Back on Jan. 7, Jordan Binnington came into the Wells Fargo Center and made his first-ever NHL start. He blanked the Flyers, 3-0, as the Blues beat Carter Hart.
On that night, Hart, at 20 years old and playing just his seventh game, actually had more NHL experience than the opposing goalie.
After the game, Hart smiled. Just 20 days earlier, he experienced the thrill of making his first NHL start. He could appreciate the high Binnington must have been on to deliver a shutout in such a moment.
Little did anyone know it would be the start of a remarkable run by the rookie Binnington, all the way into the Western Conference Final, which begins Saturday night (8 p.m./NBC).
In 30 starts, Binnington went an astounding 24-5-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and five shutouts. When the Blues visited the Wells Fargo Center, they had the same number of points as the Flyers. St. Louis was 29th in the NHL at 16-19-4 and 36 points. The Flyers were 30th at 15-20-6 and 36 points.
Now, the Blues are one of four teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in massive part because of Binnington, who is a Calder Memorial Trophy finalist.
But Binnington had some help. St. Louis allowed 28.6 shots per game during the regular season, tied for the NHL's third fewest. The Blues won 32 games when they outshot an opponent, tied for the NHL's most. They had just six losses when outshot by an opponent, the NHL's second fewest.
St. Louis didn't make many comebacks because it didn't need them. The Blues made their push by setting the tone early in games, securing leads, sustaining pressure and playing smart hockey with a goalie that could finish. It was a good environment for Binnington, a 25-year-old with four seasons of AHL experience.
If you recall the 3-0 win over the Flyers on Jan. 7, the Blues dominated possession and often pinned the Flyers in their zone. Hart was forced to make 34 saves on 36 shots, with Binnington sealing the deal behind 25 stops.
The Flyers seldom played that style of game with Hart in net, something new head coach Alain Vigneault hopes to change.
"Puck management can be as important and can be as effective to playing good defense," Vigneault said Apr. 18. "A lot of times people talk about playing good defense and that's the forecheck or the D-zone coverage. Yeah, it is, it's because you don't have the puck, but you've got to know what to do with the puck, and when you do know what to do with the puck, then a lot of times you're not defending as much."
Hart was pretty darn good himself since Jan. 7. He went 14-10-0 in 25 games (24 starts) with a 2.84 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Over that stretch, he made 759 saves compared to Binnington's 727. A reason why Hart converted more saves is because the Flyers allowed the NHL's most shots (1,439) since Jan. 7, putting a lot on a 20-year-old rookie's shoulders.
He made the most of the environment.
"We have a young goaltender that's got tremendous amount of potential that might become one of the top goalies in the league," Vigneault said.
It'll be up to the Flyers to help him.
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