series.
Those incredible comeback teams were the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, the 1975 New York Islanders with J.P. Parise, father of Wild forward Zach Parise, the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and 2014 Los Angeles Kings in the first round against San Jose. The 2014 Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup championship.
Blues by the numbers
Before Game 4, Allen has handled 114 of 117 shots during the series against a Wild team that finished second in the NHL this season with 266 goals.
He entered Game 4 with a 3-0 record, 0.91 goals-against average and eye-popping .974 save percentage. Allen is 7-1 in his previous eight starts against the Wild counting the playoffs and regular season.
Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson is becoming a money man in the playoffs. Edmundson had three goals in his first 19 career playoff games, but has only four goals in 136 career regular-season contests.
- Game 4 between the Blues and Wild had not concluded as of press time. For a full recap of the game, visit bnd.com.