ST. LOUIS – Not long after he was promoted in November to replace fired head coach Mike Yeo, Craig Berube went into the St. Louis Blues’ dressing room and removed the standings wall chart.
On Jan. 3, it would have shown the Blues last among the National Hockey League’s 31 teams.
On Tuesday, Berube wouldn’t say exactly who scrubbed the daily reminder about how horrible the Blues were in the first half of the season, only that the standings chart had a “negative effect” on players he was trying to keep in the fight.
“Honestly, I didn’t think too much about it at the time,” defenceman Joel Edmundson said. “I was just sick of seeing us at the bottom.”
Centre Ryan O’Reilly recalled: “I remember liking that it was gone. The standings board, there’s so much stuff you can’t control. All that really matters is the next game.”
The Blues’ next game will open the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.
The former 31st-place team continued its comeback for the ages on Tuesday night, eliminating the San Jose Sharks with a 5-1 victory that ended the Western Conference Final in six games. It may also have ended San Jose icon Joe Thornton’s NHL career.
St. Louis is going to the final for the first time since 1970, which was three years after the franchise was one of the first six teams added to the NHL’s Original Six. The Blues have never won a Stanley Cup.
And if you want to know what that would mean to this franchise and this city, you had only to see original Blues defenceman Bob Plager in tears as he greeted current players coming off the ice.
“Those guys have built the foundation of this organization,” St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “They represented that blue note pretty well. We try to carry that on.
“When you have a group that is as close as our group is in the locker room, obviously the hard times are hard, but you can have those hard and honest conversations with each other. And we did that when things weren’t going well.
“We kept believing in each other. A lot of people doubted us this year. But I’ll tell you what, this group is resilient. I really am proud of the guys. As hard as it is, it’s been fun to look back and see where we are now.”
After a missed call on a hand pass allowed the Sharks to win Game 3 in overtime and take a 2-1 lead in the series, the Blues dominated the second half of the conference final.
They outscored San Jose 12-2 in the final three games.
Without Shark stars Erik Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl – all injured or re-injured in Sunday’s 5-0 home loss – San Jose was always likely to lose Game 6. The Blues scored after just 92 seconds when Sharks’ coverage collapsed and Sammy Blais’ uncontested shot ticked teammate David Perron on its way past goalie Martin Jones.
St. Louis easily won wire-to-wire. When Dylan Gambrell, one of the players airlifted into the San Jose lineup, scored on a second-period breakaway to cut the Sharks’ deficit to 2-1, the Blues answered back almost immediately on a rebound goal by Brayden Schenn.
Since saving their season with an 11-game winning streak that began Jan. 23 and included seven victories on the road, the Blues have been trending towards the moment late Tuesday when Pietrangelo led his team’s formation on the ice around the Clarence Campbell trophy.
“I was just glad to see Pietro not touch that trophy because we touched it last year and it didn’t work out,” Perron, who lost a Cup final with the Vegas Golden Knights last June, said in the post-game press conference. “Hopefully it changes something this year.”
Everything has changed for the Blues.
It seems inevitable also that things will change, too, for the Sharks. They’ve been the best team in the NHL over the last 15 years but never won a Stanley Cup. Thornton is 39 years old and an unrestricted free agent, as are Pavelski and Karlsson. Tuesday looked like the end of an era.
Thornton said he hasn’t decided if he’ll keep playing.
Asked about playing Game 6 without Karlsson, the two-time Norris Trophy winner who finally came out of the lineup after playing the playoffs with a serious groin injury, Thornton said: “He’s one guy and he’s a big part of this team. But we can’t get into injuries (as excuses). We played a good hockey team and they beat us. That’s the bottom line.”
“I think that’s part of what makes it ever harder, more frustrating, more crushing,” veteran Sharks defenceman Brent Burns said. “We really felt we had a great chance and they don’t come often. A lot of luck and a lot of magic goes into a run like this, and you never know. That’s what makes it so tough, I think.”
In the other locker room down the hallway, the Blues celebrated. Amid the crush of reporters and visitors and interviews, 35-year-old defenceman Jay Bouwmeester quietly added the game puck to the rack of pucks – one for each victory this season – growing on one wall.
Berube didn’t entirely redecorate; he left the puck rack.
“I wish I had two game pucks,” Pietrangelo said. “I would have given one to (Alex) Steen, too. Bo has played nearly 1,200 games in this league. He deserves it.”
Bouwmeester is going to a Stanley Cup Final for the first time, as are other veterans like Steen, O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko.
“If you didn’t think you could do it, you’d just stop playing,” Bouwmeester said. “But when we lost to these guys three years ago (in the conference final)… in the moment you kind of think: ‘Oh, man, are we ever going to get back here?’ And here we are.”
The Blues went 28-8-5 in the second half of the regular season. In the playoffs, they’ve beaten the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Sharks. They don’t need a standings chart. They know exactly where they are. Four more wins puts them on top of the world.