The worst team in the entire NHL a few days into the new year completed an astounding turnaround on Tuesday as the St. Louis Blues advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.
The club that fired its coach in November and sat dead last in the NHL when the sun rose on Jan. 3 dispatched the San Jose Sharks in a six-game Western Conference finals, capped by a 5-1 home-ice victory on Tuesday. The Blues will meet the Boston Bruins in the championship round.
“A lot of us felt we were in games and close and couldn’t find a way to win them,” St. Louis captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “We had some good honest conversations and knew we had to be better. We looked each other in the eye, and we did it.”
The Blues dominated the undermanned Sharks in the clincher. They now will open the Stanley Cup Final on Monday in Boston, facing the same team they met the last time they went this far. That series was memorialised by Bobby Orr’s winning overtime goal for Boston that he celebrated by going airborne.
David Perron collected a goal and an assist Tuesday, and Ryan O’Reilly posted three assists in the victory. “It was a special moment for all of us,” said Blues rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped 25 shots. “We’re excited and looking forward to the next round.”
The Sharks, who are potentially facing major turnover before next season, were without a trio of key players. Forwards Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl were injured in Game 5, while defenseman Erik Karlsson was sidelined due to an apparent groin injury, and the hosts took advantage.
Perron opened the scoring just 92 seconds into the clash and Vladimir Tarasenko netted a power-play goal with 3:44 remaining in the opening frame to stake St. Louis to a 2-0 lead. Dylan Gambrell — who drew into the San Jose lineup due to the injuries — scored his first NHL goal at the 6:40 mark of the second period to put the Sharks on the board and give them life. However, St. Louis’ Brayden Schenn quashed those hopes six minutes later when he buried a rebound for the power-play goal that snapped his goal drought at 13 games. Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev iced the game with third-period goals. St. Louis won the last three games in the series, all coming after their controversial Game 3 overtime loss in which the winning goal was scored despite an obvious hand pass.
That game appeared to galvanize the Blues, even if they outwardly shrugged it off at the time. “My feeling was if we’re going to win the next game, we were going to win the series because we took that road,” Perron said. “I’m glad we approached it that way.”
The Blues outscored the Sharks 12-2 in the final three games. “Their team is a hard team. I think the two hardest, heaviest teams are in the final,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “Everyone talks about skill and all the small players, and there is room for that, but I don’t think it’s an accident. They’re heavy, hard and organised. There wasn’t any room out there.”
Certainly not any room for a Sharks comeback. “I was proud of our group tonight,” DeBoer added. “I don’t think the score reflected the work we put in. I know what the scoreboard said at the end of the night, but I felt we made them earn it. We showed up in tough circumstances and got efforts from everybody. That’s all you can ask.”
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