ST. LOUIS — When the month of October came and went for the Blues in 2018, it wasn't the worst hockey played, but it wasn't the rip-roaring start everyone expected after general manager Doug Armstrong retooled and revamped in the summer months.
The Blues were 3-3-3, which wasn't all that bad, but it was the start of the demise of Mike Yeo as coach but ultimately, and unbelievably, culminated into the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup.
Fast forward to 2019, and the Blues are one month into the season as defending Cup champs. They sit at 7-3-3, which is an improvement over a year ago and on quite the point pace, 107.2 to be exact, which would surpass last year's 99 points, and even though they are in a good spot right now, there's a sense that there is another level and a greater need for improvement in a lot of areas.
Armstrong said goalie Jordan Binnington has "been OK" with a 2.52 goals-against average and .918 save percentage; the Blues are bringing along newly acquired defenseman Justin Faulk, who is off to a so-so start with just four assists in 13 games; veteran center Tyler Bozak has no goals (four assists) in 13 games while playing with a multitude of wingers. But there are players who have started well, including David Perron, who is tied with Brayden Schenn for most points and is at a point-per-game at 13 in 13 games; Schenn is off to a flying start with nine goals after signing an eight-year, $52 million extension; Jaden Schwartz, despite just one goal, has 10 points in 13 games, Ryan O'Reilly is also at a point-per-game pace with 13, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has five goals and nine points already, and Sammy Blais has four goals in his first 11 games this season.
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But ... have the Blues been at their best?
"Not overly," defenseman Colton Parayko said. "I feel like we have at certain times, I would say. I think that we get results because we dig deep when we need to and we know how to dig deep. I think the beauty of it is right now that we still have a lot more to give. Obviously we talked about our points and we have a lot of points in the bank. We have a good team. We know how to bear down when we need to. That's just what good teams do.
"October's over and teams are going to start pushing a little harder. Points-wise, they know where they're at. I think we're going to get a lot more Central Division games coming up, too. Those are always huge for the points and those are tough games that we obviously have to be dialed in for. ... I think we have to touch on the two-goal thing. We've had a lot of two-goal leads that we kind of continue to not finish out. Things like that, if we can finish those out, that's a big thing. Just make sure we can play the full 60."
It speaks volumes that the Blues, who host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday before heading to Minnesota for a rematch with the Wild after beating them 2-1 on Wednesday, are in a position to surpass the century mark in points and feel there's still more to give.
"If we're on pace for whatever you said, we still feel like we've got more," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "That's a good thing when you've got those high expectations. It's not so much putting pressure on yourself, it's just for us, it really is small things, things that we can fix, things that we're doing to ourselves that can allow us to get better and make the game easier on each other to have more success."
Craig Berube, who took over for Yeo on Nov. 20 when the Blues were 7-8-3, and the Blues have gone through a lot in October, from answering lingering questions about last season to finishing up Cup dates, getting their rings, to a banner-raising ceremony, a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame and a visit to the White House, among other side details. All the while, the Blues have had to focus on playing games in a new season and being the hunted instead of the hunter.
"I don't feel we're in a bad spot," Berube said. "I think we've played pretty good hockey considering a lot of stuff went on in October, different things, road trips and stuff that we had to do and we're involved in. But I feel like we're in a pretty good spot right now, but we can play better. We can play more consistent. We've got to manage our energy. I think that's really important here going forward.
"It's going out shift to shift and getting everybody playing the same way all the time. That's what we're looking for. It's a little bit of everybody. It's just not consistent enough. ... That's on the coaches too, ice times, practices and all that stuff and the players doing their part outside the rink. Things like that, it's really important. It's only going to get harder and harder. We played a long time into the spring. It's important."
The biggest difference this season moving forward? The Blues are playing with a significant injury to their lineup. Vladimir Tarasenko, their leading scorer the past five years averaging 36 goals and 35 assists), will miss at least five months after sustaining a dislocated left shoulder. He won't be there for the duration of this season. The Blues know this, so it'll be up to the rest to keep the wins coming.
"I think we've kind of found our game more recently as far as knowing how to play solid to have success most nights," Perron said. "Obviously losing somebody like Vladi, that hurts, but we stopped talking about that and we have guys keep stepping up at the right time, whoever it is. It's like the Stanley Cup thing, he's going to be out for the next five months, four months, six months, whatever it is. We have to find a level that's going to give us success most nights. It won't be perfect all the time, but we have to find ways to win. I thought [Wednesday] night was a good example. It wasn't great at all times, but it was solid in certain moments.
"We had games where it was right there. Last night, I don't think we were there, but we were close to it. There's just got to be times when we find a way."
The Blues have coughed up four two-goal leads in games, losing three of them (two in overtime and one in a shootout, costing them three points) but have also played games in which they found a way to win despite not being at their best. They're also finding out firsthand just what it feels like to get everyone's best knowing they're at the top of the mountain.
"We've been a good team for a long time, so we've always got the best of everybody," Pietrangelo said. "This year's obviously a little bit different. There's nothing better than saying you beat the defending champions. We're up to the challenge. I think it helps make us better.
"I think it's a sense of confidence too, going through what we went through last year. Any time you can play at the level that we played at, you're going to feel confident, especially when you feel like you're building throughout a game. We've obviously given up a couple two-goal leads, but last night was a big one for us holding onto that lead and winning a late game."
The Blues have learned that while last season was a Cinderella year in terms of going from worst to first, it's not the ideal way to build a team and a winner.
"It's no fun losing. Nobody likes to lose," Parayko said. "I remember how frustrating it was last year and it doesn't help at all in your locker room. But we made sure we knew we had to dial it in. I think this year we understand that that was no fun for nobody for those months. Nobody's really excited to come to the rink when we're playing like that. We know what it was and we want to make sure that we continue to just push forward and not put ourselves in that spot again."