“I want to win a Cup. So damn bad.”
That was what Tyler Bozak wrote in The Players’ Tribune on July 3rd, 2018.
He was explaining his decision to sign in St. Louis. He was part of a busy summer for Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
Two days earlier, on July 1st, Bozak had agreed to a deal with the Blues. Later that same day, the Blues would finalize a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for another centerman, Ryan O’Reilly. The Blues gave up a couple of picks (including a top-10 protected first-round), an overrated, overpaid winger, a mid-tier prospect and a big center who never quite lived up to his potential.
One that same busy day in July, the Blues also brought back former Blue David Perron. A couple of weeks later, hometown kid Pat Maroon also signed with the Blues.
Blues fans were over the moon. It was like Christmas, except without the calories and credit card debt.
Everyone in the Gateway City was excited and they needed it, on the heels of a disappointing season where they missed the playoffs on the last day of the season. By one point.
That was the past. The fanbase was ready to move on. They were ready to compete.
They wanted to win a Cup. So damn bad.
The team was supposed to be dominant. O’Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko were expected to compliment each other. Robby Fabbri was back from injury and poised to break out. Bozak and Maroon were going to be hungry.
Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson were supposed to be healthy for the first time in a while on the blue line. Colton Parayko was expected to continue his upward trajectory as an elite defenseman. Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn were going to build on their epic chemistry from last year. Jake Allen was going to finally prove that he could be a consistent and reliable number one goaltender.
It was going to be great…magical even…
This was going to finally be the year for a fan base more accustomed to disappointment than even Cubs fans. Everything was going to be awesome.
Except it was not awesome. It was awful.
The Blues opened the regular season looking unprepared and getting solidly thumped by the Winnipeg Jets 5-1. Then 2 OT losses to the hapless and hated Blackhawks, followed by losses to Montreal and Anaheim with only one win against the Flames in their first six games. They didn’t win two in a row until November 1st.
Tarasenko was shooting blanks and not gelling with O’Reilly. Schwartz couldn’t buy a goal even when they went on sale. Perron seemed to be working hard, but was producing more ill-timed offensive-zone penalties than points.
Maroon looked slow and out of place. Blues’ captain and defensive stalwart Alex Pietrangelo was making mistakes better suited to a house league peewee. Fabbri was tentative and ineffective.
Players were having actual physical fights in practice. Bouwmeester was clearly still recovering and was slowing considerably, while developing a unique penchant for deflecting or directing pucks past his own goaltender.
And speaking of the goaltender, Jake Allen was stringing together the worst and most inconsistent performance of his career and seemingly seeking to set a record for goals surrendered to low-danger shots.
The team was a disaster. By the first week of January, they were resting solidly in the cellar of the NHL.
During the skid the Blues finally parted ways with Mike Yeo, naming Craig Berube as interim head coach until they could work out a deal with the recently fired Joel Quenneville (fans hoped).
The goalie of the future, Ville Husso, was floundering and battling injuries in San Antonio, the Blues AHL affiliate. As frustration with Allen mounted, the Blues waived backup Chad Johnson (who was promptly picked up by Anaheim to back up former Blue Ryan Miller) and recalled fourth string goaltender Jordan Binnington the day after he pitched a shutout in the AHL. And they promptly gave him the net which saw him register a shutout in his first ever NHL start.
The second half of the season saw Pat Maroon finally find his game and Rookies Robert Thomas, Vince Dunn and Sammy Blais find ways to contribute. O’Reilly had been the only player consistently contributing during the skid, but he finally found some chemistry with Tarasenko during the second half. Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo even returned to form, once again becoming the top tier defensemen they had been in a previous life. Combine all that with Binnington playing like an elite goalie and things suddenly seemed pretty awesome again.
These second half revelations took the team from the basement to playoff contention. They rattled off a franchise-record 11 game win streak and beat good teams solidly. In the last few games of the season, the Blues had a legitimate shot at first place in the central and only missed it by a point.
For Blues fans, the season saw them go from as excited as any year in recent memory to absolutely despondent. “Lose for Hughes” had started to become a thing. Calls to trade virtually everyone except O’Reilly and Binnington echoed throughout the Twittersphere.
That had all changed by about halfway through the wining streak. Binnington’s steel nerves inspired fans to dream big again. After a team outing in Philadelphia resulted in an unlikely victory anthem, the fans began declaring ‘Play Gloria’ as a way to demonstrate their confidence and excitement.
When the playoffs started, the Blues drew perhaps their worst possible matchup in the first round in the Winnipeg Jets. They stole a few games they shouldn’t have on the back of good luck and better goaltending, then turned it up to 11 and finished the Jets with a dominate third period in game five and an even more dominate game six.
Dallas came and went with a little more difficulty. The team stole another game or two but after an uninspiring performance in game five at home, they found themselves facing eliminating in game six and they responded with one of their best games of the post season, only to step it up even more in an epic game seven showdown which led to a double overtime victory on a goal by native son Pat Maroon.
Now they sit on the first day of the Conference Finals. Their opponent, the San Jose Sharks, is the team that ended the Blues last conference final appearance two years ago. The Sharks have eliminated the Blues three times since 2000, including an embarrassing first round knockout of a promising President’s Cup winning team.
Despite this historic comeback story, the narrative heading in to the WCF seems to be Joe Thornton and how much he ‘deserves’ a Cup. A graphic tweeted by the NHL Public Relations account discussed Jumbo Joe and showed pictures of every remaining team except the Blues. Thornton, who’s cheap shot greatest hits include costing David Perron over 100 career games with a concussion, won’t find any love in St. Louis. The oldest franchise to never win a Cup won’t have sympathy for him or the San Jose fans.
It took a long way to get there and it wasn’t how they envisioned it, but the season of promise has finally led this team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals, a place the Blues haven’t been since their third year of existence.
For a fan base that has been tormented for decades, this run has been miserable and magical. They are halfway to the promised land and the city is already going crazy, as evidenced by local station Y98 FM playing the unlikely fight song ‘Gloria’ for 24 hours straight. Yes, nothing but Gloria for an entire day. The team always plays it after a win, so it’s safe to say that most fans aren’t sick of the song yet.
In fact, fans are hoping to hear it at least eight more times in the next couple of weeks.
Starting tonight in San Jose, where the epic comeback story continues.