The St. Louis Blues, the N.H.L.’s worst team as late as the morning of Jan. 3, are four wins from hoisting their first Stanley Cup. They advanced to the final round for the first time in 49 years on Tuesday night, ousting the San Jose Sharks from the Western Conference finals with a 5-1 victory in St. Louis.
It’s worth mentioning once more: after playing 45 percent of their schedule (37 of 82 games), the Blues had the worst record in the entire 31-team league — not just among teams in the Central Time Zone or the Midwest, or that have the word “Blue” in their name (you’re safe, Columbus). A remarkable reversal, spearheaded by a 25-year-old rookie goaltender and by a defensive revival overseen by an interim head coach, powered St. Louis toward the playoffs and through them.
The reward is a matchup with the Boston Bruins, who swept St. Louis in the final in 1970 — the last time the Blues played for the Cup. Before the teams play Game 1 Monday night in Boston, it’s instructive to see just how the Blues went from worst in the N.H.L. to best in the West.
Nov. 19, 2018
After losing, 2-0, at home to the Los Angeles Kings — the only team at the time that had fewer points than St. Louis — the Blues fired their head coach, Mike Yeo. The loss dropped St. Louis to 7-9-3. To replace Yeo, the Blues elevated one of his assistants, Craig Berube, a longtime N.H.L. enforcer, to be the interim coach. Berube’s pugilistic sensibilities belied an acumen for the game that had earned him head coaching jobs with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blues’ top farm team, the Chicago Wolves, who finished with the American Hockey League’s best record in 2016-17 under his guidance.
Another home game, another desultory loss at Enterprise Center. The crowd booed the Blues during and after their 7-2 defeat to Calgary, the seventh time in 19 home games that St. Louis had allowed at least five goals. The Blues’ record was 12-15-4, and the hockey analytics site MoneyPuck pegged their odds of winning the Stanley Cup at 0.6 percent.
“I don’t have answers anymore,” forward Patrick Maroon told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s just kind of embarrassing, to be honest with you.”
Jan. 2, 2019
Ottawa’s overtime loss to Vancouver granted the Senators a point that lifted them out of the N.H.L. cellar. The new tenants at the bottom of the league? The 15-18-4 Blues, with 34 points. If players knew about the indignity, it was not because they noticed it in their dressing room. Craig Berube had removed the standings board. “Where we were at, and to get where we had to get to, it’s a long process,” he told reporters Tuesday morning. “And to see that every day, it doesn’t change quick enough. It’s just a negative effect.”
The night before the Blues played at the Flyers, some players — among them Alexander Steen, Robert Bortuzzo and Joel Edmundson — visited a private social club in South Philly called Jacks NYB. During commercial breaks of the N.F.L. playoff game between the Eagles and the Bears, the D.J. played “Gloria,” a 1982 song by Laura Branigan that reached as high as No. 2 on the music charts in the United States.
“I’d heard it before — me and my dad listen to some old-school music,” Bortuzzo told Frank Seravalli of SportsNet. “But it’s not a song that would’ve been prevalent in any of our lives. It’s a catchy song. I remember specifically looking at Steen right away, saying, ‘This is our jam.’”
Right then, they resolved to blast “Gloria” in their locker room after every win.
Craig Berube, after starting Jake Allen in goal for 14 straight games, rested him in favor of Jordan Binnington. Once the Blues’ best goalie prospect, Binnington, 25, had played more than 200 minor league games before skating onto the ice at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for his first N.H.L. start. He stopped all 25 shots in a 3-0 victory. Afterward, the Blues played “Gloria.”
At the midway point of their season, after a 3-1 defeat to Dallas, the Blues were second from last in the 15-team Western Conference, with 38 points, just ahead of Los Angeles. A daunting charge loomed: 25 of their final 41 games were on the road.
In their final game before a nine-day break, and after losing three of their last four, the Blues defeated Anaheim, 5-1. They had the 12th-best record in the conference, but because of a logjam of teams ahead of them sat only three points out of a wild-card spot.
At the 11-minute-9-second mark of the third period at Florida, Ryan O’Reilly tied the score at 2-2. The Blues did not trail again for the next 517:2. Sixteen days later, on Feb. 21, Jamie Benn of Dallas beat Jordan Binnington at 3:46 of the second period of a 5-2 loss to the Stars.
Across the Blues’ 11-game winning streak, the longest in the N.H.L. since Columbus won 16 in a row during the 2016-17 season, Binnington was 9-0 with a .947 save percentage, solidifying his hold on the starting job. The Blues, with 69 points, were third in the Central Division, in position for a playoff berth.
General Manager Doug Armstrong could have detonated his team in December, January or early February, swapping veterans for assets to improve their playoff chances in future seasons. But he didn’t. At the trade deadline, Armstrong made one deal, acquiring defenseman Michael Del Zotto from Anaheim for a sixth-round pick, to improve his team’s playoff chances right away.
The Blues, after winning five straight, began the day needing one point against the Rangers — or an Arizona loss at Colorado — to clinch a postseason spot. St. Louis blew a two-goal lead and lost, 4-2. A few hours later, though, Colorado defeated the Coyotes, granting the Blues entry to the playoffs with more than a week remaining in the regular season. Not since the Ottawa Senators did it in 1996-97 had a team ranked last in the league standings after Jan. 1 gone on to make the playoffs.
The Blues finished the regular season with 99 points, one behind Central Division champion Nashville and the same as the Winnipeg Jets, whom St. Louis would face in the first round of the playoffs. Entering the playoffs, the Blues had a 10.1 percent chance of winning the Cup, according to MoneyPuck.
After the best season of his career, Ryan O’Reilly was announced as one of three finalists for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward. O’Reilly, acquired in a trade on July 1, led the Blues with 77 points and won 56.9 percent of his faceoffs.
Jaden Schwartz scored all three of St. Louis’s goals in a 3-2 victory in Game 6 against Winnipeg as St. Louis advanced to the Western Conference semifinals against the Dallas Stars.
Among the seven teams that changed coaches during the season, only St. Louis made the playoffs, a testament to the influence of Craig Berube, who was voted one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Trophy, awarded to the league’s best coach. By instituting discipline and defensive accountability, Berube led the Blues to a 38-19-6 record, and their 65 points after Jan. 1 were the most in the N.H.L. in that span.
Jordan Binnington was announced as one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league’s top rookie. All he did after his call-up from the minors was go 24-5-1 with five shutouts, a .927 save percentage and a league-leading 1.89 goals-against average. Binnington could become the first goalie to win since Steve Mason in 2009.
Patrick Maroon, the pride of Oakville, Mo., about 15 miles south of downtown St. Louis, jammed in a loose puck behind Stars goalie Ben Bishop 5:50 into the second overtime for a 2-1 victory in Game 7, sending the Blues into the conference finals against San Jose.
A St. Louis radio station, Y98, played “Gloria” for 24 consecutive hours.
The Blues, after twice overcoming two-goal deficits, squandered a lead in Game 3 against the Sharks in the final seconds, then lost, 5-4, in overtime, on a controversial goal by Erik Karlsson. As fans at Enterprise Center hurled debris onto the ice, the Blues insisted that during the winning play Timo Meier had passed the puck with his hand — which is against the rules, but not reviewable. Replays proved they were correct, and the N.H.L. later acknowledged the referees had made a mistake. The Blues channeled the slight into comprehensive victories in Games 4, 5 and 6.
The only team of recent vintage that could match St. Louis’s improbable path to the Stanley Cup finals is the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights, who won the West in their inaugural season. David Perron, the ultimate talisman, played for both teams, and on Tuesday night he opened the scoring just 1:32 into Game 6 against San Jose. Jordan Binnington saved 25 of 26 shots as the Blues became the first team in the expansion era — since they joined the N.H.L. for the 1967-68 season — to play for the Cup after ranking last in the league standings after their 20th game.