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Out of the Blue: St. Louis Went Worst to First to Win the Stanley Cup

The NHL’s last-place team at the turn of the year, the Blues fought their way to the playoffs, where they stifled every opponent to end a 52-year championship drought

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’m terribly sorry,” said St. Louis Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly to a reporter Wednesday night, apologizing profusely for having just spouted an F-bomb on live Canadian TV moments after winning both the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. The 28-year-old center, who scored goals in four straight games in the final despite some casual cracked ribs, wasn’t the only one to be working, well, blue: When the final buzzer sounded on St. Louis’s 4-1 Game 7 road win over the Boston Bruins, and the players began hugging and mugging and incredulously can-you-believe-this-shit shrugging, so many profanities rang through the otherwise quiet and abandoned TD Garden air that NBC’s Mike Emrick eventually made remorseful reference to all the “exultation language” that could be heard loud and proud and clear.

That’s what happens when a franchise wins its first championship in a sometimes high-flying, often highly frustrating 52-year history, especially in a season when everyone least expects it. The NHL’s last-place team as recently as January, the Blues somehow powered toward a postseason that had once seemed entirely out of reach. Playing a heavy, physical style that almost seems like a throwback in a league that has lately tended to emphasize speed over size, the Blues’ smothering forecheck and deep bench turned out to be well-suited for the grueling nature of playoff hockey. Once they got there, they grabbed everything they could hold: the opportunity, the 16 wins in four long, grueling rounds, and finally the Stanley Cup itself, straight from the hands of Gary Bettman. And having done so, they made sure not to change one bit.

“It’s whatever, man,” said rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington to NBC in his trademark blasé fashion about a Blues bounceback so unlikely that it could be described only in the abstract. Binnington’s kick save on Joakim Nordstrom while the lead was still only 2-0 midway through the third period was one of the biggest plays of the night. “This season feels like three different years, it was so long,” remarked St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored more than 30 goals for the fifth straight season, commenting on a championship run that seemed to bend space and time. “I feel like the last seven days have been the best days of my life,” added Tarasenko’s delighted, beaming stepson Mark. (Another son, Tarasenko’s third, was born just days ago.) Zero players on the St. Louis roster had ever been on a Cup-winning roster before Wednesday night; now, all of them have.

Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, long known mostly for the sheer longevity of his Cuplessness—16 seasons!—is now suddenly a Triple Gold Club member, having won Worlds and Olympic golds with Team Canada. Forward Pat Maroon, a St. Louis native, grew up watching the Blues be just good enough to accumulate bad playoff losses year after year; he’ll now spend the summer celebrating all over town. (Maroon’s double-overtime goal in Game 7 against the Dallas Stars helped the Blues advance to the Western Conference final.) Alex Steen, a longtime St. Louis stalwart, accepted a new role on the team’s fourth line and now will have a day with the Cup to show for it. David Perron, who has joined and left and rejoined the Blues multiple times in his career, is now a part of the franchise forever. Colton Parayko, the 6-foot-6 defenseman, shut down some of the league’s best offensive talent all throughout the playoffs and opened his arms to Laila Anderson, an 11-year-old superfan battling a rare immune disease who traveled to Boston for Game 7. The Cup gets passed around and around, and the list of lives changed by it goes on and on.

Six months ago, the day after a lopsided December loss to the unexceptional Vancouver Canucks, another Blues forward, Zach Sanford, traded a few face-punches at practice with his teammate, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, over who-even-knows-what. The frustration at the time was understandable: The Blues had gone into the season with big plans, adding guys like O’Reilly, a talented two-way player coming off a disappointing time in Buffalo, and ex-Maple Leaf Tyler Bozak, but St. Louis got off to a meh 10-14-4 start. Head coach Mike Yeo had been fired in late November and replaced on an interim basis by Craig Berube, who asked that the distracting league standings board be removed from the St. Louis locker room. The December 9 loss to Vancouver marked the second time in four games that the Blues were on the wrong end of a 6-1 score. It almost would have been weirder if a few guys weren’t throwing fists after all that.

When the organization unleashed a cute puppy on the ice during practice a few days later and shared the adorable clips on social media, it seemed less whimsical than it did like damage control. By early January, the Blues had fallen to dead last in the league. One weekend, on the road in Philadelphia, a few guys went to a bar to watch football and came away with Laura Branigan’s retro bop “Gloria” stuck in their heads, not yet knowing that the song would soon go from a silly earworm to a civic anthem. It was right around that time that a rookie goalie named Jordan Binnington, who had been fourth on the team’s depth chart to start the season, earned his first NHL start. Not much could go more wrong, after all.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed, St. Louis went on a second-half tear. By late March, Bortuzzo was assisting Sanford on a goal against Las Vegas, and the Blues were picking up a fourth straight win. O’Reilly led all scorers with a career-high 77 points in 82 games and was one of three Blues players to record five game-winning goals. Binnington had not only locked up the top job, but would also finish his first season with a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 30 starts; one of his prickly postgame interview answers—“Did I look nervous?”—would become something of a rallying cry. Early in the postseason, Sanford was a healthy scratch, stuck watching the Blues from the press box; his former Boston College roommate tried to cheer him up with fanciful prophecies about besting Zdeno Chara in the Cup final. He wasn’t far off: On Wednesday night, in Game 7, Sanford scored the last of St. Louis’s four goals, making him one more unlikely story on a team defined by them.

As Binnington played the biggest game of his career Wednesday night, the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask struggled to match the almost unfairly high expectations he created for himself this season through his otherwise superlative performances. (Going into Game 7, it wasn’t unusual to see predictions that Rask could and probably should win the Conn Smythe even in a Bruins loss.) In a first period during which the Bruins recorded 12 shots but gave up only four to St. Louis, half of those Blues tries wound up as goals. “It was a nightmare for me, obviously,” Rask told reporters as he sat in a devastated Bruins locker room.

Still, not everything was his fault; on the second goal in particular—a silky skate-up backhand from Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo with 10 seconds to play in the first period—a sloppy line change attempt by Brad Marchand left him as flat-footed and nimble as an elephant. “It’s a heartbreaker,” Marchand said after the game. “It’s tough to describe. They just took our dream, our lifetime dream from us and everything we’ve worked for our entire lives.”

When the Bruins won a Cup in seven increasingly outlandish games in 2011, with a roster featuring a handful of core players still in the lineup today, it was on the road in Vancouver. The team’s other trip to the final, in 2013, ended in rather upsetting fashion on home ice: With just over a minute to play in Game 6 and the Bruins leading 2-1, the Chicago Blackhawks scored twice in 17 seconds and raised the Cup in Boston that night. On Wednesday, David Krejci of the Bruins said he still had not gotten over that loss, and that the latest one hurt even more.

As a franchise, St. Louis has known the world of hurt for quite some time now. Before this season, the team had been to three Cup finals and been swept each time. That was decades ago, however, and the years since were a blur of missed opportunities and threatened moves to Saskatoon and heartbreaking losses and the ongoing, open-ended questions of whether the team might ever get over the hump. On Wednesday night, there were only answers (even and especially when those answers were Binnington’s “whatever, man”). Back in St. Louis, before the team boarded their plane home, the celebration was already underway: at a Phish concert, the band played “Gloria” in honor of the new local heroes, and then transitioned into another cover, this one by the Rolling Stones. “Give me little drink / from your loving cup,” the lyrics went. “Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.” This may not have been the championship roster or season that many Blues fans would have foreseen, but they’ll be hearing that sweet, sweet music, now and forevermore.