BOSTON — A half-century worth of waiting ended with the St. Louis Blues jumping in anticipation on the bench, unwilling to delay a championship any longer. They stared up at the video board, willing the time to count down faster, and a pair of gloves and a stick dropped prematurely onto the ice. But then all of their mitts were launched in the air as the entire team beelined for the rookie goaltender who made this possible — the first time Jordan Binnington looked rattled all night.
With their 4-1 win in Game 7, the Blues are Stanley Cup champions for the first time in their 51-year history. Center Ryan O’Reilly was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the postseason MVP after he scored eight goals with 14 assists in 26 playoff games. O’Reilly’s first-period deflection made him the first player since Wayne Gretzky in 1985 to score in four straight Stanley Cup finals games. But Binnington was the best player of this Game 7, the first Stanley Cup finals Game 7 since 2011, with 32 saves.
“I couldn’t even sleep the last couple of days,” Binnington said. “Your mind wanders when you get right to that point, planning out your Cup party and then you kind of catch yourself.”
St. Louis can celebrate without abandon now. After players passed around the Stanley Cup on the ice, they did the same with a bottle of rye. Defenseman Colton Parayko found Blues superfan Laila Anderson, an 11-year-old with a life-threating immune disease, and skated her over to the trophy. Patrick Maroon, the one St. Louis native on the roster who had taken a hometown discount to play for the Blues, held the Cup over his son’s face so he could kiss it.
“St. Louis fans, we’ve been waiting for this for so many freaking years,” Maroon said with through tears in his eyes. “We did it. We did it. I mean, there’s nothing else.”
Outside Boston’s TD Garden is the statue of defenseman Bobby Orr sailing through the air, the iconic celebration of his Stanley Cup-clinching overtime goal immortalized in bronze. For St. Louis, it was one of the many images depicting its tortured hockey history before Wednesday night’s triumph. The Blues hadn’t been back to the finals since that 1970 sweep, and as this improbable run fittingly ended in Boston, St. Louis hosted packed watch parties at both Enterprise Center and Busch Stadium.
St. Louis’s season started with sky-high expectations after the high-profile acquisitions of centers Tyler Bozak and O’Reilly. The team got bigger and a little sentimental with the addition of Maroon, a depth power forward. But all that potential seemed wasted with a putrid start and leaky goaltending. There was a coaching change just 19 games into the season with the team turning to Craig Berube in an interim role, and he fashioned the team into its current heavy-hitting iteration with a hulking blue line. The Blues were in last place on Jan. 3, and had anyone told center Brayden Schenn that the season would end with a championship, his response would’ve been, “You’re a liar.”
But that’s when the real turning point came, when the Blues were dead last in the league and turned to a rookie in net, one who had been relegated to fourth on the organizational depth chart just a year earlier. After winning his first NHL start, Binnington won 23 of his next 29, posting an impressive .927 save percentage and 1.89 goals against average. He became the face of this resilient St. Louis team; not including Wednesday’s Game 7, Binnington had a 1.86 goals against average and .933 save percentage coming off a loss this postseason.
He saved his best game for last. In a first period the Bruins dominated, Binnington was the difference, launching himself from one post to the other to come up with 12 stops. That bought time for O’Reilly to deflect in the Blues’ first goal. Then, with seven seconds left in the first period, captain Alex Pietrangelo took advantage of a poor line change by Boston’s Brad Marchand and beat goaltender Tuukka Rask with a backhand for a 2-0 deficit off just four shots.
“He bounced back like we knew he would,” Pietrangelo said of Binnington. “His confidence, his swagger, his belief in himself, it’s unbelievable.”
Schenn’s goal 11:25 into the third frame silenced TD Garden save for the euphoric shrieks from the handful of St. Louis fans in the stands. The arena half-emptied with Zach Sanford’s goal with less than five minutes left, the 4-0 score leaving little doubt of the outcome. Binnington finally cracked with defenseman Matt Grzelcyk’s goal at the 2:10 mark, a tally the Bruins didn’t bother celebrating.
Just as with their season, the Blues’ turning point in this Stanley Cup finals series also came when they hit bottom with their worst loss, a 7-2 drubbing in Game 3, and Berube later acknowledged that his team might have buckled under the pressure of a first finals home game for this championship-starved fan base in more than 50 years. St. Louis similarly struggled in Game 6, when the Blues could’ve clinched their championship on home ice but instead fell flat in a 5-1 loss that sent the series back to Boston for one more game, one more opportunity to respond.
While St. Louis was burned by the Bruins’ power play throughout the series, the Blues found the line of maintaining their physicality without landing in the penalty box too much, and they were whistled for just one minor infraction Wednesday night. It’s the second straight year a team with a bruising, heavy style has won the Stanley Cup, a formula other teams are sure to follow for at least next season.
This would have been Boston’s third professional sports championship in the past year, but instead it’s the Bruins’ second loss in the Stanley Cup finals since winning the championship in 2011. St. Louis’s punishing forecheck took its toll as the series got later, and the Bruins were hurt by the loss of puck-moving defenseman Grzelcyk, who returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing four games with a concussion. Captain Zdeno Chara played the final three games with a full cage on after he reportedly broke his jaw when a puck clipped him in the face during Game 4.
Boston’s top forwards in center Patrice Bergeron and Marchand were also believed to be playing through injury, and the difference in the series might have been that the Bruins’ first line with those two stars never scored at even strength. Rask had been the most impressive player of this postseason with a .938 save percentage and a 1.93 goals against average going into Wednesday night, but then Binnington outplayed him in the most pressure-packed moment.
Riding its defiant goaltender and its never-say-die team, St. Louis can now boast the NHL record for the longest wait before its first championship. It’s made sweeter because it’s over.