By Lou Korac
Five years after General Manager Doug Armstrong challenged his Blues that they “need that killer instinct. … You need to take the knife and jam it through their eye and into their brain and kill them,” they used that knife and gutted the San Jose Sharks, and in the process, advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.
And in the process, ‘Gloria’ never blared louder or sounded better.
The Blues used that knife and carved their way to winning the Western Conference Final with a 5-1 win against the Sharks in Game 6 on Tuesday at Enterprise Center, eliminating San Jose in six games, the same Sharks who did the very same thing to the Blues in 2016.
The Blues will move on to the Stanley Cup Final for the fourth time in franchise history and face David Backes and the Boston Bruins beginning with Game 1 on Monday at TD Garden.
For a city and hockey community that waited 49 years to see this day were able to live it. There were 18,684 in the building to see it, and thousands of other loyal, diehard hockey fans got to witness something past alumni, led by Bobby Plager, one of the existing original Blues from 1967 who played 615 games for the franchise, could not accomplish since the first three years of the franchise.
“We saw Chaser [Kelly Chase] in tears coming off the ice,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “Bobby, the list goes on and on. Those guys have built the foundation of this organization and they represent the Blue Note pretty well. We try and carry that on. It trickles down to the guys on our team. Guys like ‘Steener’ have put a lot of time, effort and games into this team. Guys like ‘Bouw’, those are the guys you’re fighting these games for. ‘Bouw’ is a man of very few words but we got a couple of smiles out of him.”
Five different goal scorers scored for the Blues, including David Perron with a goal and an assist in his third stint with the team that drafted him, Ryan O’Reilly, who was acquired via trade last July 1 and said to Armstrong in a phone call, “Let’s go win a Cup” had three assists and Jordan Binnington, who came on Jan. 7 and has solidified the ship in goal, came through once again with 25 saves and became the first rookie goalie in 32 years and sixth in NHL history to win each of his team’s first 12 playoff games.
“It’s just nice for everyone (and) for the city,” Perron said. “I experienced it last year (with Vegas) and it’s a very similar feeling. I was just glad to see Petro not touch that [Clarence Campbell] trophy because we touched it last year and it didn’t work.”
The Blues, who got goals from Perron, Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, Tyler Bozak and Ivan Barbashev, won the final three games of the series and outscored the Sharks 12-2.
“It’s obviously a great feeling,” said Blues interim coach Craig Berube, who took over for the fired Mike Yeo on Nov. 19. “For everyone. You know the fans, our organization. Ownership. Management. Players. Training staff. Everybody’s involved and they all deserve credit. And we’re moving onto the finals. So it’s a great feeling.”
The Blues saw an opportunity and delivered the knockout blow to a San Jose team that was battered and bruised and was missing star players, defenseman Erik Karlsson and forwards Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl.
“I thought we checked well tonight,” Berube said. “Maybe sat back a little too much at times. We got the lead. That’s natural a little bit to protect it. But that (San Jose) team, I give them credit. They battled hard all night. It was closer than you think. Couple big saves by our goalie, but I thought our guys did a good job of sticks and blocking shots, and all the little things that we had to do to close that game out.”
Perron opened the scoring at 1 minute, 32 seconds of the game and got the Blues off to the kind of start they needed against a fragile group to make it 1-0. Sammy Blais’ shot from the right circle after taking an O’Reilly pass caromed past Martin Jones.
And then there’s Tarasenko, who had a point in all six games (three goals, five assists) with his first power-play goal of the series at 16:16 to make it 2-0, just seven seconds after the Blues’ power play began.
O’Reilly won the face-off to Tarasenko, who moved the puck to Colton Parayko, who returned it to Tarasenko in the left circle, and he whipped a wrist shot past Jones high short side.
“I don’t even think about it. That’s done,” Tarasenko said of his point streak in the series. “Final is coming. Don’t even ask me about it.”
Dylan Gambrell got the Sharks back in the game, scoring at 6:40 of the second period to make it 2-1, a wrister from the right circle and the only shot to beat Binnington, but Schenn’s first goal in 14 games (Game 5 against Winnipeg), the Blues’ fifth power-play goal in four games and second in as many tries in the game, restored the two-goal lead at 3-1 at 12:47.
“I’ve had chances, the opportunity has been there,” Schenn said. “Getting a chance to play on the power play, I felt like I had to step up tonight and get one for the boys and it was nice to contribute.”
The Blues went into full prevent mode in the third period knowing they needed to protect a two-goal lead and being 20 minutes away from reaching the Cup Final. San Jose was pressing and had the first 10 shots on goal in the period, but Bozak, another free agent acquisition along with Perron last July 1, iced the game and made it 4-1 when his centering feed to O’Reilly clipped in off Gustav Nyquist at 13:05.
Barbashev put the finishing touches on the victory with an empty-net goal at 17:45 to make it 5-1, a fitting ending that Barbashev scored. He, Oskar Sundqvist and Alexander Steen, who make up the fourth line, scored in five straight games.
And as the final minutes rolled down, and the crowd was blowing “we want the Cup” through the roof, reality finally set in as the celebration set off, including ‘Gloria’, the unofficial-official team song from Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit that the team adopted while in Philadelphia on Jan. 6.
“I don’t understand yet,” Tarasenko said of the magnitude. “It’s obviously a pretty big deal for us to get what we get. The feeling is we’re not done yet. Really proud of the team how far we go, but there’s still one more opponent to beat. It feels unbelievable. I’m not going to lie.
“… I always feel it’s real. I told you guys before our hard work is supposed to pay off. We stay tight and this gives us good result.”
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports