BOSTON — Let’s go win a Cup.
That was what Ryan O’Reilly had said to GM Doug Armstrong after the St. Louis Blues had called to tell him that he’d been acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres last summer.
O’Reilly remembers the conversation quite well. He immediately thanked Armstrong for “bringing me in” — well, rescued might be the more appropriate word — and then told him it was time to get to work and win a Cup.
Now, it’s St. Louis who should be thanking O’Reilly.
The 28-year-old centre is a Stanley Cup champion. He’s also a Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, after scoring a goal in a 4-1 win against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the final. And he did it with cracked ribs suffered back in the second round against Dallas and made worse in the conference final against San Jose.
“That guy’s a legend,” said Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. “Incredible player, incredible teammate. I can’t say enough positive things about him.”
What a finish. What a story.
The St. Louis Blues, who were the worst team in the entire NHL on Jan. 2, are now Stanley Cup champions for the first time in the franchise’s 52-year-history. And they did it against a team that had lived in their nightmares for nearly five of those decades.
This wasn’t quite the proper ending to what had been a close-fought Stanley Cup final. No one wanted to see a blowout in Game 7. But you can’t find fault with the winning team.
They deserved it. Boy, did they ever.
“It’s a nice ending to a story, for sure,” said Binnington, who stopped. "It had to be this way, man. It was an incredible year. I can’t believe where we’re at right now.”
As good of a story as Vegas’ run to the final was last year, St. Louis’ run might have been even more remarkable. You can’t make this up. If you did, no one would have believed it.
And they did it with a 25-year-old rookie goalie, a first-year head coach and a roster where no one earns more than $7.5-million. But mostly, they did it with O’Reilly, who after being run out of Buffalo for telling management that he and the rest of the Sabres had adopted a mindset of “being OK with losing,” showed what kind of leader he really is.
“He carried us,” said captain Alex Pietrangelo, “We wouldn’t be here without him.”
O’Reilly, who scored the first goal in Game 7, finished second in playoff scoring with 22 points in 26 games. Of his eight goals, five came in the final, where he went on an unbelievable tear, scoring a game-winner and riding a six-game point streak.
In Game 7, he was everything the Blues needed him to be.
“Just try to go out there and be a spark,” said O’Reilly, who couldn’t believe his name was now on a Conn Smythe Trophy with so many other legends of the game. “Most of the guys on here, I pretended I was as a kid.”
The first 16 minutes was a microcosm of the Blues first three months of the season, as Boston pounded shot after shot on Binnington. But just like the season, St. Louis absorbed the punishment and somehow came back stronger.
O’Reilly redirected a point shot from Jay Bouwmeester to make it 1-0 with a little more than three minutes remaining in the first period. The Blues then got an even bigger goal when Pietrangelo added to the lead on a bad line change from the Bruins with just 7.9 seconds left before the intermission.
That proved to be all that St. Louis needed.
“You dream about this for so long,” said O’Reilly. “I still can’t believe this. I can’t believe I’m here right now. The Cup is the ultimate goal.”
It was a deflating end to what should have been a strong period for the Bruins. The goals weren’t necessarily bad ones. But for Tuukka Rask, who gave up two goals on the first four shots, it was uncharacteristic of how he’d played during these playoffs.
Meanwhile, Binnington turned in one of his best performances of the final — if not his career.
There had been question marks regarding which version of the rookie goalie we would see in Game 7: the one who was pulled in Game 3 had given up a couple of soft goals in Game 6 or the one who had singlehandedly saved the Blues season after being called up from the minors.
It was the latter. And though the scoreboard made it look like a blowout, it was needed, particularly in the first period when the Blues were under siege and then took a penalty for flipping the puck over the glass. It was then that Binnington slid across the crease and robbed Brad Marchand on a wrist shot from the slot and then prevented David Krejci from scoring on another golden opportunity at the side of the net.
Shortly after, the Blues rewarded him with a pair of goals.
A similar pattern played out in the third period. At one end, Binnington stretched into the splits and prevented a goal from Joakim Nordstrom. And moments later, Brayden Schenn beat Rask with a shot that went in off the far post.
That was it, really.
The Bruins couldn’t get anything going. Part of that was Binnington. But the bigger part was that the Blues, who had been the better five-on-five team all series long, didn’t give them any opportunity to by staying out of the penalty box. Without their No. 1 ranked power play, Boston’s game fizzled.
With less than five minutes remaining in the third period, St. Louis’ Zach Sanford made it 4-0. And while Matt Grzelcyk scored after Boston pulled the goalie, the game was already out of reach.
The better team won. You can thank O’Reilly for that.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019