BOSTON — The St. Louis Blues were down and nearly out. At risk of having to change course, rip the roster apart and try to start remaking themselves in someone else’s vision.
Then they authored a comeback a half-century in the making, a worst-to-first reversal unlike anything ever seen before in NHL history.
Sing it loud and say it proud: Against all odds, the Blues are Stanley Cup champions.
“I still can’t believe this,” said Ryan O’Reilly. “I can’t believe I’m here right now and a Stanley Cup champion with this group of guys.”
These Blues will skate together forever after parading Lord Stanley’s mug around TD Garden on Wednesday night, capping a turbulent season with one final surprising bounce back: A 4-1 win on the road in Game 7 following their missed opportunity at home in Game 6 with more than 100,000 people gathered outside Enterprise Center.
Patrick Maroon, a St. Louis native, called it a perfect chance to “go out there and … beat the odds.” Afterwards, he crowed about media members who doubted the team when it sat at 15-18-4 on New Year’s Day, saying “we shoved it right up their ass.”
The Blues squeezed the life out of Game 7 after watching Jordan Binnington quell an avalanche of Boston chances in the first period before O’Reilly and Alex Pietrangelo each struck before the intermission. That was all the well-structured Blues would need to grind out a win in their 108th game of the season.
“St. Louis Blues hockey,” said centre Brayden Schenn. “It hasn’t been fancy, it hasn’t been pretty the whole year, but it got the job done.”
No franchise had ever waited longer than the 52 years it took them to win their first Cup — seven longer than Los Angeles needed before its first championship in 2012.
That it came in this most unlikely of ways, at the end of a year where St. Louis was in last place on Jan. 3, is a testament to staying the course. There was a coaching change on Nov. 19, but management resisted the temptation to start unloading foundational pieces.
Doug Armstrong bought his players time to find the best version of themselves. Time to become an organized, conscientious, heavy band of brothers that couldn’t be contained along the walls or on the forecheck. Time to discover that Binnington was a diamond in the rough, buried right under their noses.
“In December he was our fourth goalie,” said Armstrong. “We were into the ‘win now’ mode, like we didn’t have any runway left to play with. So Binner was our best option and he came up and makes everybody look smart.”
The Blues reeled off three victories in the last four games after falling behind Boston 2-1 in the Cup Final, mounting a comeback similar to the one they had against San Jose in a Western Conference Final that saw a Sharks overtime goal stand despite a missed hand pass. They survived a nail-biting, double-overtime Game 7 against Dallas — not to mention a 3-2 series deficit in the second round — and rallied to beat Winnipeg with a three-goal third period at Bell MTS Place in Game 5 of a tied opening round series.
Too many close calls to count.
“Just look at this team,” said defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who scored an unlikely overtime goal in the Final. “We were dead last in the league six months ago, whatever it was. We didn’t make it easy on ourselves. It was hard, but damn was it worth it, though.
“It’s, wow. I mean the long road kind of makes it even sweeter.”
They did it by becoming the best version of themselves.
One of the first things interim coach Craig Berube did after taking over for Mike Yeo was tear down the NHL standings board in the dressing room. He wanted to keep the focus entirely within their own walls.
St. Louis started its climb out of the NHL basement in January and reeled off 11-straight wins after the all-star break — a period that coincided with the team’s rookie party in Miami. Bracing for an impending bender with the Cup, Schenn pointed to that event as a turning point in the season.
“The boys went on a heater after that,” he said. “I don’t know, it kind of brought the team together. We beat Florida, we beat Tampa, we came in and we beat Nashville right after that rookie party.
“I don’t know if that’s it, but we went on an 11-game win streak after that and we believed in one another after that.”
Their timing couldn’t have been better. Armstrong was in Russia scouting an under-18 tournament and contemplating potential roster changes before the trade deadline. He streamed those games online and had a change of heart.
“We came back and beat Florida — in the third period scored two goals — and then went in and beat Tampa 1-0 and then beat Nashville back-to-back,” said Armstrong. “That’s when the ‘For Sale’ sign officially went off the St. Louis Blues office.”
A night like this never happens if it didn’t.
A night where Alex Pietrangelo accepted the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman and passed it to 16-year veteran Jay Bouwmeester, who passed it to Alex Steen, who passed it to Chris Thorburn, who passed it to David Perron, who passed it to O’Reilly, who passed it to Vladimir Tarasenko, who passed it to Tyler Bozak, who passed it to Jaden Schwartz …
The entire group of them — right down the line — were first-time champions.
“Steener’s my next door neighbour so I had to give it to him,” said Bouwmeester. “He’s been through a lot, too, he played 14 years. People talk we didn’t have anybody who won a Cup, it doesn’t matter.
“You play the games and now we all have one.”
They didn’t exactly adhere to convention while reaching the NHL summit.
They did it without making a top-10 draft pick in over a decade — a stretch dating all the way back to when Pietrangelo was taken fourth in 2008. They did it after trading the only No. 1 overall selection in franchise history — Erik Johnson — and then trading Kevin Shattenkirk, the centre-piece they got back in the Johnson deal.
They did it without having a point-per-game scorer in either the regular season or post-season.
They did it with a 25-year-old rookie goaltender in Binnington, who became the first rookie goalie to win 16 playoff games in one spring, surpassing the esteemed group at 15: Patrick Roy (1986), Ron Hextall (1987), Cam Ward (2006) and Matt Murray (2016). Eight of Binnington’s wins came immediately after a loss — matching another league record.
They did it because they were a team, and by becoming the first team since the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes to hoist the Cup after missing the playoffs in their previous season.
Armstrong has been at this job an awfully long time — 11 years of patiently building and refining the Blues. He acquired O’Reilly in a lopsided trade with Buffalo last July 1, and signed support pieces in Bozak, Perron and Maroon as free agents, but had his faith seriously tested after that.
“I thought in the summer we had a good team,” said Armstrong. “I was actually more surprised, quite honestly, by our October, November, December than I was our later play because I believed in these guys. We thought we had a good team, but it just wasn’t happening.”
Then it happened.
The big one, after oh-so-long.