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  • The Blues' rookie goalie's knack for the bounceback has kept St. Louis loose during a roller coaster Stanley Cup run.
By Joan Niesen
June 04, 2019

ST. LOUIS — In the second period of Monday’s 4–2 Blues win, Bruins winger Brad Marchand skated toward the St. Louis goal, circling behind the net. As he made the turn, his oh-so-slightly outstretched stick snared the pad protecting Blues goalie Jordan Binnington’s left leg. 

Marchand, who has earned a reputation as Boston’s foremost pest, had just been credited with an assist on the Bruins’ shorthanded goal, which tied the game at two apiece. What better moment, then, for Marchand to burrow deeper into the rookie’s consciousness? The hit was more a love tap, a Hey kid, that sucked for you, didn’t it?—but Binnington fell to the ice, supporting himself on the frame of the goal, left knee buckling, then right. He fell, because maybe the momentum was enough to trip him. Or maybe not. Maybe there was a slight pause before the tumble. Maybe the kid can play that game, too.

“It’s playoff hockey,” Blues defender Colton Parayko said after the game. “It’s the finals. Everybody’s trying to get under each other’s skin, especially in a game like that, 2–2 at the time. … I think Binner did a really good job responding to it. That’s one of the things, he likes those things, and he makes a statement.”

On Monday, Binnington was 48 hours removed from one of the most disappointing performances of his postseason, when he allowed five goals in an eventual 7–2 loss in the first Stanley Cup Final game played in St. Louis in nearly half a century. The numbers were grim: a .737 save percentage in a game in which Boston took just 19 shots while he was in goal. (Deposed former starter Jake Allen took the ice for the game’s final 24:28, allowing the Bruins to score just once more.) But in reality, the goalie got shaky support from his defense. Three of the goals he allowed came on Boston power plays. And he’s done this before, stumbled as his team has staggered to a lopsided loss; recall Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Game 3 of the first-round series against Winnipeg. St. Louis won both series, carried by Binnington, who has gotten used to putting this team on his shoulders and dragging it fr om disaster. Following games in which his team has lost by two or more goals, Binnington has gone 10–3 with a .928 save percentage since taking over as the team’s starting goalie in January.

“Same old story, right?” Binnington said before Monday’s game of his ability to come up big after losses. “Just prepare the same way. As a goalie things are going to happen, it’s not always going to be perfect and you’ve got to regroup, pick yourself back up and move on to the next game.”

These playoffs, there’s been plenty to regroup from: the game against San Jose in which an unnoticed and illegal hand pass sealed a Sharks win, getting pulled for Allen on Saturday. And Binnington has barely blinked. “On his bounce-back games, it’s just his calmness and his mannerisms more than anything,” Blues coach Craig Berube said Monday morning. “I think he goes back in there and he feels real confident about himself. Early on in games a lot of times you see his puck-handling ability and I know that he’s dialed pretty well when I notice that kind of stuff.”

All season, Binnington has been a font of one-liners. In February, asked about a string of nerve-wracking games, he quipped: “Do I look nervous?” During the Western Conference semifinals, asked about Dallas coach Jim Montgomery’s comments about his composure, the goalie claimed ignorance as to who exactly Jim Montgomery might be. The Sahara has nothing on Binnington’s sense of humor, and his most entertaining moments are complete with a built-in pause: Is he kidding, or is he cocky? It’s the former, even if at this point, Binnington has earned the latter.

And it takes a dry sense of humor to do this Blues season justice. A perennial postseason presence finds itself among the dregs of the NHL in January, and then it’s still playing in June. A city that lost its NFL team in 2016 and is desperate to remind the country that it’s still a great sports town puts on a wild show Saturday—Cardinals-Cubs at one end of Clark Avenue, Blues-Bruins at the other—and proceeds to give its home fans a game that stung like a cold shower in January. The worst days here have just been preludes to the best ones, which has instilled as much confidence as it does insanity in the minds of St. Louis’s long-tortured fans. The team born in 1967 won its first Stanley Cup Final game at home on June 3, 2019, a lifetime later. It won because Ryan O’Reilly, an offseason addition who’s on his third team in 10 seasons, netted two goals Monday night. It won on Binnington’s solid play in goal, thanks to his ability to stay the course after that shorthanded Bruins goal.

It won for a city that needed this, a city Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo called an “underrated” sports town Monday night, a city where most men over the age of 18—from nameless fans to Mad Men star Jon Hamm—are sprouting playoff beards. They’re grooming them now, almost two months into this ride, sweating underneath them in the June heat, wiping beer from mustaches as they toast and bellow the lyrics to “Gloria.”

Binnington, though, has just a collection of light-brown whiskers. That’s all the 25-year-old has mustered, a reminder of the age and inexperience (he’d played in just one NHL game before this year) that are so easy to forget. Behind the mask and the pads, he’s a giant, a human shield. But in the locker room, he’s a sarcastic rookie with stubble, just a few months removed from being second on the goalie depth chart for St. Louis’s AHL affiliate. Since then, he has earned every compliment he’s been given, every promotion, every accolade. This has been going on long enough—since Jan. 7, through an 11-game winning streak—that it’s no longer fluky. Binnington’s play is sustainable, his excellence understandable.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still feel a little bit like magic.

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