By all accounts and logic, this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs was one of the most unpredictable in NHL history. From the beginning – which saw a shocking sweep of President’s Cup winner Tampa Bay and other first-round upsets of last year’s two Cup Finalists Washington and Vegas, as well as perennial contender Pittsburgh and West favorites Nashville and Winnipeg going down – to the very end of the playoffs which saw the unheralded St. Louis Blues go from worst to first in 2019…literally. An annual first or second-round playoff team that usually goes no further, the Blues weren’t on anyone’s radar as a real contender before the season, even less so in January after coaching and goaltending changes for a team that was still in last place in the NHL. To go from the lowest of lows to beating the favored Bruins in Game 7 at Boston for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup is a truly remarkable turnaround, spearheaded by a retread coach in Craig Berube and a journeyman rookie goalie in Jordan Binngton.
It’s stories like the Blues’ and Binnington’s that can seemingly only happen in the NHL. You certainly don’t get that in the NBA where the best teams or the best players (usually both) tend to finish on top. Even this year with the Raptors being a feel-good story, it’s not like they came out of nowhere and their acquisition of one of the best three players in the NBA led to their own improbable run. Baseball is a sport of the haves and have-nots more and more as teams favor the go big or go home approach, widening the parity gulf and creating more long summer days for a sport already struggling to attract the younger viewers. Football? Well you did have the Eagles and Nick Foles two years ago, in a story with some similarities to the Blues this year. Of course every NFL season in the end still comes down to whether you can beat the Patriots in late January or early February, and you’re certainly not coming from the worst record in the middle of the season to win a Super Bowl there.
I can’t say as I watched most of the playoffs, although I certainly did have the SCF Game 7 turned on from start to finish. Given I grew up on deep Devils’ playoff runs, maybe it’s inevitable it’d be hard for me to emotionally get into an increasing number of postseasons without them in it (and the one that they were in, was a quick cup of coffee appearance). At least there’s still Doc Emrick around to do the games, a touch of nostalgia in that sense. His call on one of Binngton’s great saves in the third period just before the Blues’ dagger of a third goal was typically classic. Doesn’t mean I don’t care who wins – certainly the Blues this year and the Caps last year with their stories of redemption and getting over the hump at long last appealed to most neutral fans like myself. I was also happy with the Blackhawks breaking their long drought in 2010, with the added benefit of them beating the rival Flyers to do it. It’s just hard to follow day in, day out when you have no real emotional attachment other than seeing the scores and who won.
I certainly did know about the spate of bizarre officiating decisions throughout the postseason, including the missed call in Game 5 that proved decisive in the Blues’ win there. It’s probably a good thing for the sake of potential contreversy that the Bruins won Game 6, despite the fact it spoiled the party for a few days in St. Louis. After all, bad call or not you can’t really blame anyone but yourself in the end when you lose three home games in the same Final. It also gave a chance for us to see one of the best fan watch scenes ever when Blues fans both filled up their own arena, and filed into Busch Stadium to the tune of 20,000 plus fans sitting out in the rain to watch their team win the city’s first Stanley Cup on the road after over fifty years of existence. Organized watch parties can be fun, I experienced a few of them during the 2012 postseason. Certainly more fun for this blogger than just going to a random bar.
Of course it’s more satisfying to see the team win in person. I got that ultimate thrill in 2003, because I’d bought a ticket for Game 7 in the middle of the series with the Ducks just in case and when the day came nothing was going to keep me away, and as it turned out I was quite ill with what turned out to be bronchitis. While my parents were worried about me going to the game I shot back this could be once in a lifetime (which indeed it has been to this point), I’m going – so I took medicine, some antibiotics and gutted it out, getting rewarded for it when the Devils prevailed for their third and currently final Stanley Cup. Thankfully my health was better in 2012 when I was at the Rock and ‘Henrique, it’s over!’ happened. Ironic that our seminal win against the Rangers to capture the Eastern Conference is known as much by Doc’s call as anything else, not to mention the fact we got deep enough in the playoffs so it was Doc making the call again.
Thankfully I was spared the ignominy later in that postseason of watching a Kings’ celebration in Game 5 when the Devils staved off elimination for a second straight game. Me and my friend certainly would have stayed though, even for an opposition ceremony. Of championship ceremonies, there’s nothing quite like the Cup presentation and skate-around. I didn’t really get the Boston fans who left before the presentation the other night, you’d think fans in an Original Six city would have more appreciation than most for a Cup ceremony. And heck, how many fans wouldn’t like the opportunity to boo Gary Bettman yet again? Of course since Boston became the city of champions in the 2000’s the spoiled moniker comes to mind. With the Mets and Jets (not to mention the Devils since 2012) there’s really little danger of me becoming spoiled as a sports fan.
That said it would be nice to start to get back on the road toward having some success in April and May. I’ll soon post a Devils-centric blog before free agency begins but don’t feel like previewing the draft itself. Ignoring the Internet-created drama during the World Championships, our pick still seems like it’s destined to be Jack Hughes, with Kappo Kakko heading to the Rangers for an insta-rivalry. The real suspense in our draft will be day two. With three second-round picks and two-third round selections the Devils have plenty of ammo to either move up, or use the picks as trade ammunition. Although there’s an argument to be made for keeping all the picks in a deep draft and letting scouting director Paul Castron add young prospects, I’d honestly be dissapointed if we made all our selections given said opportunities for trading up or using picks to add talent a la the Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson trades. Especially with the cap space we’re still banking.
Thankfully there isn’t much layover between the end of the Finals and the beginning of the offseason with the draft beginning next Friday and free agency in about two weeks, and my semi-hibernation from hockey can end. At least before the real hibernation from mid-July till early September when camps open.