Response to Sharks' hand pass was pivotal moment in Blues' Cup run
ST. LOUIS — Craig Berube made a rare stop in the locker room after the game to address his players. It was important.
It was minutes after San Jose's Timo Meier had gloved the puck to Gustav Nyquist and wound up being credited with the second assist on Erik Karlsson's winning goal in Game 3. It was a blatant missed call, but it was over. St. Louis was suddenly down 2-1 in the Western Conference Final.
Berube told his players to forget about it, not to whine about it in interviews, and he set the tone after the game.
"Gotta move on," Berube said that night. "We all gotta move on from it and get ready for Game 4. Really, that's all you can do."
Following the lead of their interim coach, the Blues did exactly that and their response embodied everything about a team that rode an unheralded rookie goaltender and a bruising style from last place in the NHL in January to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in Boston.
"That was a thing that kind of showed our identity as a team," defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said hours before Game 6 against the Bruins. "How we did not just crumble under that — not just let it go, but we also turned into our advantage. We used that as fuel for the upcoming game. I think that speaks a ton of this team."
It speaks to everything about the Blues' journey. After his team missed the 2018 playoffs by one point, general manager Doug Armstrong loaded up: He signed forwards Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon and backup goaltender Chad Johnson, and traded first- and second-round picks, top prospect Tage Thompson and roster players Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund to Buffalo for Ryan O'Reilly.
That was a pivotal moment in the eyes of longtime Blues defenseman Chris Butler, a St. Louis native.
"Growing up here, the teams were always good, but the Stanley Cup was never really in the question," Butler said. "It was, let's make it 25 years in a row where they were just going to make the playoffs and everyone was kind of happy with that. And then you have a year there where you missed the playoffs, and then the bar was raised this summer.
"You bring in Ryan O'Reilly, you bring in Tyler Bozak, you make some big, gutsy-type trades and acquisitions and struggling for the first handful of months, then things started to click and guys kind of found their role, found their spot, and it's been fun as hell to be a part of."
The team was mired in last place six months ago, but a bond was forged during a midseason stretch of 70 days without consecutive home games. Season-defining moments soon began piling up:
• A night after five players heard "Gloria" repeatedly at a Philadelphia bar, Jordan Binnington began his ascension from fourth-stringer at training camp to starting goalie by posting a shutout in his first NHL start.
• A franchise-record 11-game winning streak.
• St. Louis native Patrick Maroon with the game-winning assist in the playoff opener the day after his grandfather died.
• Gunnarsson's game-winner in overtime in Game 2 against the Bruins after telling Berube in a locker-room bathroom at intermission he needed just one more chance.
"Any team who wins, there's going to be bits and pieces throughout the season you look back and that was kind of a turning point or that was a big moment for the team," Gunnarsson said.
No moment was bigger than Berube's short but straightforward speech in the cavernous home locker room at the downtown St. Louis arena that has been a house of horrors for Blues teams of previous vintages. Berube wouldn't let this one snowball, and it showed the confidence he has in his second NHL head coaching job.
"That's a big moment to do that," longtime friend Rick Tocchet said. "That quieted the noise."
If any organization was going to lose on a missed hand pass, naturally, it's the Blues, a team known for years of almost and not quite. At one point, St. Louis was eliminated on home ice by the eventual champion three years in a row.
That's history Berube doesn't care about. On this team with six new faces, his comments about the Sharks game resonated immediately.
"Chief came in and he just said, 'It's over and just focus on the next one,' and that's probably the best thing that we could've heard because at the time we were obviously a frustrated group," defenseman Joel Edmundson said. "It was one of those things where we could obviously sit on it or we could take it and use as motivation, hopefully. I think we did a good job of using it to our advantage. We came out the next game, I think we scored in the first minute or two."
It was the first shift. Ivan Barbashev scored 35 seconds into Game 4, Binnington made 29 saves and the Blues marched on.
"It's how you handle the adversity," Binnington said. "It was a key moment for us that we handled it properly and refocused."