Last place in January.
Head coach fired, interim coach takes over.
Bortuzzo vs Sanford.
This past season for the St. Louis Blues was filled with so many unbelievable storylines and incredible people that it’s hard to believe they all happened within the same calendar year. And yet they all happened. In fact, they all intertwined, feeding off each other and building on one another, eventually culminating in the first Stanley Cup victory in franchise history.
You could point to any one of those stories and claim they were the motivation for an historic turnaround and ultimate championship triumph. Perhaps it was the firing of their head coach and subsequent leadership of Craig Berube, aka Chief. Maybe it was a seemingly unfazed rookie goaltender taking over, looking to take advantage of his opportunity. It could be traced to frustrations spilling over in practice, resulting in a fist fight on the ice between teammates. Who knows, maybe it was the service-dog-in-training that helped ease tensions, or maybe it was knowing that pregame National Anthem fixture, Charles Glenn, would be calling it quits after the season. You could definitely say it was the strength and bravery of an 11 year old girl battling a rare disease that inspired the team. I, for one, looked forward to seeing Blues superfan, YP, dancing with his pet chinchilla after each and every Blues playoff victory. Some might even claim it was an 80s pop song that rallied the boys together.
As each of these unique stories came about you just couldn’t help but get the sense that something truly special was on the horizon. When Gloria started gaining traction through season and into the playoffs I remember thinking to myself, “Well, every championship run needs a gimmick!” After all, the Cardinals weren’t winning without the Rally Squirrel in 2011. Nor do I believe the Blues would have won this year without the dancing chinchilla, Boris.
Gimmicks aside, you could just see something change within the team after the New Year. With a new coach behind the bench, rookie goaltender between the pipes, and trade rumors swirling, it seemed that the players figured they had nothing to lose. Next thing you know, they started winning. And they kept winning. You look up and the Blues have now won a franchise record 11 games in a row, with Gloria blasting in the locker room after each victory. Suddenly, the Blues weren’t in last place anymore and, in fact, the playoffs appeared within reach. As we’ve learned with the Cardinals, all you have to do is get in the playoffs and then anything can happen. Heck, all I cared about was not finishing in last place.
Every season there are teams that come out of the gates on fire, racking up wins before the All Star break, and building sizable leads in the standings. And every season those same teams become complacent or completely run out of steam before when it really matters. We’ve seen that happen with these very same Blues. There have been plenty of seasons where the Blues were one of the top teams in the league, giving you the belief that this could finally be the year. And every season they came up empty handed. This year, however, couldn’t have been any more different. Instead, we rallied at the exact right moment, coming together as a team when it really mattered. I’ll take being last place in January and Stanley Cup champs in June every year.
I’ll be honest though, I was content with just making the playoffs. Given everything I just mentioned, I was just amazed we climbed out of last place. Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs and a Stanley Cup may be possible, but I also didn’t want to get my hopes up. Can an interim head coach really lead us to the promised land? Could a rookie goalie actually be trusted throughout the playoffs? Can the core of Tarasenko, Schwartz, Pietrangelo, etc., finally get over the hump? There were too many unknowns for me to completely buy in. Regardless, I was going to enjoy every moment of these playoffs, happy to just be there.
The first round series against the Winnipeg Jets got underway and things actually seemed to be going well. With a 2-0 series lead heading back home to St. Louis, maybe, just maybe, these Blues were for real. And next thing you know the series is tied 2-2 heading back to Winnipeg, a notoriously tough place to play. When the Blues went down 2-0 heading into the third period it felt like the magic of the second half of the season had finally run out. But they battled back to tie it up and then, with 15 seconds left, Schwartz scored a miraculous game winning goal.
I think that was the moment I really, truly started to believe that this season could be different. To see them battle back like that gave me hope that this could actually be the year. The next game the Blues took care of business against the Jets to punch their ticket to the next round, fueling that newfound hope.
The Blues’ second round opponent, the Dallas Stars, were a familiar foe. The last time it seemed like it might be the Blues’ year back in 2016 they had to go through these Stars. The last time they faced off in the playoffs the Blues took advantage of inconsistent goaltending. This time around, however, they’d have to deal with former Blue and native St. Louisan Ben Bishop.
Bishop certainly did his part and the series was back and forth right from the start, with the Stars eventually taking a 3-2 series lead. Then, in Game 6, came the slap shot heard around the world off the stick of Colton Parayko.
Parayko’s shot hit Bishop square in the collarbone, completely stunning him. The Blues quickly scored and took care of business. That win meant one thing: Game 7.
It’s hard to put into words how stress inducing a Game 7 is. It’s a mixture of hopeful excitement and anxious dread. A win would mean unbelievable euphoria and a loss would be absolutely heartbreaking. And this particular Game 7 did very little to ease any of that stress.
Despite being temporarily knocked out in the last game, Bishop came ready to play. If not for him the Blues would have had a sizable lead after the first, allowing Blues fans a chance to breathe and relax. Instead, he made save after save, refusing to let the Blues win this one too easily. If there’s anything more stressful than a Game 7, it’s a Game 7 that goes into overtime. And in this particular instance, double overtime.
With each shot your heart skips a beat. Could this be the end of the season? With each save Bishop made you had the gut-wrenching feeling that the Blues just weren’t going to get it done. This game would end with a St. Louisan playing the part of hero in double overtime. Thankfully for Blues fans, it wasn’t Bishop.
A little over five minutes into double OT Pat Maroon would put a rebound into the back of the net and in a matter of seconds would become a local legend.
Regardless of how much further the Blues advanced in the playoffs Pat Maroon secured his spot in Blues lore with that goal. I knew immediately that it would be one of those moments where I’d never forget where I was when I watched it. One of the other goals like that in my fandom was the Troy Brouwer goal that sealed the series victory against the Blackhawks in 2016. But this goal meant something more. This goal convinced me that this was a team of destiny. Number 7 scoring the game winning goal in Game 7. One St. Louisan scoring against a fellow St. Louisan in St. Louis. You can’t script it any better.
The Blues had bested one familiar playoff opponent. Now another one stood in their way: the San Jose Sharks. The last time the Blues made it this deep into the postseason they faced these Sharks and failed to get past them. Many of the same players remained on this Sharks team and they had since added some more talent. But the Blues, too, had added some key players, none more important than Ryan O’Reilly.
The Blues made some big moves in the offseason, including a blockbuster trade for O’Reilly. O’Reilly had spent recent years playing for a struggling team, leading to lost love of the game. So when the Blues were struggling themselves and sitting in last place, I felt bad for O’Reilly. This isn’t at all what he hoped for. And yet, he was the one playing hard each and every night, leading the way for the ultimate comeback. It seemed that he had run out of gas, though. At least it seemed so through the first couple rounds of the playoffs (we’ve since learned that he was playing with broken ribs). He had some points here and there but he just didn’t seem quite like himself. Despite the lack of overall production, he was the same leader he had been all season long. That leadership would be crucial after the now infamous “hand pass” game.
If you don’t know about Game 3’s controversial hand pass finish then you’ve clearly been living under a rock. That finish gave the Sharks a 2-1 series lead and a ton of momentum. In years past that type of call would have crippled the Blues, proving to be insurmountable. This year’s team, however, came roaring back. They completely shut down the Sharks’ top players, proving that the hand pass game was just a fluke. They weren’t going to let that call define their season. This group of players proved once again that no amount of adversity was going to derail their quest for the Cup.
After finishing off the Sharks in six games the Blues FINALLY made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals after an agonizing 49 year wait. Only one team remained in their way, a team that hailed from a city with a long history of defeating St. Louis – the Boston Bruins. Most Blues fans have painful memories of the Patriots beating the Rams in the Superbowl and the Red Sox beating the Cardinals twice within the last 15+ years. Everyone who follows sports knows how many championship parades the fans in Boston have had in recent years. The last thing I wanted was to give them another one. The fact that a Boston team was our final opponent just lent itself even more to that “team of destiny” feeling. And let’s not forget that former Blues Captain, David Backes, was now wearing yellow and black. The Boston Bruins felt like the final boss of a video game. And they surely won’t go down easily.
The first couple games went as one might expect, with both teams trading goals and wins. And then came another devastating Game 3. This game was the first Stanley Cup game in St. Louis in nearly 50 years, so to say the city was amped up would be a massive understatement. Every fan was ready to celebrate a win in St. Louis. So naturally the Blues got annihilated 7-2 and had to pull their rookie goalie sensation for the first time in his career. That loss should have been the nail in the coffin. It should have been the final blow to this team’s miraculous run. But instead they battled back…again.
A couple games later the Blues found themselves with a 3-2 series lead and one win away from a Stanley Cup, a situation this franchise had never been in before. The Blues missed out on their chance to clinch the Cup in St. Louis, leading to another Game 7, this one in Boston. If there could be any alternative to winning in St. Louis, the best option would be to clinch in the championship capital of the country, on their home ice.
Game 7s are where legends are born. We already saw one Blues player solidify his legend status in a Game 7. This time it was Jordan Binnington who would add his name to the list. If not for him making unbelievable saves in the first period I wouldn’t be writing this post. It was Binnington, the rookie goalie that refuses to be nervous, who changed the course of Game 7 by putting the team on his back through the first 15 minutes. He was biding time for the offense to come through, and that they did. The first goal was by the soon-to-be Conn Smythe winner and crucial offseason acquisition, O’Reilly. Then came the back-breaker with less than five seconds left in the first period by captain Alex Pietrangelo.
It was after that goal that it really started to sink in for me: Oh my goodness, this might ACTUALLY happen. And then Brayden Schenn’s goal in the third solidified it and Zach Sanford’s goal was the cherry on top. For once, a game wasn’t going to come down to last second desperation shots on goal. And good thing, because I don’t know if my heart could have handled it. The seconds started to wind down and that dream that seemed impossible back in January became a reality: the Blues are going to be Stanley Cup champions.
There are so many things I’m going to remember and cherish from this Stanley Cup run. So many incredible plays, saves, and goals that will forever be burned into my brain. So many moments within the games that will always make me smile. Players that I will tell my grandchildren about. But what I have honestly enjoyed the most is getting to share this experience with so many people. Over the last couple months it’s been impossible to go anywhere and not see “Let’s Go Blues” plastered on the side of buildings, or bump into someone wearing Blues gear. If you turn on the radio or walk through a store you’ll inevitably hear someone singing Gloria. I have overheard so many conversations of people talking about how exciting the previous night’s game was. I have had countless conversations that have started with “How about those Blues?!”
I’ll forever relish getting to share in this experience with so many of my closest friends. For most of the games I had people over to my apartment and I’m proud to say we were 8-1 when I did so (the only loss being the “hand pass” game). For each of those games we would stuff our faces Imos pizza and homemade wings (thanks Jacob!) and celebrate with a “Gloria” cookie cake. Whenever I didn’t have people over I would watch with friends while out with other Blues fans, either at a bar or downtown watch party. Seeing the city of St. Louis come together to support this team was absolutely thrilling and rewarding, particularly in the wake of the Rams’ departure. He Who Shall Not Be Named trashed St. Louis, claiming it was solely a baseball town and a failing city. This city needed the Blues more than ever and they delivered.
Although I was 0-3 when I watched games downtown, I’ll never forget the scenes I witnessed, seeing thousands of fans flock to support the team that had given them hope. And when it came time to celebrate, there was no way I would be anywhere but downtown, underneath the Arch. I, along with hundreds of thousands of other blue-clad fans, proved to the country that we are much more than a baseball town. And seeing the players themselves celebrate with the fans during their parade shows just how much this city means to them.
2019 will forever go down as one of the best years in the history of St. Louis. Two months of playoff hockey brought this city and its people together unlike anything else before. And to think, it all started with a last place team. I could go on and on about how awe-inspiring, and inspirational this experience has been as a Blues fan. But I just have one more thing to say…