It Is The Blues’ Turn — Finally

TORONTO (May 11) — You may or may not be reading it here for the first time. But, I’m going to write it for the first time: When National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman presents the 2016 Stanley Cup next month, David Backes will be on the receiving end. And, the city of St. Louis will rejoice. Finally.

I’m not exactly taking a flyer here. St. Louis has been the best team in the NHL since mid–January, with the best goalie in the NHL during that time. There’s a Stanley Cup–winning coach behind the bench; absolute leadership, on and off the ice, from a captain in the prime of his career; an unparalleled trio of big–horse defensemen, and many soft hands up front. All but the goaltending part has been in place for much of the past half–decade. Now, Brian Elliott has finalized the championship equation. The Blues are poised to win their first Stanley Cup — having joined the NHL in the Great Expansion of 1967. If it does, St. Louis will be the last of the original expansion clubs to claim the NHL title. Pittsburgh has won it three times. Philadelphia and Los Angeles twice. Dallas, representing two of the 1967 outfits, prevailed under current Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock in 1999. The Stars are the original Minnesota North Stars franchise, which amalgamated with the Cleveland Barons in 1978. The California Seals had moved to Cleveland in 1976 after nine abortive years in Oakland. So, the Blues are set to complete the circle of pioneering expansion teams.

The first major step toward that accomplishment was repealing the Chicago Blackhawks — three–time Stanley Cup champion since 2010 and a hurdle the size of Mount Everest. It occurred in Game 7 of the opening playoff round this spring. A third–period goal by former Blackhawk Troy Brouwer, Apr. 25, lifted the Blues to a 3–2 victory at the Scottrade Center. A second affirmation came on Wednesday night in Dallas, when the Blues unabashedly rebounded from a Game 6 disappointment on home ice and routed the Stars, 6–1, to claim their Conference semifinal. Now, in the Western title round for the first time since 2001, St. Louis awaits an opponent — to be determined by tonight’s decisive match in San Jose between the Sharks and Nashville Predators. Perhaps a third quarrel of seven games is on the horizon for the Blues.

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IT WAS NO CONTEST AT THE AMERICAN AIRLINES CENTER ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT AS BRIAN ELLIOTT AND THE VISITING ST. LOUIS BLUES WHIPPED THE DALLAS STARS IN GAME 7. NBC/SPORTSNET IMAGES

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Prior to the regular season — and then again on the eve of the playoffs, in this forum — I chose Pittsburgh and Los Angeles to square off for the NHL championship. I figured the Chicago–L.A. Stanley Cup dance would continue for at least another year. The Kings, however, were rudely discarded by San Jose in the opening round. My Eastern vote has prevailed to this point — a bit surprisingly with unproven Matt Murray between the pipes. But, we’ve seen this before with such greenhorn stoppers as Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Annti Niemi. So, why can it not happen again? The Penguins will need to navigate past Tampa Bay to reach the Stanley Cup final for the fifth time in franchise history. In this blog, I have also chosen the Lightning to prevail through the opening two rounds, even without the intrepid Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. T–Bay has netminding assurance in Ben Bishop and a deep, youthful and skilled roster that has learned how to win from April to June. Which should make for a wondrous Eastern final.

In the end, however, this spring has all the tidings of a St. Louis conquest. My instinct tells me the West champion will win the Stanley Cup. Again. The Blues will be severely tested by either San Jose or Nashville. But, perhaps not as stoutly in the Cup final by either the Penguins or Lightning. Again, merely instinct.

BACKES AND THE LEAFS?

Any conversation involving the most complete, two–way forwards in the NHL has to include St. Louis captain David Backes, who looms among the most intriguing unrestricted free agents this summer. With Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Steen and Brian Elliott up for contract renewal after next season — and with big money already committed to Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester — the Blues may not be able to retain their on–ice leader. At 32, Backes won’t be in the prime of his career much longer, but a team signing him for the next half–decade will surely get two or three years of front–line service. One would therefore assume Backes will either remain in St. Louis or join a club in similar Cup contention. That said, the Toronto Maple Leafs — not nearly yet at such a level — would hardly waste money by signing the Robbinsdale, Minn. native. Mike Babcock would instantly have his next captain and go–to guy; a player that leads by example and would remove considerable encumbrance from newbies Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Backes isn’t as young as Steven Stamkos and won’t cost nearly as much on the open market. He’d become the coach’s trump card — someone Babcock could point to when others may be slacking. Among the most respected players in the NHL, Backes has six goals and 12 points in 14 Stanley Cup games this spring and can be counted on to produce 45 to 60 points in the regular–season. If the youthful Leafs are looking for a determined player, full of character, that has proven he can elevate performance as the stakes increase, Backes would be an ideal addition this summer. No individual may be more capable of teaching the young Maple Leafs how to win.

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A HAPPY DAVID BACKES SKATES TOWARD A POST–GAME INTERVIEW WITH PIERRE McGUIRE OF THE NBC SPORTS NETWORK ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN DALLAS. NBC/SPORTSNET IMAGES

BLUES WOULD RE–CREATE EXPANSION HISTORY

Coached by Scotty Bowman at the beginning of his incomparable career, the St. Louis Blues appeared in the Stanley Cup final during the first three years of the expanded NHL, representing the six–team West Division in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Graced by such legendary players as Glenn Hall and Doug Harvey — and having acquired the first “superstar” of expansion, Red Berenson, from the New York Rangers — the Blues were the cream of the six new clubs.  Though rather competitive, Bowman’s team did not win any of its 12 Cup final games, being swept by Montreal (twice) and Boston. Nor have the Blues since been back to the championship round. It was 46 years ago Tuesday that Bobby Orr beat goalie Hall with the iconic 1970 Cup winner in overtime at the Boston Garden. The Blues did come close in 1986 by virtue of the so–called Monday Night Miracle, which occurred 30 years ago tonight at the old St. Louis Arena. The home team, facing elimination, entered the third period of Game 6 in the Campbell Conference final trailing the Calgary Flames, 4–1. It was 5–2 for Calgary with 12 minutes remaining when goals by Brian Sutter and Greg Paslawski (twice) forced overtime. At 7:30 of the first extra frame, the late Doug Wickenheiser completed the Blues’ startling comeback for a 6–5 victory that prompted a seventh and deciding match, two nights later, at the Saddledome. But, it was not to be for St. Louis. A tight, 2–1 triumph sent Calgary to the Cup final, where the Flames lost in six games to rookie Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens.

A booklet in 1968–69 celebrated the Blues’ first NHL season:

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GREAT FACES

Perhaps the next time I run into either of Don Cherry or Ron MacLean, I’ll be strangled for posting these images. But, I couldn’t resist. Their facial expressions were epic during an argument on Coach’s Corner Tuesday night over the size of the glass in NHL arenas, and whether it should fit uniformly around the circumference of each rink. The gab–fest took place moments after Pittsburgh eliminated Washington by surviving three consecutive delay–of–game penalties in just more than two minutes of the third period. The Capitals did even the match with a powerplay goal, but could have done infinitely more damage. As it were, Nick Bonino’s rebound tally at 6:32 of overtime sent the Capitals packing in Game 6 of the East semifinal:

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SMALLEST CROWD EVER

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NHLUNIFORMS.COM

I laughed out loud the other day while looking through a back–issue of THE HOCKEY NEWS and a typo in the summary of the Minnesota at Oakland NHL game from Jan. 14, 1970. We know the Seals had attendance issues during all nine of their seasons at the Oakland Coliseum–Arena (today Oracle Arena, home of the NBA Golden State Warriors). But, never was it so bad as during the visit, below, by the North Stars — viewed by only one ten–thousandth of a person:

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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