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.
The Blues’ 5-1 victory Tuesday night 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 St. Louis had the fewest points in the standings of any team in the NHL.
Now, the Blues are four wins away from hoisting the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“I don’t understand yet,” winger Vladimir Tarasenko said 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 chemistry until the victories 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 following their 20th game: the 1967-68 Montreal Canadiens, 1967-68 Blues, 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars and 2009-10 Philadelphia 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,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said after eliminating the Sharks. “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. 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 the Blues are now, frankly, wouldn’t have been attainable without the remarkable play 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 he 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,” St. Louis center Ryan O’Reilly said.
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, California, nursing injuries after leaving Game 5 following the second period. Captain Joe Pavelski skated one shift in the third period of that game before leaving as well. Pavelski traveled with the Sharks and was a game-time decision for Game 6, but it ultimately 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 San Jose’s 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, 50 seconds after that, Brayden Schenn scored the Blues’ second power-play goal for a 3-1 lead.
Which is to say that the Blues closed out the game. This was the lesson learned from their most recent battle with adversity: Game 3 of these conference finals, when a hand pass missed by all four officials led to a 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,” Berube said.
It was 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,” Blues forward David Perron said of Game 3, “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.
Game 1 is Monday night in Boston.
“I’m really proud of the team and how far we go, but there’s still one more opponent to beat,” Tarasenko said, before considering the moment again. “It feels unbelievable. I’m not going to lie.”