It took nearly five decades before St. Louis would compete for a championship again, but even then the franchise hadn’t won a single Cup final game until Wednesday night.
BOSTON — He had waited 51 long years for this moment, so what was a few more seconds? Pacing around the press level at TD Garden, far too nervous to sit still as usual, Bob Plager rushed to a nearby television upon hearing cheers from the rink below. Not quite enough noise to signal that the home team had won, just the right amount to feel hopeful that history had been made. “But there was that delay,” Plager says. “So I was like, Ah, s---, maybe we came close.”
When the feed finally caught up, reality unspooled on the screen. There was referee Gord Dwyer, right hand raised to signal a delayed penalty against the Bruins less than four minutes into overtime. There was St. Louis defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, stick cocked between the offensive blue line and the STANLEY CUP FINAL logo, right behind the last digit in 2019. There was the puck, crackling through traffic and over goalie Tuukka Rask’s blocker pad.
There was the scoreboard: OT 16:09, STL 3 BOS 2.
And now here is Plager, flanked by reporters in a makeshift interview space near the visiting locker room, considering the surrealness of it all. On May 10, 1970, Plager had been on the Blues bench at the old Boston Garden when Bobby Orr, number 4, went flying through the air after his sudden-death goal clinched the Cup. It took nearly five decades before St. Louis would compete for a championship again, but even then the franchise hadn’t won a single Cup final game until Gunnarsson’s howitzer on Wednesday night. Guess what jersey number he wears?
“To see tonight, number 4 again … ” Plager says, trailing off in disbelief. It has been an emotional ride for the former defenseman, who was moved to tears after St. Louis clinched the Western Conference crown against the Sharks. In the Blues’ first three seasons of existence, Plager and his fellow alumni reached three straight Cup finals: Montreal in ‘68, Montreal in ‘69, and Boston in ‘70, all of whom swept St. Louis. “Let’s face it,” he continues, “we were the happiest guys in the world. [But] we weren’t expected to win a game. Now it’s a little different.”
Game 2 demonstrated why. After the Bruins coasted through most of the series opener, St. Louis struck back with its retro brand of ground-and-pound physicality under interim coach (yes, still) Craig Berube. The line was crossed early when center Oskar Sundqvist sent defenseman Matt Grzelcyk to the hospital with an illegal check into the end boards, then watched from the box as Charlie Coyle put Boston ahead 1–0 with a first-period power play. But otherwise the Blues successfully slowed the tempo, defended hard and steadily chipped away as planned.
“We’ve got to continue hitting, but hitting doesn’t mean hitting them big,” winger Patrick Maroon said after. “Dumping it in, grinding them down low, that’s wearing the opposition down.” As the only St. Louis native on the roster, Maroon is perhaps singularly qualified to appreciate what Gunnarsson’s goal means to the city. “I’m sure it’s going crazy,” he said. Which means he also must understand that future generations of Blues fans will forever remember “the pisser.”
That is the word Sundqvist used while relaying what Berube had told them postgame, once the celebration had died down and the series was officially headed back to St. Louis knotted at one apiece. As the story went, Berube had crossed paths with Gunnarsson in the bathroom prior to overtime. The defenseman had hit a post with two minutes left in regulation, and the missed opportunity was still stuck on his mind. “I just need another shot,” Gunnarsson told Berube.
Oh, sweet relief.
“I can’t deny that,” Gunnarsson said later, asked whether Sundqvist had accurately described the site. “That’s where it happened. Makes it even more fun, I guess. It’s a good story.”
As the first team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Final after sitting in last place on New Year’s Day, the Blues are chock full of those. Rookie goalie Jordan Binnington looked shaky on a pair of five-hole goals in the first period but buckled down and finished with 21 saves, improving to 6–2 after a loss this postseason. Down 1–0 and 2–1, St. Louis received tying goals from blueliner Robert Bortuzzo, best known for undressing Joe Thornton last round, and winger Vladimir Tarasenko, whose eight-game point streak is one shy of a franchise record. “It’s cool to be a part of,” defenseman Colton Parayko said. “When the times are tough, we don’t deviate away from each other. We have the attitude that we’re going to come closer together and get it done.”
Even if the process frays the nerves of every last alumnus. As he was reminiscing in the bowels of the rink, Plager felt a pair of hands slap his back.
“You sweating or what?” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo asked.
“Yeah, my legs are gone,” Plager said, buckling his knees for extra emphasis. “But it’s worth it.”
“I’d say it is,” Pietrangelo replied. “Have a beer to calm yourself down.”
Plager looked back, considering a moment so long in the making.