After horrific officiating helped power the San Jose Sharks all the way to Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, it appeared the team was fated to play in the Stanley Cup finals. Admit it: Everything seemed to be headed in that direction.
What fate was forgetting was the St. Louis Blues were on their own trajectory.
Their roll to Game 4 wasn’t quite as precipitous as the Sharks. The Blues, who didn’t make the playoffs last season, were the worst team in the NHL on Jan. 2 with interim coach Craig Berube desperately trying to bring some semblance of order to the franchise.
And after splitting the first two games in San Jose, the Blues watched an entire four-man officiating crew miss an obvious hand pass that led to the Sharks winning goal in overtime in Game 3.
But instead of letting that misfortune break them, the Blues used it to galvanize. They won Game 4 , shut out the Sharks on the road in Game 5 and then on Tuesday, in front of a hysterically happy home crowd, they closed out the series to advance to their first Stanley Cup final since 1970.
How’s that for destiny?
“I don’t understand yet,” Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko told ESPN after the win. “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.”
On Monday, the Blues will be in Boston to begin chasing their first league championship. Ironically, the Bruins were also their competition in 1970, a time we remember in black and white, a moment captured forever by an iconic photo of Bobby Orr seemingly flying after scoring the Cup-winning goal in Game 4.
The birth of the Blues this season came in January when things finally began working. From the depths of the standings, they suddenly embarked on an 11-game winning streak for Berube, the hard-nosed perfectionist who made his reputation digging in the corners for the Philadelphia Flyers. He took over the team from Mike Yeo in late November.
The Blues won 30 of their final 45 games to qualify for the playoffs and then eliminated the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars before facing the Sharks. It was not only a meteoric rise it was one for the ages.
Only four teams in the expansion era had reached the Final after ranking after dwelling in the bottom three at any point following their 20th game: the 1967-68 Montreal Canadiens, the 1967-68 Blues, the 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars and the 2009-10 Flyers. Only the Canadiens won the Cup.
“We stuck together, we kept believing in each other,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “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.”
As usual is in the playoffs, it was a goalie who led the way. Blues rookie Jordan Binnington was spectacular. He had been squarely in the crucible of emotion after the Game 3 loss, slamming his stick into the side boards when the Sharks goal was allowed. But instead of letting it get him down, he rose above fray. He had another 25 saves on Tuesday to win his 12th playoff game, a team record.
To be fair, the Sharks had to play Game 6 without three of their best players. The injured Erik Karlsson and Tomas Hertl weren’t even in St. Louis. Captain Joe Pavelski also couldn’t play in what may be the last game of his career in St. Jose. And the Sharks were lethargic. Seizing upon the frenzy of the crowd, riding the crest of momentum built in Game 4, the Blues rocked their opponent.
“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 about Game 3. “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.”
The Blues are in for a challenge. The Bruins, who last won the Cup in 2011, are smoking hot, fresh off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes. They have their own dominating goalie in Tuukka Rask and a veteran team that has saved its best hockey for the present moment.
“We always had the talent,” Doug Armstrong, the general manager and president of hockey operations for the Blues, told USA Today. “But we were finding ways to lose games instead of winning them. They turned it around and just haven’t stopping going.”
Remember this: The Blues played in three consecutive Stanley Cup finals from 1968-70. They were swept in all three series.
Perhaps providence has another team in mind this time around.