The years fell away for Bob Plager, the losses and disappointments the St. Louis Blues had endured in their previous winless Stanley Cup Final appearances pushed aside when Carl Gunnarsson’s shot from the point got through a screen and past Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask 3 minutes 51 seconds into overtime on Wednesday to give the Blues a 3-2 victory at TD Garden.
The Blues finally had earned a win in the Cup Final in their 14th try, after being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in 1968 and 1969, by the Big Bad Bruins in 1970, and losing the opener this spring to the current not-so-big but deep and skillful Bruins. Plager, a member of the expansion 1967-68 St. Louis team who played for the Blues until 1977 and still works for them as an ambassador, couldn’t have been happier if he had scored the goal that inscribed a line in the Blues’ history book and put them on even footing with the Bruins as the series shifts to St. Louis on Saturday.
“The times we were there, let’s face it we were the happiest guys in the world,” Plager said of the team’s previous trips to the Final. “We were an expansion team playing the great Montreal Canadiens for two years and we weren’t expected to win or maybe win a game. And then the Boston Bruins, with what they had…. Now, it’s a little different. What has happened this year and to be around this hockey team, around the players, they’re having fun and they trust in one another and believe in one another. That’s the way you win hockey games.”
The ever-resilient Blues won this one because Gunnarsson, who had hit the post with about two minutes left in the third period, told Coach Craig Berube he needed just one more shot. “He was joking around a little bit you know,” Berube said. Gunnarsson made no mistake when he got the chance, whistling the puck just under the crossbar with a delayed penalty pending against the Bruins allowing the Blues to have six skaters. “He played a hell of a game, Gunny. Great shot,” Berube said.
That the conversation between Gunnarsson and Berube took place in the men’s room during intermission before the overtime probably isn’t poetic enough to be included in future historical accounts of the Blues’ shining moment, but it’s true. “Yeah, I can’t deny that. That’s where it happened,” Gunnarsson said. “It makes it even more fun, I guess. It’s a good story.”
The Blues earned this one, erasing Boston’s 1-0 and 2-1 leads in the first period. The Blues did a good job in shutting out the Bruins’ top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, primarily by ensuring defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko gave the Boston standouts as little time and space as possible. “Personally, I wasn’t good the last two games,” Marchand said, “so we can’t be playing like that.”
It worked in the Blues’ favor, too, that Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk left the game late in the first period after being hit from behind by Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, forcing the remaining five defensemen to play a lot of minutes in a rugged, fast game. The Bruins didn’t disclose the nature of his injury, as is typical during the season and even moreso during the playoffs.
According to the Boston Globe, Grzelcyk was taken to the hospital for tests.
“I think our team did a good job of wearing them down over 60 minutes and we knew we had more energy than them going into OT,” Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson said, “so we just laid it all on the line and stuck to our game plan.”
The Bruins got the game’s first power play and capitalized for their first goal. With Blues forward Sammy Blais serving a penalty for goaltender interference, Jake DeBrusk found Charlie Coyle in the slot, and Coyle’s quick shot from one knee got past goaltender Jordan Binnington at 4:44. The Blues pulled even at 9:37, when a shot by Robert Bortuzzo caromed off Grzelcyk’s leg and past Rask, but the Bruins regained the lead 40 seconds later. After the Blues missed several clearing attempts, Sean Kuraly fed Joakim Nordstrom for a backhander that slid beneath Binnington’s pads.
That didn’t last long, as the Blues made it 2-2 at 14:55. Rask made a save on the initial shot, by Jaden Schwartz, but he couldn’t control the rebound. Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara blocked Vladimir Tarasenko’s first shot at Rask but Tarasenko potted the rebound for his 10th playoff goal. Tarasenko has recorded a point in eight straight.
The Blues controlled the play in the second period and much of the third, frustrating the Bruins. “I think they elevated and I don’t know if we were looking for an easy game but our execution really wasn’t there,” Bruins forward David Backes said. “It was a man’s game, it was an in-your-face kind of battle of the wills and I think they got the better of it. You’ve got to give them some credit there. But we need to be better as a group and turn that tide at some point as well.”
The Blues have turned the tide of their Stanley Cup Final history. Plager, 76, lived to see it — and he hopes to see more like it. “It’s great,” he said. “But as much as I want to win, it’s the city of St. Louis and our fans, that’s what you want to win for.”
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