A couple of locals were waiting for their fries in this small Eastern Ontario town Thursday afternoon when one asked the other, “You going to watch the game tonight?”
In most of this country, there is still only one “game.” Other sports pastimes require two words, as in “ball game” or “basketball game.”
“I guess,” the other answered as he salted down, his answer holding little enthusiasm. “When’s the next one? No way I’m watching afternoon hockey … .”
Who could blame him, after such a miserable winter and spring and the first nice weekend of the year predicted.
The “next one” will be Game 6, following the St. Louis Blues’ 2-1 victory over the Boston Bruins that evening, and will mercifully be Sunday evening in St. Louis. If a Game 7 is required, it will go Wednesday night in Boston. The Blues, of course, would much prefer to raise the Cup at home on Sunday rather than risk losing it to the hometown favourites back in Boston.
This, it needs to be said, has been a far more interesting Stanley Cup final than most expected.
The NHL playoffs, after all, were predicted to be a ratings disaster after the three great Canadian hopes – the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames – all fell flat on their faces in the opening round. There would also be no Sidney Crosby in the following rounds, no Alexander Ovechkin. Worse yet, the country’s sporting attention was shifting dramatically to a remarkable playoff run by the Toronto Raptors, which eventually placed them in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
The ratings may not be good, but the hockey story is actually quite good, even if, once again, the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s gift will be decided long after the real ice of this long winter has gone out. The first Stanley Cup, hard to believe, was awarded on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1893. The Maple Leafs won their most recent Cup on May 2, 1967. The first playoffs to reach June happened in 1992, when Ron Francis scored the winning goal to give the Pittsburgh Penguins their second successive championship. Now June is the rule rather than the exception.
No wonder hockey purists all say the highlight of the playoffs is invariably the first round, sometimes the second. Rarely, any more, the fourth.
But this final round has had both its moments and its shudders. There have been sparkling individual performances from the goaltenders (rookie Jordan Binnington for the Blues, veteran Tuukka Rask for the Bruins), remarkable courage (Boston’s 42-year-old captain Zdeno Chara starting on Thursday night after supposedly suffering a broken jaw in the previous game) and an unfortunate continuation of this spring’s much-criticized officiating regarding everything from hand passes to dubious suspensions. Thursday’s prime example was a blown call when St. Louis forward Tyler Bozak dumped Boston’s Noel Acciari hard enough that a concussion-spotter had Acciari removed from the game – but only after the Blues scored the winning goal. Boston fans understandably showered the ice with rally towels and obscenities.
Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy called the foul “egregious” and told reporters the league is “getting a black eye with their officiating in the playoffs.”
The Blues, curiously, are in many ways a team Boston fans would love. They play a simple, highly physical game. They fore-check ferociously and attack in straight lines. They have a coach who would look more comfortable holding a lunch bucket than an iPad. And their on-ice leader has the perfect Irish name, Ryan O’Reilly.
“It’s not fancy,” Blues centre Brayden Schenn told the media earlier. “It’s not pretty.” But it’s been working.
It was O’Reilly who opened the scoring Thursday off a nifty between-the-skates play by Zach Sanford that allowed O’Reilly to loft a quick backhand over Rask’s glove. It was O’Reilly’s third goal in two games.
“Sometimes you have to tip your hat to a good player,” Cassidy had told reporters earlier in the day.
O’Reilly has indeed been good, particularly on faceoffs. But so, too, has the St. Louis line of centre Schenn with wingers Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Boston’s big line, on the other hand – Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak – has flattened in the final. Marchand still leads the playoff scoring race with 21 points, but O’Reilly, who also picked up an assist on Thursday, is now right behind with 20. Should he win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoffs MVP, fans of the Buffalo Sabres will surely be looking hard at the basket of unknowns and future picks for which the Sabres swapped him.
Should the Blues go on to win this series, it will mark one of the most incredible comebacks in hockey history. On Nov. 19, the team was struggling so mightily that general manager Doug Armstrong fired head coach Mike Yeo and chose enforcer-turned-coach Craig Berube as interim head coach. By Jan. 2, the Blues were dead last in the league, a reality that so annoyed Berube that he ripped the standings board off the wall of the team’s dressing room.
The board, he told media, was having a “negative effect. … It doesn’t change quick enough.”
But it began to change, very quickly, once Berube rested regular goaltender Jake Allen and put in minor-leaguer Binnington, now a 25-year-old NHL rookie. He beat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 that night and has never looked back.
The players began playing their theme song, Gloria – a hit long before most of them were even born – after each win, and slowly they rose through the standings until, miraculously, they grabbed a playoff spot.
One of the lines in the old Laura Branigan song is “I think you’re headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it,” yet no breakdown was forthcoming – not even after the Blues surprisingly made the playoffs.
They then very convincingly beat the Winnipeg Jets. They beat the Dallas Stars. They beat the San Jose Sharks.
Now, with Binnington a finalist for the Calder Trophy and O’Reilly a finalist for the Selke Trophy, the St. Louis Blues have come to within a single victory of their first Stanley Cup.
Not bad for a team that reached the Stanley Cup final three years in a row after the league’s 1967 expansion – and until this year had never won a single game when the Cup was on the line.