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The Blues Erase A Half Century Of Hockey Anguish In One Night

It feels extremely weird to write this, but the St. Louis Blues are Stanley Cup champions. It took them more than half a century — in that time there were three failed Cup bids and a subsequent 25-year playoff streak that included zero Cup appearances — but this current group of Bluenotes will forever have their names engraved on the face of an ornate punch bowl.

We wrote Wednesday that Blues goalie Jordan Binnington was having one of the worst playoffs in recent memory among goalies who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. In Game 7, however, Binnington was downright sublime, stopping 32 of the 33 shots the Boston Bruins directed at his goal in a performance for the ages. Binnington might have struggled at times during the playoffs, but no one will remember any of that — all anyone will remember are those 32 saves.

This is all a bit unbelievable when you consider the Blues’ position in the league standings just after the new year. In the first week of January, the Blues had the second-worst points total in the league, outperforming only the Ottawa Senators, who ended the season 34 points outside playoff contention.1 It hardly looked like the Blues would win another dozen games, let alone qualify for the playoffs. And it most certainly didn’t look like they’d advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Binnington’s playoff struggles notwithstanding, the Blues wouldn’t have gotten this far without their rookie goalie’s excellent regular-season performance. When he was given the starting job by interim head coach Craig Berube — and yes, he is still technically the interim head coach! — the Blues were in the basement of the Western Conference. He proceeded to record 24 wins in 30 starts, and the Blues easily qualified for the playoffs.

Still, no one expected much from the Blues once the playoffs began. During the regular season, only one of their skaters finished in the top 50 in points, their power play was solid but unremarkable, their penalty kill was solid but unremarkable, their Simple Rating System score2 was middle-of-the-pack, their shooting percentage was middle-of-the-pack, and therefore their total goals tally was middle-of-the-pack, too.

An impressive second half of the season propelled the Blues to the playoffs, but they still didn’t appear to be particularly dangerous. If they were going to have a chance at winning some silverware, their postseason success would probably have to come from the same place as their regular-season success: Binnington.

Like we said, Binnington struggled for stretches of the playoffs, but his flashes of brilliance were perfectly timed (late in the Western Conference finals, and late in the Stanley Cup Final). Save percentage is the most important factor for a team’s success. That’s true over the course of a season, and it’s also true over the course of a one-game, winner-takes-all Game 7. Binnington stopped 97 percent of the Bruins shots on goal Wednesday night, and the Blues are champions as a result.

And then there was Ryan O’Reilly, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Before the 2018-19 season began, the Blues traded three players — Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund, which is a pretty solid haul — to the Buffalo Sabres to bring O’Reilly into the mix. All he did from then on was have the best season of his already excellent career in terms of points scored and position himself as a frontrunner for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league’s best two-way forward. That brilliance carried over into the playoffs: O’Reilly finished in a tie with the Bruins’ left-winger Brad Marchand as the top scorer in points in the postseason, and finished alone atop the scoring list in the Stanley Cup Final.

Before they won on Wednesday, the Blues had waited longer than any franchise in NHL history to lift their first Cup. They made the playoffs every season from 1979-80 to 2003-04. Their average regular-season points percentage from 2011-12 to 2016-17 was an astonishing .648 — during that stretch, they were perennially considered among the favorites to win the Western Conference and the Stanley Cup Final. And yet somehow during each of those stretches of dominance, they never advanced to the final, let alone lifted the Cup.

Instead, it took an imperfect team led by an imperfect goalie to deliver St. Louis its first-ever Cup victory. Which is kind of perfect.

CORRECTION (JUNE 13, 2019, 11:06 a.m.): A previous version of this article said the Blues were outperforming the Philadelphia Flyers in early January. In fact, the two teams had the same number of points at that time. Also, the names of two players involved in a trade for Ryan O’Reilly were misspelled. They are Vladimir Sobotka, not Vladminir, and Patrik Berglund, not Patrick.

Footnotes

  1. The Blues had the same number points as the Philadelphia Flyers, who ended the season 16 points outside contention.

  2. A stat, calculated by Hockey-Reference.com, that estimates the strength of every team in the NHL by measuring a team’s average goal differential after adjusting for strength of schedule.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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