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St. Louis Blues battle Las Vegas Golden Knights

St. Louis Blues center Ivan Barbashev (49), left wing Zach Sanford (12) and center Alexander Steen (20) celebrate after the puck bounces off Sanford's neck for the third goal of the game during the third period on Monday, March 25, 2019 at the Enterprise Center. The Blues defeated the Golden Knights 3-1. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com

On Jan. 2, the Blues had the fewest points in the NHL.

In a 31-team league, 30 teams were above them. In the Blues’ defense, they had played fewer games – in some cases as many as four fewer – than the teams immediately above them, but that seemed little reason for solace since that just meant the Blues hadn’t had a chance to lose those games yet.

Now, with six games left in the season, the Blues are on the brink of a playoff spot. They need to get one point out of those final six games — or to have Arizona miss out on a point, or have Colorado lose a game besides its game with Arizona — to return to the playoffs after a one-season absence.

It has been a long, strange trip. The team had high hopes at the start of the season and has ended up pretty much right where it was expected to be — third in the Central with a realistic shot at second and an outside shot at first — despite taking a very circuitous route. They’ve made the drive from St. Louis to Chicago in five hours, even though they went via Kansas City.

“From where we were, it’s obviously a big turnaround,” defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. “It’s something that we can be proud of.”

Getting to the playoffs from the place where the Blues were doesn’t happen often. Before this season, only five teams since the league’s 1967 expansion have gone from last in points after Jan. 1 to make the playoffs, and none in the past 20 years: the 1976-77 North Stars, 1979-80 Oilers, 1982-83 Maple Leafs, 1987-88 Kings and the 1996-97 Senators. If the Blues were to somehow finish first, they would be in even rarer company. Only once has a team had the fewest points in the league after at least 20 games and won its division: the 2007-08 Capitals in the old Southeast Division.

“From the start of the year, it’s been a really slow build,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “We worked hard from day one and things didn’t go that well. We struggled to find the chemistry (but) we found an identity and it took us half a year to find it. From there, you can see with the veterans we have, and the leadership, we’ve found that and we’re able to establish our identity right from the get-go in games. We’re not done yet. We still have to build more and more, but it’s sure nice to be here.”

Though the Blues were last on Jan. 2, with a record of 15-18-4, the bottom may have come a couple of weeks earlier. On Dec. 16, the Blues lost to Calgary at Enterprise Center 7-2 and got booed off the ice. The next day, the website moneypuck.com, which figures probabilities of teams making the playoffs, had the Blues at a 10.1 percent likelihood. Only the Chicago Blackhawks were less likely to make the playoffs out of the Central Division.

That’s right about when things changed for the Blues. Coach Craig Berube points to the team’s western Canada trip right before Christmas as the time when the team started moving forward. In terms of analytics, it was right before that Calgary loss that the team’s numbers began a slow, steady and inexorable climb, which finally peaked during the team’s franchise record 11-game winning streak. The Blues followed that with a predictable leveling off, going 4-5-2, but now they are 5-0-1 in their past six and playing much the same way they did during the winning streak.

“We’re working for each other,” O’Reilly said. “When you look at all the pieces we have, and obviously great goaltending has been a huge piece of it as well, but look at our defense, how big (and) strong they are, how good they are with their sticks. As forwards, if we’re investing the right way in skating, it makes the job easier for these D. Then they’re shutting down guys and keeping everything to the outside. We’re hard to play against and I can tell teams get frustrated against us. That’s us. We’re not a transition team that just feeds off the rush. It starts with us playing well defensively and then getting to our game and getting creative offensively. You can tell when we invest in the game the right way how frustrating it is for other teams.”

“I think it might have taken us a little while to get our chemistry going, and, you know, play for each other,” said forward Zach Sanford, whose practice session fight with Robert Bortuzzo coincided with the team’s revival. “And now we’re really backing each other up, playing for each other. I wouldn’t say anyone’s playing for themselves at all anymore. Maybe some guys were at the beginning of the year, or maybe not even some — most of us.”

Reaching the playoffs is only the first step for the Blues. They still have a very good shot at second place, which requires them to get two more points than Nashville gets in the final two weeks of the season, and the Blues have one more game than the Predators to do that in. There is still an outside chance at the Blues winning the Central, but that will require some help from first-place Winnipeg. If the Jets win four out of their final six, the Blues would have to win out to take first.

“We’re not trying to look at the standings too much,” said O’Reilly. “It’s take one game at a time, but we want to get in the best position possible. We don’t want to be looking behind us, who’s underneath us. It’s always looking ahead, see who we can catch and get the advantage if we can.”

And the view going forward is a promising one.

RAMPAGE INJURIES

The San Antonio Rampage, the Blues’ AHL affiliate, announced that six players, most notably forward Jordan Kyrou and goalie Ville Husso, were done for the AHL season, though the Blues said this does not preclude any of those players joining the Blues for the playoff run. Kyrou, who has played 16 games with the Blues this season, and Husso, who would project as the No. 3 goalie in the postseason, both have lower-body injuries. Also done for the season at San Antonio are Connor Bleackley, Austin Poganski, Trevor Smith and Nikita Soshnikov. San Antonio’s season, which has nine more games, runs one week past the Blues’ regular season.

Tom Timmermann is a Blues beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.