‘Resilient’ Blues savor improbable run to Cup Final

ST. LOUIS — The streamers fell from the ceiling and the fans sang along with “Gloria,” the 1980s pop classic repurposed as the St. Louis Blues’ official victory song, as it blared from the speakers in Enterprise Center.

Their 5-1 victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals to eliminate the San Jose Sharks felt as inevitable as it felt improbable just over five months ago, when the Blues had the fewest points in the standings of any team in the NHL.

Now, they’re four wins away from the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

“I don’t understand yet,” said Vladimir Tarasenko after the win, which sent the Blues to face the Boston Bruins in the first Stanley Cup Final for St. Louis since 1970. “It feels a little weird. It seems like this year took forever. A lot of emotions. Negative from the start, positive in the end. I’m proud of every person here for what we achieved today.”

As late as Jan. 2, the Blues were in last place overall in the NHL. They had fired their coach, Mike Yeo, elevating AHL coach Craig Berube to the job on an interim basis. Adversity had struck. The Blues chose the right path to respond, building their trust and their chemistry until the wins started to arrive in bunches, including an 11-game winning streak that got them back into playoff contention.

Only four teams in the expansion era have reached the Final after ranking among the bottom three in the standings at any point after their 20th game: the 1968 Canadiens, 1968 Blues, 1991 North Stars and 2010 Flyers. The Canadiens, it should be said, are the only one of those clubs to win the Stanley Cup.

“We stuck together, we kept believing in each other. We had some good, hard, honest conversations and we all knew we needed to be better from top down. We looked each other in the eye, we looked in the mirror and we did that,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo. “A lot of people doubted us this year but this group was resilient and I really am proud of the guys because as hard as it is, it’s been fun to look back and see where we are now.”

Where they are now, frankly, wouldn’t have been attainable without the heroics of their rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, who allowed only two goals to the Sharks in the final three games of their series. The 25-year-old is a finalist for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, and backstopped the Blues to the Final.

“We’re confident in him, but he’s confident in himself. That’s what we want. We wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for him,” said center Ryan O’Reilly.

Was Game 6 lost for the Sharks before it even started? They entered their most important game of the season with Tomas Hertl and Erik Karlsson back in San Jose nursing injuries after leaving Game 5 following the second period. Captain Joe Pavelski skated one shift in the third period before leaving, too. He traveled with the Sharks and was a game-time decision for Game 6. At game time, it was decided he was too injured to play.

All of this proved insurmountable against a Blues team that was peaking.

The final turning point in Game 6 came when Logan Couture, the playoffs’ leading scorer, had a chance to tie the game with a loose puck in Binnington’s crease. But Colton Parayko saved a goal by blocking a tip-in and sweeping it out of danger. Just 31 second later, Sharks defenseman Justin Braun went to the penalty box for hooking. One minute and 50 seconds after that, Brayden Schenn scored their second power-play goal of the game for the 3-1 lead.

The dagger arrived from center Tyler Bozak, whose shot deflected off of Gustav Nyquist and behind Martin Jones for the 4-1 lead with just under seven minutes remaining.

Which is to say that the Blues closed out the game. This was the lesson learned from their latest battle with adversity: Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, when a hand-pass missed by all four officials led to a game-winning goal by Karlsson.

“I’ll go back to that Game 3. We should’ve closed that game out. And it should’ve never gotten to that point. But things happen and that’s a good hockey team over there. They battled and we stayed with it. And we played some really good hockey after that,” said Berube.

It the same crossroads they stared at back in January: Either feel sorry about your lot in life, or do something positive about it.

“My feeling was that if we were going to win the next game, we were going to win the series,” said forward David Perron, “because we took [the high] road. I’m just glad we approached it that way. I think we reacted different to that and that’s how we found success at the end.”

It’s not quite the end. The Bruins — and former Blues captain David Backes, for added drama — are next. It’ll be a physical series. It’ll be an intense series.

“I’m really proud of the team and how far we go, but there’s still one more opponent to beat,” said Tarasenko, before considering the moment again. “It feels unbelievable. I’m not going to lie.”

Source: Read Full Article