SportsDamien Cox: Blues pay their dues and dare to dream of first Stanley Cup
Blues knock out Stars with double-OT win in Game 7
ST. LOUIS—Pat Maroon put in a rebound of a shot by Robert Thomas 5:50 into the second overtime to give the St. Louis Blues a 2-1 win in Game 7 of their second-round series with Dallas and put them in the NHL Western Conference final. Thomas took a shot that Stars netminder Ben Bishop stopped, but Maroon, in front of the goal, jumped and shot the puck high and in. It was the 54th shot of the game for the Blues, and it was St. Louis-born Maroon beating Bishop, who played high school hockey in the city. The Blues will face San Jose or Colorado in the conference final starting later this week.
Before the Vegas Golden Knights there were the St. Louis Blues of the late 1960s, the first expansion team that played for thein its inaugural campaign.
Unlike the Knights, however, the Blues didn’t have to fight through meaningful tournament competition to qualify for the Cup final. They were, in essence, gifted that position because NHL decision-makers in their enduring wisdom put all six 1967 expansion teams in the same conference, with the survivor of that group allowed to play for the Cup.
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Ridiculous, but that was the NHL back then.
The inclusion of St. Louis as part of that expansion group was even more curious, based on the insistence of the Chicago Blackhawks that Missouri was a better choice for a sixth team than Baltimore. Why? Well, because St. Louis was closer to Chicago, and the owners of the Hawks owned the decrepit rink that the Blues would use.
Again, that was the NHL back then.
The Blues not only made the 1968 final, but the 1969 and 1970 finals as well. They didn’t win a single game in any of those best-of-seven series — 0-12 — but it was still a fine start for a new franchise and a talented young coach, Scotty Bowman.
Well, it took another 49 years but the Blues are almost back. Or, at least, they are one game from returning to the Cup final. They blasted the San Jose Sharks in Silicon Valley on Sunday, setting up a chance on Tuesday night to advance and play Boston for the Cup.
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This, if it happens, should come with advance warning. Be prepared for Hockey Night in Canada, with Donald S. Cherry at the forefront, to use this as the basis for yet another round of hagiography involving the winning goal in the ’70 final scored by a flying Bobby Orr.
It is, without question, one of the greatest hockey pictures of all time. An iconic photo, Orr scoring on Glenn Hall while being aided into flight by Noel Picard, the image made into hockey history by photographer Ray Lussier of the Boston Record American. It’s 1-2 with Paul Henderson’s 1972 Summit Series winner as the greatest hockey photo ever. Maybe with the 1952 photo of a bloodied Rocket Richard shaking hands with Sugar Jim Henry a close third.
Unlike Henderson’s goal, however, Orr’s 1970 moment was not a particularly important goal. Yes, it ended the series, but Boston was ahead three games to none and hadn’t been challenged by the Blues. The Bruins outscored the Blues 16-4 in the first three games and it seemed more like an exhibition series. The leading scorer for St. Louis was 37-year-old Phil Goyette, and the Blues didn’t have a star or even an elite prospect.
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That goal has been exaggerated in its impact over the decades, more myth-building than fact. It’s the photo that’s iconic, not the actual goal. But you can bet Hockey Night in Canada will make it the central focus of a St. Louis-Boston final.
If it happens.
The Blues have been close since 1970 on many occasions with strong regular-season teams that couldn’t close the deal. The closest was 1986 when a late third-period goal by Eddy Beers cut Calgary’s lead to 2-1 in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference final, but the Blues couldn’t get the equalizer past Rick Wamsley and were eliminated.
Over the past 15 years, the Blues have taken a dogged approach to trying to build a champion the right way through drafting and development, which has been accompanied by the blossoming of St. Louis as a true hockey centre with the ability to develop elite talent. The crowning glory of that was the 2016 NHL draft, when five St. Louis-area players went in the first round. Ex-NHLers living in the city have made it all happen.
It’s all taken a long, long time, which is the lesson of modern NHL competitive development — Vegas aside — and of the length of time required to truly turn a new hockey market into a productive hockey market.
In the end, the Bruins had nothing left in the tank
Down a man for two periods, the defense struggled to manage the puck.
Leaf fans should take note: This Blues rebuild began in 2008 with the drafting of Alex Pietrangelo fourth overall. It’s taken 11 years, not four or five. It took installing Craig Berube as head coach last fall when the Blues looked dead as disco, and then more waiting for Berube’s tactics and directions to take root. Jordan Binnington arrived part way through the season to deliver the goaltending. Vlad Tarasenko, at the age of 27, has finally figured out post-season competition, as has Jaden Schwartz. Ryan O’Reilly has found the joy in St. Louis that he was denied in Buffalo.
The Blues got hot in February and stayed hot. They let the trade deadline pass without a major move, either believing that team building was more likely to carry them further down the playoff trail than a marquee addition, or because they lacked the resources to make such a transaction.
The group was left to achieve together, and in that light perhaps it’s not that surprising that the Blues were able to shake off the egregious hand-pass officiating error in Game 3. Now they’ve got the Sharks on the ropes after an emphatic 5-0 victory on Sunday.
The history of the NHL in St. Louis is a long, fascinating story, but not one that can fuel the push to get back to the Cup final. There is no great Blues history to inspire Pietrangelo, Binnington and Tarasenko.
There is only the recent memory of an unusual season that seemed to have collided with a brick wall at Thanksgiving, and now sees the club one win away from facing Boston. There is only history to be written.
As much as the star-crossed history of the Blues suggests they won’t get it this time either, it sure feels like they will.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter:
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