St. Louis was denied its party on Sunday after a Game 6 loss. But now the Blues are hoping they can finally clinch the elusive Cup on the road, where they’ve been best all postseason.
ST. LOUIS—For the second straight weekend, the Blues ruined their own party.
Last Saturday, it was St. Louis’s first chance to host a home game in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970. That was a 7–2 Boston victory in which Blues goalie Binnington got yanked in the second period.
Sunday, the Blues had a chance to bag their first Cup on home ice, and it felt like Mardi Gras in June. On a nearly 90-degree day, hockey-mad St. Louisans sported month-old beards and sweaters, and they sweated it out for two periods, at least, before the thing got out of hand. And with the Bruins’ 5–1 win, St. Louis will have to wait until Wednesday to see if the team that’s turned its stomach upside-down for months can finally make history.
“Obviously, [Sunday] wasn’t the way we wanted it to go, but we were in last place in January,” said Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who’s played in St. Louis since 2012. “If someone told us we’d be playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, we probably wouldn’t have believed it.”
But believe this: The Blues were outplayed in Game 6 by a team it had backed into a corner over the past two games thanks to strong goaltending and superior physicality from St. Louis. That all went by the wayside Sunday, when a close game—it was 1–0 going into the third period—got out of hand thanks to defensive breakdowns, shaky late-game goaltending and at least one lucky bounce. It didn’t help, either, that Tuukka Rask was the picture of swatting and smothering perfection, saving 28 of 29 Blues shots. In fact, the only Blues goal, which put them within two scores at 12:01 in the third period, took a replay to confirm.
At least the score was a sort of redemption for Ryan O’Reilly, whose first-period trip to the box for a delay of game gave Boston a 5-on-3 advantage over the Blues. (Center Brayden Schenn was 1:02 into a boarding penalty at the time.) It took the Bruins 21 seconds into that lopsided advantage to net their first goal, and for more than a period, it seemed like that might have been all Boston needed. For two periods, Binnington looked as good as he had Thursday night—until very quickly he didn’t. (The goalie finished the night with a .871 save percentage; the Blues have lost all five games this postseason in which his save percentage has been that or lower.) The brand of frustration shifted, and the Blues went from unlucky to overmatched. A David Pastrnak goal at 14:06 in the third period effectively killed whatever tenuous hope the O’Reilly score had stirred up, and Zdeno Chara added an empty netter before all was said and done.
“I don’t think we did a great job shooting the puck,” O’Reilly said. “I myself had a couple chances and didn’t put them where I wanted to. It’s tough. I have to put that puck into an area and make it tough on him. We have to do a better a job screening.”
“We did have some good looks and some good chances, but you need the result,” the center added. “There were a few times there where it could have given us the spark we needed, to grab the momentum. Unfortunately we didn’t. But we’ve got to let this one go and bounce back quick and get it done there.”
And with that, the Blues head back to Boston, set to take their fifth flight of this series—which will be the first final since 2011 to go seven games. Then, Boston was down, 3–2 to Vancouver before winning Game 6 and forcing a Game 7 on the road—which it won, 4–0. (In fact, visiting teams have won the past two finals to go seven games, though home teams took the Cup the six prior instances.) This time around, it’s the Blues who will hope to quiet a home crowd, though that’s hardly been an obstacle so far this season. When St. Louis won 12 in a row between Jan. 23 and Feb. 19, pulling itself out of the Western Conference gutter, only three of those victories came on home ice. This postseason, the Blues are 9–3 away from St. Louis, dampening celebrations from Winnipeg to Dallas to San Jose while their home arena has been jammed with fans who paid for a seat and the right to watch on the Enterprise Center jumbotron. A road game is nothing for these Blues to fear, and perhaps a road win would fit their turnaround story to a tee.
“Can we play better?” Blues coach Craig Berube asked rhetorically after the game. “Yeah, we can play better, but I thought we handled the pressure pretty well. I didn't think that was an issue.”
The issue will be leaving Game 6, with all its tricky bounces and pesky rolling pucks, behind. O’Reilly said the team already had, and there’s plenty of good to pick out of the detritus of the busted rager in downtown St. Louis. There were 12 power-play shots, good looks that Rask gobbled up. There was Robert Thomas’s return to the ice, Massachusetts native Zach Sanford’s punch right back at Chara. Plus, St. Louis can look forward to the return of suspended center Ivan Barbashev, who’s been +4 since May 13.
Then, too, there’s Binnington’s bounce-back ability all postseason; the goalie is 7–2 coming off a loss this spring. And sure, Rask is 3–0 with a .953 save percentage over this Bruins run—but Binnington is nearly as good, 3–0 and .947. Nervous? Why should he be?
On Sunday, suites were reserved, rooms in bars rented out and cordoned off. Every noteworthy, living Blues player was assembled in the building, along with a who’s who of St. Louis celebrities. And by 10:30, that suite was empty, the ropes pulled down, the alumni and actors and injured baseball catcher all headed home. More than one Blues player or his wife carried a screaming child through the tunnel and home, where those dads will sleep instead of drink, pack instead of parade. But this is a team made for the brink, built for this run from the edge of it.
“I’m already excited for the next game,” Blues wing David Perron said. “It’s going to be the best game of our life. We’re going to put everything on the line, empty the tank. It’s going to be exciting.”