Earlier in the season, the St. Louis Blues were a disaster. They had fired head coach Mike Yeo in November, started fighting each other in practice in December, and tried to repair morale by bringing in a puppy. Now, they’ve won 11 in a row, put themselves in playoff position, and have actual hope. Although it’d be fine to give some credit to the puppy, newfound starting goaltender Jordan Binnington deserves recognition, too.
Having barely missed out on the playoffs last season for the first time since 2011, the Blues made plenty of changes in the offseason. One of the biggest was the departure of goaltender Carter Hutton in free agency, which left the team fully committed to the younger and inconsistent Jake Allen. The Blues, with their hand forced by a four-year extension they signed Allen to in 2016, made a bet this season that Allen would bounce back from a rough 2017-18, and it didn’t happen.
In the opening months of the season, the Blues were on pace for their worst year since before their expert rebuild in 2011, and Allen was the main culprit. On a defense-focused team without a lot of scoring depth, Allen failed to be the necessary rock at the back. According to Natural Stat Trick, from the start of the year until Jan. 6, the Blues ranked a solid seventh in the league with just 10.35 high-danger scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes (denoted by this diagram). Allen, however, ranked 35th in the league on those chances out of 39 goalies with at least 1000 minutes, posting a woeful .781 save percentage on high-danger attempts. His overall save percentage, at .898, ranked 33rd. And on Jan. 6, the Blues had taken a mere 36 points from 39 games, placing them last in the Central Division.
The reason that date is significant is because it marks when Allen said the Blues had hit “rock bottom” after a 5-1 loss to the Wild. Boy, was he correct. On Jan. 7, the very desperate team turned to the 25-year-old Binnington, who was making his first career start. Somehow, it worked: The Blues beat the Flyers, 3-0, behind Binnington’s shutout. Since “rock bottom,” everything’s changed for St. Louis. They’ve won 16 of their last 20 games, and they’re currently riding a franchise best 11-game winning streak that hit a new peak on Tuesday night with Ryan O’Reilly’s OT goal in a 3-2 victory over the Maple Leafs.
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But it’s not the offense that has carried the Blues to fifth place in the Western Conference. It’s been the play of Binnington, who’s come out of nowhere to completely eclipse Allen as the best option in net. A third-round pick in 2011, Binnington has spent four years in the AHL, only surfacing at the NHL level in emergency conditions. Since getting his first start, though, Binnington has dominated, going 13-1-1 with a very impressive .937 save percentage and a 1.61 goals against average, along with four shutouts. In those all-important high-danger chances, he’s stopped 81 of 92, and he just looks astoundingly confident in high-pressure situations. In Tuesday’s game, after a team shutout streak of 233:50 had been snapped by a pair of quick goals and at a moment when an inexperienced goalie’s concentration would maybe be broken, Binnington came up with an excellent point-blank save on Zach Hyman.
Here is the obligatory disclosure about Binnington’s sample size: it’s quite small. This kind of hot streak calls to mind more flameout goalies (like Andrew Hammond) than it does long-term success stories. And there’s always the chance Allen finds his form, like he did for a 3-0 shutout against the Avalanche on Saturday, and becomes the favored option again. But right now, Binnington’s been spectacular, stepping into an unfamiliar spotlight to lead a team that just needed somebody—anybody—to not suck. Binnington has been to this point unrattled by the responsibility.
“With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity, right?” he said when the win streak hit 10. “That’s kind of how I looked at it.”