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Conference Final

Blues can end 'a lot of heartache' in Final against Bruins

Reach championship round for first time in 49 years, out to win Cup at last

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

ST. LOUIS -- Brett Hull sat alone in a lounge next to the St. Louis Blues locker room, a quiet, satisfied smile on his face as the party raged and the victory anthem "Gloria" played over and over and over again.

The Blues, last in the NHL on Jan. 3, eliminated the San Jose Sharks with a 5-1 win in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final at Enterprise Center on Tuesday. In the final minutes, the fans stood and chanted, "We want the Cup!"

St. Louis is going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970, when Bobby Orr soared through the air after scoring the clinching goal for the Boston Bruins in overtime of Game 4. The Blues play the Bruins again, with Game 1 at Boston on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

 

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"Look at those people out there that have been here 49 years waiting for this," said Hull, the Hockey Hall of Famer who played for the Blues from 1988-98 and still lives in St. Louis. "It is special the support this team has gotten over 49 years never making it.

"And now we're here, and we're as good as anybody, don't you think? We're a good team. It's exciting."

Bob Plager and Kelly Chase walked into the lounge, clasped hands and looked at each other without a word. Their tears said it all.

Plager played for the Blues from their inaugural season of 1967-68 through 1977-78. His No. 5 hangs in the rafters next to his late brother Barclay's No. 8. He has held a number of jobs in the organization over the years and gets so nervous at games these days that he can't bear to watch. He paces around the rink instead.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Blues heading to Stanley Cup Final

Chase played for St. Louis for eight seasons over two stints, from 1989-94 and 1997-2000.

"I've been here from Day One, and our fans deserve this here," Plager said. "What our players went through this year, to be where they were and to be doing what they're doing now, I mean, yeah, I got emotional."

Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko said he saw Chase crying in the hall.

"You know, it's almost making us cry too," Tarasenko said. "It's unbelievable to see these guys happy. … It gives us goose bumps."

* * * * *

This is no less than the greatest season in Blues history and one of the most remarkable stories in NHL history, and the final chapter hasn't been written.

The Blues made the Stanley Cup Final in each of their first three seasons. But that was after the NHL doubled to 12 teams, the six new teams had their own division and one was guaranteed to make the Final. They were swept by the Montreal Canadiens in 1968 and 1969, by the Bruins in 1970.

Many considered the greatest moment in Blues history the "Monday Night Miracle," when they came back from down 5-2 in the third period and defeated the Calgary Flames 6-5 in overtime in Game 6 of the 1986 Campbell Conference Final.

"I hate using that," said Bruce Affleck, who played for St. Louis from 1974-79, held other jobs with the organization and is executive vice president. "Yes, the 'Monday Night Miracle' was special, but it really wasn't, when you think about it."

The Blues lost 2-1 in Game 7. That was the closest they came to returning to the Stanley Cup Final until this. They lost the Western Conference Final in five games to the Colorado Avalanche in 2001 and in six games to the Sharks in 2016.

"Just a lot of heartache," Affleck said. "But the fans have been there all the time, and they're the ones who are going to enjoy this the most, I think."

The Blues entered the season with high expectations after adding players such as forwards Tyler Bozak, Pat Maroon, Ryan O'Reilly and David Perron. Some picked them to win the Cup, including Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"Made some moves," Fleury said at the NHL Player Media Tour in early September.

They got off to a 7-9-3 start and replaced coach Mike Yeo with Craig Berube on Nov. 19. They were 15-18-4 the morning of Jan. 3, last in the League with 34 points.

But Jan. 6, a group of players watched an NFL playoff game at a private club in Philadelphia, and a club member kept requesting a 1982 hit by Laura Branigan, shouting, "Play 'Gloria'!" The next night, Jordan Binnington, once the fourth-string goalie, made 25 saves in a 3-0 shutout of the Flyers.

The Blues finished the regular season on a 29-9-5 run, including an 11-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19, and "Gloria" became their song.

Video: SJS@STL, Gm6: Blues receive Clarence S. Campbell Bowl

They defeated the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the first round. They defeated the Dallas Stars in seven games in the second round, and who scored the winner in double overtime of Game 7? Maroon, a St. Louis native.

Now this. St. Louis is the first team since the 1967 expansion to be in last place in the League after at least 20 games and make the Stanley Cup Final.

"The fans are really what this is about," Affleck said. "Certainly for the hockey franchise and the ownership and the players, all that. But the fans …

"I hear the comment, 'They've got to win a Stanley Cup before I die.' Well, unfortunately some people have passed away and didn't get that opportunity. And now we do have it."

* * * * *

Perhaps it's fitting that a team with a blue note for a logo has created a bond with music.

O'Reilly said players leave Enterprise Center, stop at red lights and hear "Gloria" blaring from cars nearby. He said the song plays in his head at times, like when he boards the team plane after a win.

"I constantly find myself, 'Da-na-na! Da-na-na!' " O'Reilly said. "Oh, yeah. All the time."

Blues flags are flying from cars and hanging in front of houses.

Video: SJS@STL, Gm6: O'Reilly on turnaround, Cup Final

O'Reilly went to Whole Foods to buy a salad, and fans bumped fists with him and said, "Let's go!" Affleck went to Schnucks for groceries, and a woman recognized him and gave him a hug. He saw her again another time, and she patted him on the back. He told her no. It had to be a hug. The team and town literally are embracing each other.

Each member of the Keystone Event Staff working at Enterprise Center for Game 6 wore the same nametag. It said, "Gloria."

"It's cool people are a part of this," O'Reilly said. "It's what it's about. It's not only the guys in here. It's a city. Together we're trying to win."

John Oefelein sat in Section 301 for Game 6. He has been a season ticket holder since the beginning. He was at the old St. Louis Arena for the Stanley Cup Final in 1968, 1969 and 1970, and now here he was at Enterprise Center to watch them return.

"It's going to be the finest thing we've had," Oefelein said. "We've been waiting for this for a long time. And this year, nobody believed we were going to be here. I always believed from the very beginning."

The 87-year-old wore a sweater from the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium, a light blue throwback honoring his favorite player: No. 55, defenseman Colton Parayko.

"That means a lot, just sticking through everything," Parayko said. "Those are the kind of people we play for."

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