By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Feb. 5) – Call me crazy, if you wish (it will hardly be the first time), but, I’m damned serious when I contend the St. Louis Blues will finally win their first Stanley Cup this spring.
Though the Blues have not played their best hockey in the past ten games (5-4-1) – and lost at home to Ottawa in a shootout on Tuesday night – I’ve watched the team enough this season to conclude it does not have a glaring weakness. Or, even a minor weakness. Anaheim and Chicago still rank ahead of St. Louis (though not by much) in the Western Conference standings and it’s not difficult to believe the Blackhawks could win their third National Hockey League title in five years. The Blues, however, are poised – in my opinion – to rise up and make it to the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1970.
Scotty Bowman can tell you about a time when the Blues never missed the Cup final. In the first three years of expansion (1968-69-70), St. Louis – coached by Bowman – represented the old West Division in the championship round. There was little parity between the expansion teams and the six established teams, so the Blues – despite deploying such legendary players as Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey and Red Berenson – were fodder for Montreal (twice) and Boston (once). St. Louis was swept four straight in each Cup final, losing the latter on Bobby Orr’s fabled overtime goal at Boston Garden (May 10, 1970).
T.J. OSHIE (74) AND THE ST. LOUIS BLUES FELL IN A SHOOTOUT TO OTTAWA TUESDAY NIGHT, BUT HAVE A RECORD OF 37-12-6 FOR 80 POINTS AND THE NHL’s BEST GOALS FOR/GOALS AGAINST RATIO AT PLUS-59. DILIP VISHWANAT GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
The interim years have been mostly unkind to the Blues.
Though missing the playoffs just six times in franchise history, only once has the club advanced as far as the Stanley Cup semifinals – losing a seven-game clash to Calgary in 1986. General managers and coaches have come and gone… such names as Sid Abel, Emile Francis, Ron Caron, Mike Keenan, Larry Pleau, Al Arbour, Jean-Guy Talbot, Lou Angotti, Barclay Plager, Bob Plager, Jacques Demers, Jacques Martin and Joel Quennville. Hall-of-fame players Bernie Federko, Al MacInnis, Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger have worn the blue note. None have raised the Cup in St. Louis colors.
What is different today? Simple… the three most indispensable factors in hockey: Goaltending, speed and depth. Throw in size throughout the roster and you have an enviable mix. The Blues are particularly loaded on defense with four All-Star-caliber players: Jay Bouwmeester, Barrett Jackman, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. These aren’t necessarily household names east of the Mississippi; the Blues don’t often visit the big hockey markets of Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. They would, however, be front-line personnel on virtually any team in the league. Depth is provided by Brendan Morrow and Derek Roy – not many years ago, the top forwards with Dallas and Buffalo. The goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott is arguably the best in the NHL, though it hasn’t yet come through, big-time, in the playoffs. That could change in a hurry.
FRONT COVER OF ST. LOUIS BLUES INAUGURAL MEDIA GUIDE IN 1967-68.
St. Louis winning the Stanley Cup would be a most unwelcome happenstance here in Toronto. Though Maple Leafs – undeniably – hold the league’s longest championship drought, delusional followers of the Blue and White relish in pointing out that St. Louis has also not won the Cup “since 1968.” This is true until one is reminded the Blues were not even in the NHL the night Maple Leafs last hoisted the silver mug – May 2, 1967. St. Louis did not play its first regular-season game until Oct. 11, 1967 and did not compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time until the spring of ’68. The calendar year between May 1967 and May 1968 cannot be eliminated from the so-called “argument.” Otherwise, we may as well contend that Buffalo, Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Nashville, Ottawa, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver and Washington – having never won the Stanley Cup – are also tied with the Maple Leafs.
Whatever the case, I’m thinking the Blues have a terrific opportunity this year to put the issue at rest. I would not bet against a healthy St. Louis team in the 2014 Stanley Cup tournament.
We mentioned Al Arbour among those integral to the early years of the St. Louis franchise – as a veteran defenseman and rookie coach. “Radar,” as he is known, became far more prominent as coach of the dynastic New York Islanders – winner of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles between 1980 and 1983. He remains second (1,244 – 782) to Bowman in regular-season coaching wins. Sadly, Arbour’s health is failing. A Long Island source that knows him well told me today: “Al has Parkinson’s and Emphysema is beginning to show up in shortness of breath. But, his major problem is that early dementia has advanced; he no longer has short-term memory. Al gets around with a walker but has great difficulty changing position – getting up from a chair, for instance. His balance isn’t good and he falls a lot.” Arbour turned 81 in November. As mostly a part-timer, he played 626 NHL games over 16 seasons with Detroit, Chicago, Toronto and St. Louis. He won the Stanley Cup as a defenseman with the Blackhawks in 1961, and the Leafs in ’62 and ’64.
AL ARBOUR – HIS HEALTH FAILING AT 81 – AS COACH OF NEW YORK ISLANDERS (ABOVE) AND DEFENSEMAN WITH 1967-68 ST. LOUIS BLUES (BELOW).
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