St. Louis Blues

There have been a handful of teams in sports history that have risen from regular-season mediocrity to postseason prosperity, but none can match the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues, who ended the longest wait for a championship in NHL history.

The 2008 Arizona Cardinals went 9-7 during the regular season.  Chris Collingsworth called them “maybe the worst playoff team of all time” before the Cards narrowly lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIII .  The 1977-78 Washington Bullets went 44-38 in the regular season, the eighth-best record in the league.  After drawing a three-seed in the playoffs, the Bullets went on to capture the only NBA title in franchise history.  The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals suffered losing months in June, August and September to finish 83-78.  After making the playoffs on the final day of the season, the Redbirds took flight, drubbing the Detroit Tigers in a five-game World Series.

While these Cinderella stories are charming, they pale in comparison to what the Blues pulled off in 2018-19.  Rising from worst to first, St. Louis ascended into hockey immortality by putting together the most unlikely run in NHL history.  More accurately, it is the most unlikely run in sports history.  The Blues are the only team of the four major North American sports leagues to win the championship after sitting in last place after a quarter or more of the season.

The St. Louis Blues entered the 2018-19 season as the oldest NHL franchise to have never won a Stanley Cup.

The Blues are one of the Next Six, having joined the NHL when the league expanded from six to 12 teams prior to the 1967-68 season.  St. Louis was chosen over Baltimore at the insistence of the Chicago Blackhawks, whose owners wanted a tenant to occupy decrepit St. Louis Arena, a building they also owned.  The Blues reached the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons [more on that later] but were swept in all three.  The franchise has enjoyed regular-season success, reaching the playoffs in 25 consecutive seasons.  In each, St. Louis walked away without a trophy.  This season marked the 42nd time in 52 seasons the Blues had reached the Stanley Cup playoffs, the most of any franchise that is not an Original Six team.

After missing the playoffs last season, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had a busy summer.  He sent three players and two draft picks to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for All-Star center Ryan O’Reilly, who scored in four consecutive Finals games, including the Stanley Cup clincher, to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP.  Armstrong then signed St. Louis native Patrick Maroon.  In Game 7 of the second-round matchup against the Dallas Stars, Maroon buried the game-winning goal in double overtime to send the Blues to the Western Conference Finals.  In July 2018, Armstrong signed Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak as a free agent.  “Even though I was fortunate enough to accomplish some great things in Toronto, I never really got the one thing I’ve always really wanted,” said Bozak upon inking his deal with the Blues.  “I want to win a Cup.  So damn bad.  That’s why I signed with St. Louis.”

The Blues woke up the morning of January 3, 2019, with the worst record in the NHL.  They were dead last.  After losing to the New York Rangers the night before, St. Louis was 15-18-4.  With nearly half the season gone, they were written off as an underachieving team.  Six weeks earlier, the Blues
had fired head coach Mike Yeo.  They replaced him [on an interim basis] with Craig Berube, who had never been a head coach in the National Hockey League. Armstrong was thinking he might have to rebuild the Blues.  He considered making some trades before heading to Russia in early February to watch an amateur tournament, anticipating the Blues might have a high draft pick.

Coach Craig Berube made it clear from the onset than anyone putting forth anything less than their best effort would be taken off the ice.

“I was over in Russia and we came back to beat Florida with two goals in the third period and then beat Tampa [who finished the season with an NHL-best 128 points, second-most in history] in overtime and then beat Nashville back-to-back,” Armstrong recalled.  “That’s when the ‘For Sale’ sign came down in the St. Louis office.”

The Blues began to show promise in the second half.  Playing the “team-first” style of hockey preached by Berube, they went on a 30-15-5 run to finish the season.  When Arizona lost to Colorado in overtime March 29, St. Louis clinched a playoff spot.  The Blues finished the regular season 45-28-9.  Their 99 points tied them with the Winnipeg Jets for second in the NHL Central Division but the Jets got the No. 2 playoff seed by virtue of their better head-to-head record.

One of the many things that make the Stanley Cup playoffs so riveting is the unpredictability of the tournament.  In 2019, each conference’s regular-season champions – Tampa Bay and Calgary – got smoked in the first round, losing eight of the combined nine games they played.  All four Division winners failed to get out of the opening round, while each of the four Wild Cards advanced.  The St. Louis Blues were an underdog in all three of their conference series.  After dispatching Winnipeg, Dallas, and San Jose to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champs, St. Louis earned a date with the Boston Bruins in the Finals.

After finishing with the second-highest point total [107] in the NHL, the Bruins entered the Eastern Conference playoffs as a No. 2 seed.  Boston downed Toronto and Columbus in the first two rounds.  When they swept the overmatched Carolina Hurricanes in the conference final, it appeared the B’s were on a collision course with destiny.  A Stanley Cup victory would make Boston the first city to concurrently hold titles in three major sports, as both the Red Sox and Patriots were the reigning world champions.  And following their sweep of Carolina, the Bruins got ten days off.  They were
rested and ready.

Following the 1967 Expansion, in which the NHL doubled in size, the league created two divisions.  One was made up of the Original Six franchises, while the other was comprised of the expansion teams.  In the first three seasons under the new alignment, St. Louis was the best of the Next Six –
but far from the best in the league.  The arrangement was a farce and the Blues were swept in all three Finals.  The last came against Boston in 1970, when Bobby Orr ended Game 4 in overtime before famously flying through the air in celebration.

Jordan Binnington was brilliant in goal.  He set a rookie record with 16 playoff wins and made 32 saves in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

On paper, the Blues were not extraordinary.  They had just one 30-goal scorer in Vladimir Tarasenko, and two 20-goal scorers overall.  O’Reilly, who tallied 77 points on the season, was their lone All-Star.  In the regular season, the Blues had losing records against eight teams, six of which failed to make the playoffs.  But in the playoffs, they were quite extraordinary.  St. Louis came together at the right time, becoming the winningest team in hockey over the final five months of the season.  Perhaps most importantly, they discovered Jordan Binnington.  In December, the 25-year-old rookie was the Blues’ No. 4 goalie.  Binnington didn’t make a start until January 7.  Five months later, he delivered the people of St. Louis their first Stanley Cup.

After stealing two of three games in Boston, the Blues returned home with an opportunity to clinch the series before more than 19,000 Cup-starved fans at the Enterprise Center.  Instead, the home team laid an egg, losing 5-1.  The series returned to TD Garden for Game 7, where it appeared Boston had all the momentum.  Through six games, the B’s had outscored the Blues 21-14. Binnington had looked frazzled in Game 6, and the confident Bruins liked their chances on home ice.  As it turned out, Game 7 was more of a coronation than a competition.  Playing like world champions, the Blues jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, which they held through two periods.  When St. Louis added two more goals in the third period, the rout was on.  Boston scored a garbage goal with just over two minutes left to make it 4-1, but it was too little, too late, and the St. Louis Blues hoisted Lord Stanley’s mug for the first time in franchise history.

We may never witness a comeback as remarkable as that of the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues.  With 45 percent of the season gone, they were last among the 31 teams in the National Hockey League and left for dead.  But the people of St. Louis were undaunted.  A city that twice lost its NFL team and had witnessed many disappointing playoff runs showed relentless optimism. Perhaps the most loyal – and unquestionably the toughest – was Laila Anderson.  A superfan and inspiration, the 11-year-old, who suffers from HLH, a life-threatening immune disease, was the face of the franchise as it rose from the ashes to claim the greatest trophy in all of sports, the Stanley Cup.  The Blues story just goes to show what hard work, faith, and a little luck can bring [we give no credence to Gloria, Laura Branigan’s 1982 smash single that became the team’s theme song.  That’s where we draw the

The Daily Dose wishes a happy 28th birthday to Blues center Brayden Schenn, who was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on this date in 1991.  Scheen tied for the team lead with five power-play goals in 2018-19 and was third in total points with 54.  He also scored the first goal of the Stanley Cup Finals.