At the start of the calendar year, the St. Louis Blues were a desperate team, wallowing at the bottom of the standing in the National Hockey League.
Slowly, they started to piece it together, aided by a coaching change and the sudden emergence of rookie Jordan Binnington as an elite net-minder.
The Blues would bull their way up the standing, winning 30 of their final 45 games and charged into the post-season as the team nobody wanted to face, an unwelcome assignment that fell to the Winnipeg Jets.
The remarkable run will now continue for a little while longer as the Blues dispatched the obviously weary and battle-torn Jets 3-2 at the Enterprise Center on Saturday night to win their opening round Western Conference playoff series 4-2.
St. Louis’s Jaden Schwartz, who only scored 11 times over the course of the regular season, has suddenly emerged as an unexpected offensive force, scoring three times in what was the first win by the home side in the series.
It was also Schwartz who delivered the knockout blow in Game 5 on Thursday night in Winnipeg, scoring the winning goal with just 15 seconds left in regulation time. The Blues beat the Jets 3-2.
“It’s nice definitely to help out and step up,” Schwartz said afterwards. “We played a great team game today. We didn’t give them much, we worked our butts off. Our [defence] was great. I thought our forwards backchecked really hard and frustrated them.
“That was the biggest game of the year for us. We played aggressive and we were on our toes.”
“We're all happy for him [Schwartz],” added Blues’ coach Craig Berube. “He's an important player. Sometimes pucks just don't go in. It's not from a lack of chances.
“But I think he ramped his game up the last couple games; getting to the gritty areas a little bit more and he was rewarded…with a hat trick. Big goal last game being around the net.”
It was a disappointing setback for the Jets, Western Conference finalists a year ago who many felt had the talent to make a run into the Stanley Cup finals.
Instead they have been relegated to spectator status, joining the Calgary Flames as the second Canadian NHL franchise to tumble out of the first round.
The Blues will now advance to the Western Conference semi-final and will face the winner of the Dallas-Nashville playoff.
“It’s tough. No matter what, it’s disappointing,” said Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey. “You work hard all year to put yourself in a position going into the playoffs and yeah, it’s really tough. We fought back at the end of that game, tried our best. It’s disappointing.”
“Home ice was definitely not taken advantage of,” lamented Bryan Little. “That last game, it's hard not to think about that. Having the two-goal lead and them coming back.
“Then I think [Saturday night] they were just the better team. I think every game was fairly close this series but tonight, it just felt like they were better than us.”
The Blues got the fast start they were seeking when Schwartz scored on the game’s first shift after just 23 seconds to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead.
Winnipeg defenceman Dustin Byfuglien made a sloppy clearing attempt on the play that was gobbled up by Brayden Schenn just inside the Jets’ blue line and Schenn powered toward the net.
Schenn’s shot appeared to strike the crossbar and the puck plopped into the goal crease where Schwartz was able to sweep it in past Connor Hellebuyck, the Winnipeg goaltender.
The Blues were quicker on the puck in the opening frame and laid the body on to slow the Winnipeg skaters, outhitting the Jets by a 20-8 margin.
Hellebuyck had to be solid to keep the Blues at bay, coming up big on a breakaway in the final two minutes by Robby Fabbri.
The Blues continued to pour it on, out-shooting the Jets 27-6 through two periods and pulling ahead 2-0 on Schwartz’s second at the 10:39 mark on the power play.
Schwartz then saved his best for last, scoring a beauty about three minutes into the third that brought the score to 3-0.
Skating up the right side on a 2-on-1 break, Schwartz cleverly hung onto the puck after Byfuglien, anticipating the pass, made a desperate dive hoping to break up the play.
As the Winnipeg defender slid on by, Schwartz then had an open road to the net and his wrist shot beat Hellebuyck to the short side.
Byfuglien then ruined the shutout bid of Binnington at the 12:14 mark. Little added another, a shorthanded effort with 38 seconds left, but it was a matter of too little too late.