Published June 1, 2019
In 1967, when it doubled in size from six to 12 teams, the National Hockey League, in its infinite wisdom–yes, that’s sarcasm–decided to put all six expansion teams in their own division. And if that wasn’t egregious enough, the league announced that the playoff format would see the Original Six clubs, i.e. East Division, battle among themselves, with the survivor playing the survivor of the West/expansion division for the Stanley Cup.
So no matter what, an established team would skate against a newbie for hockey’s Holy Grail.
This charade went on for three years. And in all three of those seasons, the St. Louis Blues played for the Cup.
Now, it would be a great story if we could say that the young Blues were a Cinderella story and gave the established NHL team a good fight, but in those three Cup Finals, the Blues went 0-12 (0-8 vs. Montreal and 0-4 vs. Boston).
The iconic Bobby Orr goal in overtime to win the Cup in 1970 for the Bruins was the last time we saw the Blues in the Finals.
NHL’s Jordan playing like MJ
And in January of this year, it looked as if that we would not only not see the Blues in the Finals for the 49th straight year, we wouldn’t even see them in the damn playoffs at all.
On January 8, after a 3-1 loss at home to Dallas, the Blues were 17-20-4, making interim coach Craig Berube 10-11-1 after taking over for Mike Yeo. The Blues were buried and fans in the Gateway City, as they usually do in January, couldn’t wait for the Cardinals to report to spring training.
So of course, Berube led a turnaround in which the Blues finished the season 28-8-5. Correction: it wasn’t so much Berube as it was a rookie goalie named Jordan Binnington, who made like Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall (those two Blues goalies from the early years) rolled into one. Binnington caught fire, standing on his head, as they say in hockey. The 25-year-old went 24-5-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .927 save percentage.
The St. Louis Blues are back in the Finals, square with the big, bad Boston Bruins, 1-1, heading into tonight’s Game 3 in St. Louis. You think that arena will be a little nuts this evening?
The Blues’ rags-to-riches story—all in one season—is why the pursuit for the Stanley Cup is always more compelling than that of the NBA championship. It always has been and always will be.
Last spring, the expansion (!) Vegas Golden Knights reached the Cup Finals before succumbing to the “established” (since 1974) Washington Capitals. And if you look at the two Cup finalists over the past several decades, often you’ll see at least one team that is a head scratcher, based on the regular season performance.
NBA: the Finals are usually chalk
Now, the NBA postseason is great if you want to be guaranteed to see two of the best regular season teams compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy every year. Not so great if you want to see some surprises.
There’s no NBA equivalent of a phenomenon like Binnington getting hotter than a firecracker and turning into a stone wall. When was the last time a basketball benchwarmer turned into the second coming of Michael Jordan and put his team on his back in a spring charge to the championship?
I’ll give you the 1981 Houston Rockets, who made it to the Finals despite a 40-42 regular season record. The Rockets even took the champion Celtics to six games in the Finals.
But the NHL matched that a year later, when the 30-33-17 Vancouver Canucks, with their garish uniforms, met the New York Islanders for the Cup. And the NHL has been offering us unlikely Cup finalists—and sometimes winners—ever since. The NBA? Not so much.
Every year at the start of any given NBA campaign, your logical choice of potential finalists is usually limited to anywhere between two and four teams out of 30.
That crazy, wacky hockey!
In the NHL, every season seems to be a crapshoot in October.
Part of this is the quirkiness of hockey. Crazy deflections, goal posts, traffic jams in front of the net and the unpredictability of sudden death overtime all combine to make playoff hockey, especially, prone to weird cases of kismet.
The NBA is giving us a little history this June. The Toronto Raptors are threatening to bring the trophy north of the border for the first time ever. So there’s that. But the Raptors, going into the season, were a popular favorite in the Eastern Conference.
Golden State-Toronto is great for those NBA fans who wanted to see the two “best” teams in the Finals.
Boston-St. Louis is great for those NHL fans who tell the league at the beginning of the season, “Surprise me.”