Nearly detonated, tonight forever celebrated.
For the St. Louis Blues, these nights won’t be remembered in the same light as Jaden Schwartz’s hat-trick performance in Game 6 versus the Winnipeg Jets, or the elimination contests that set the stage for local boy Patrick Maroon to play hero in Round 2, or the bounce-back victory that turned the tide with San Jose, or Wednesday’s Stanley Cup-clinching 4-1 victory in Game 7 at TD Garden versus the Boston Bruins, of course.
But an otherwise meaningless stretch in the dead of winter, before being crowned champions could even be a consideration, was no less important to the franchise on the path to its first-ever championship.
Floundering at the turn of the calendar, sporting fewer points than any other team by Jan. 3, and frankly not performing all that much better by the time February rolled around, Blues GM Doug Armstrong was prepared to blow up a roster intended to compete for a championship with the summer acquisition of Ryan O’Reilly. Taking calls and listening to trade offers on just about every last piece on his roster, the Blues might not have been much more than a single crushing defeat away from liquidating their inventory, all but for a few exceptions.
High-priced scorers, cornerstone pieces, the captain, veterans and prospects: they were all rumoured to be out the door. St. Louis was shaping up to be the destination for teams looking to make something happen before the stretch run. Armstrong was your guy.
One more setback for the Blues, it seemed, and the process of building a competitor would start all over again. After more than a half century of trying, already.
Rivals waiting for that dip, though, were kept waiting.
Wins over Anaheim, Columbus, Florida and a 1-0 overtime victory behind rookie sensation Jordan Binnington over the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, set the table for a home-and-home versus the Nashville Predators with less than a week to go before the trade deadline.
St. Louis would rhyme off another five victories in succession, anyway, but it was four points taken across a weekend set from the Central Division rivals they were “chasing” that would change everything for the franchise.
“We were no longer sellers after that,” Armstrong said, via TSN’s Frank Seravalli.
With an 11-game winning streak that prevented the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden Schenn, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester and possibly even Vladimir Tarasenko from starting over with new franchises, the Blues rose from last in the conference to punching themselves into the postseason picture. Only the Lightning bagged more points from that moment on, and the Blues finished just a single point shy of wresting the division title from the same Predators team that couldn’t force them into a pivot.
Had Armstrong acted, there would have been no late-season charge, no postseason return, no Gloria, and certainly no history-making Game 7 triumph at TD Garden.
There would have been no turning back.
Essential outcomes can be traced back further.
Limited to seven wins from 20 games across the first six weeks of the season, the Blues fired head coach Mike Yeo, replacing him on an interim basis with Craig Berube. Dismissed from his first NHL head coaching post for failing to extract the best from a talented Philadelphia team, Berube accomplished precisely that in St. Louis, and against incredible odds.
Scraping along at the bottom of the standings, Berube somehow kept it all together as just about every player of significance on his roster heard their names brought up in trade discussions.
Berube massaged relationships, consulted his players, made the required adjustments, and ran out the right goaltender.
If handing the reins to Berube was Armstrong’s most significant move, Berube’s was naming Binnington his starter.
Once so much of an afterthought within the club that he was ECHL-bound, had he not refused the assignment and demanded to be farmed out to another affiliate (ironically, the Bruins’), few expected Binnington to ever serve a meaningful role for the Blues.
We’ll never know, now, how many chances he would have had to make his mark — because he only needed one. A 3-0 shutout over Philadelphia in his first career start on Jan. 7 sent Binnington on a 24-5-1 run through the end of the season.
The saves they were missing, they now had in a 24-year-old goaltender that had been tumbling down the organizational depth chart.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as with any Stanley Cup champion, it has to break just so. It can all come crashing down in an instant, or come together in a way that no one could have possibly predicted.
But with the Blues, certain decisions, tenuous times, and random cosmic elements seemed to all have to fall in line together in sequence to even have the opportunity to compete in the postseason.
After that, the Blues travelled arguably the most difficult path in the playoffs, erasing three consecutive series deficits before shelving the disappointment of surrendering the chance to win the franchise’s maiden Stanley Cup in front of their own fans to beat the Bruins in Game 7.
Given how hollow, aimless and insignificant the season once was, and how unlikely the outcome wound up to be, I’d say it made it even sweeter — even if it didn’t happen on home ice.
But some waited a half century for this moment.
It was always going to be.
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