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  • From the NHL’s cellar at the beginning of January to Stanley Cup champions just five months later, the Blues flipped the script in incredible fashion to end its 52-year championship drought.
By Joan Niesen
June 13, 2019

The baseball town has a Stanley Cup. 

The city Stan Kroenke labeled an economic backwater sold out the Enterprise Center for a game in Boston Wednesday night, and then Busch Stadium, too. The Cardinals were in Miami, and so more than 20,000 fans filled their stadium combined with the 18,000+ down Clark Avenue to keep the party going in St. Louis, the party the Blues spoiled Sunday and then reignited Wednesday with a 4–1 win in Boston

The Game 7 victory marked the city’s first Cup since the Blues’ inception in 1967, and it came as the conclusion to something like the perfect sports story. The team was the worst in the NHL on the morning of Jan. 3, a date that’s loomed large in St. Louis’s consciousness this spring—since the 11-game winning streak in January and February that vaulted the team up the standings, since it found itself improbably the No. 3 seed in the Central Division at the start of the playoffs. It’s been a sprint all spring, from worst to first for this team that was so recently left for dead.

The Blues took the Cup in fitting style: on the road, up against a wall, and thanks to goaltending that puts the word ridiculous to shame. It was Jordan Binnington’s promotion from the AHL to starter in January that sparked this run, and the team leapfrogged the rest of the Western Conference thanks to a spectacular road record—it was 12-4-5 away from the Enterprise Center from Jan. 23, the start of the streak, until the end of the regular season—and the looming sense that it was one game away from its fortunes reversing. But that’s the beauty of this team: It was never defined by its worst moments, always believed it was more than a fluky streak.

Wednesday, it proved that was the case.

Wednesday, it allowed the Bruins to at times control the pace of the game, but that didn’t matter. Binnington had 32 saves, allowing just one Boston goal, for a .970 save percentage. And the Bruins pounded him in the first and second periods especially, as his limbs flew left, right and upside down to deflect barrage after onslaught. For much of the game, St. Louis had a two-goal cushion thanks to first-period scores by eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly and team captain Alex Pietrangelo, but it wasn’t until Brayden Schenn knocked in a goal at 11:25 in the third period that the game seemed like it could finally break the Blues’ way, shattering the longest Cup drought in the NHL.

They should never have been here, these Blues, who swung big in free agency over the summer and then sputtered in the fall. But that unlikely trajectory was familiar for so many people instrumental to the chase: Binnington, who was the fourth-string goalie in the organization when the season started, or Pat Maroon, the hometown kid who ended up signing for less money late in free agency proceedings. Then there’s Laila Anderson, the 11-year-old with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocystosis, a rare immune disorder, who also happens to be a Blues superfan. She wasn’t able to leave the house throughout most of her beloved team’s run in the second half of this season, only to be permitted to start attending home games during the Western Conference Final, when the Blues defeated the Sharks in six games. On Tuesday, Laila learned doctors had cleared her to fly to Boston at the Blues’ invitation, and barely 24 hours later, her favorite player, Colton Parayko, lowered the Cup for her to kiss.

Throw the Vegas odds out the window. Math doesn’t do this justice.

Math says a team in the NHL’s cellar halfway through the season shouldn’t be playing in June, and superstition says the Blues are never allowed to compete this long. They hadn’t made the Stanley Cup Final since 1970, hadn’t even won a finals game until June 3. They’d been good, great sometimes, and always choked—but this year’s team flipped the script. This year’s team was very bad, on pace to be one of the worst in franchise history, and instead of coasting into the postseason as so many past iterations have, it clawed. St. Louis went 24-6-4 from Jan. 23 until the end of the regular season, and Binnington posted six shutouts over that span. It continued to dominate—especially on the road—in the playoffs, tuning out amped up crowds from Winnipeg to Dallas to San Jose to Boston, finally, where it put the final stamp on a 10–3 road postseason record. Back in St. Louis, rain poured on the fans at Busch Stadium, fans who couldn’t have cared less what the Cardinals were doing down south, fans who screamed and danced and couldn’t discern the downpour from their tears.

After a series plagued with gripes about officiating, Game 7 was a clean one. There was just one penalty, on St. Louis, and thus only two minutes of 5-on-4 play. The Bruins and the Blues were able to match up at full strength and full emotion, and St. Louis played like a team familiar with the brink—which is exactly what it’s been all season. It played like a team unconcerned with Tuukka Rask’s near-perfection three nights earlier, or Boston’s glass-thumping, bellowing crowd. It played like a team that’s not listened to what anyone’s said about it all year, and it became just the seventh team to undergo a midseason coaching change before hoisting the Cup. It’s perhaps the first to renegotiate its identity so completely between January and June. 

The Blues have been best in the least likely circumstances, against the longest odds. One fan put down $400 on the team during a January trip to Las Vegas. The odds then that the Blues would win the Cup: 250–1. Wednesday night, he took home $100,000. It might have seemed crazy at the time. It might have seemed crazy last month.

For fans in St. Louis, it probably still seems crazy. But eventually, the shock will wear off, and 52 years of futility will suddenly seem like maybe, just maybe, they were worth it.

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