BOSTON — Before goaltender Jordan Binnington became the force that propelled his team to its first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1970, he had to fight for himself. The St. Louis Blues didn’t have their own American Hockey League affiliate for the 2017-18 season, forced to share with the Colorado Avalanche, so after the Blues settled on prospect Ville Husso to get the one available AHL spot in net, they planned to have Binnington in the ECHL, a lower league.
Binnington refused, believing he was better than that, even if St. Louis had tabbed Husso ahead of him on the depth chart. Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong sent a memo to the league’s 30 other teams asking if anyone needed an experienced goaltender for their farm team. The Boston Bruins did, so Binnington was loaned to their AHL team in Providence. Less than two years later, on the eve of his first NHL start, Binnington was just as sure of himself and his future.
“There was a sense of calm that he was completely ready,” said Andy Chiodo, the goalie coach Binnington works with in the offseason through Biosteel Sports in Toronto. “He had every reason to believe in his game, and I thought he had every reason not to wait for that game to be played out to realize that he’s an NHL No. 1 goaltender.”
That 25-save shutout in Philadelphia on Jan. 7 launched Binnington’s season as he went from a passed-over prospect to St. Louis’s no-doubt top goaltender. It also sparked the Blues’ turnaround. They were the NHL’s last-place team just four days before Binnington’s shutout, and his 24 wins in 30 starts down the stretch propelled them into the playoffs with the 25-year-old Binnington as the face of this improbable run.
“I realized a couple years ago, I was in a situation where my back was against the wall and I’ve got to handle it right,” Binnington said. “And I kind of just had this belief and hunger in myself to be the best I can be and make the most of my talent, and I’m very fortunate to be coming to a team like this. It’s been a pretty special season so far.”
By late February, Binnington was cruising, racking up five shutouts in 18 starts during a stretch that included a nine-game winning streak. He saved all 19 shots he faced against Nashville on Feb. 26, prompting a reporter to ask whether any part of this experience ever felt nerve-racking. “Do I look nervous?" Binnington deadpanned.
It became Binnington’s brand, sparking T-shirts in honor of the unflappable rookie. Dry monotone is a hallmark of Binnington’s meetings with the press. When told that many in St. Louis compare his sudden emergence to that of former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, Binnington acknowledged that he wasn’t familiar with Warner’s odyssey, but “it sounds like he’s a pretty awesome story.”
The story of the Blues’ season started with Jake Allen and Chad Johnson as the tandem in net. St. Louis was expected to be a contender going into the season after the acquisitions of forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Pat Maroon, but the goaltending was shaky and the root of the team’s early struggles. Through 33 appearances to start the season, Allen had an .898 save percentage and a 3.07 goals against average. Johnson’s numbers through 10 appearances were worse. Both veterans were eventually asked to cede the net to Binnington.
“He’s been the best goalie in the league since he took over,” Allen said.
“It would be disingenuous to say that this was all part of the master plan, bring him in in January and be here today,” Armstrong said. “But what he did do is he never quit on himself. ... This road was made extremely difficult for him to get to that point, meaning you have to go to a different organization, we tabbed another player ahead of you, and he just said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll see.’ At the end of the day, he got up here and he’s made the best of it, and so I would just say what’s most impressive for me is his belief in himself and how that’s transferred to obviously where we are today.”
After the Blues took a 2-0 lead in Monday’s Game 1, Binnington allowed three goals in what was ultimately a 4-2 Bruins win. It wasn’t a bad performance, but the game-winning goal was the result of Binnington fumbling a rebound before Boston’s Sean Kuraly punched it in. He acknowledged that he needed to be better, and he’s the first to believe he will be.
“You learn that confidence comes from preparation, and you’ve got to be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you,” Binnington said Sunday. “It’s kind of the way I look at my life now and hockey specifically.”
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