Puck-drop at TD Garden is only hours away for a rematch 49 years in the making. It was on May 10, 1970, that the St. Louis Blues last played in a Stanley Cup Final game, a night ended by 22-year old Bobby Orr as he leaped head-first into Stanley Cup history.
Almost a half-century later, after a long and winding road has led the organization back to hockey in late spring, the Blues hope that two young players with their own unique path can be difference-makers this time around against the Boston Bruins.
Rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, the 25-year-old Calder Trophy finalist and former Rampage stalwart, will look to complete one of the most improbable seasons by a goaltender in NHL history. Sammy Blais, last year’s Rampage leading scorer and a frequent flyer between St. Louis and San Antonio this season, finds himself a top-six forward for Head Coach Craig Berube after being inserted into the lineup late in the second round.
A Blues team that hoped to be a Cup contender in September likely didn’t anticipate doing so with either player in their current role.
“I date back to Chicago in the American League with both of those guys,” said Rampage captain Chris Butler, who has had a front-row seat to their rise through the organization. “They’ve had very different roads.”
Butler was a teammate of both players in Chicago and in San Antonio and knows the adversity both had to battle through to reach the NHL.
A third-round pick of the Blues in 2011, Binnington played in 164 AHL games across parts of seven seasons before making the jump to the NHL for good. He won 25 games in 2014-15 and was an All-Star for the Providence Bruins last year, but he was still far from guaranteed to get an NHL shot when he appeared in just two of San Antonio’s first nine games this season.
When Binnington got his chance, he took advantage and never looked back.
“He’d never really been given the starter’s role or been named the number-one. He’s had to work for everything,” said Butler. “I think at a certain point, you play so many games in the AHL that some guys might get to the point where you have two options. You can get down and frustrated and start exploring other opportunities, or you can continue to invest in yourself and work hard and believe in yourself.
“That’s what Binner has done and you saw the way he played for us in San Antonio at the start of the year.”
Binnington himself had admitted that his first win with the Rampage, the 100th of his pro career combining his time in the AHL and ECHL, was bittersweet. He was proud of the accomplishment, but he knew it signified that he had been in the minors a long time.
Two months later, he had won 16 games, led the AHL in goals-against average, and earned his fifth shutout of the season to earn the final call back to the Blues.
“I’d be lying if I said I would’ve been able to predict the run he’s had in St. Louis and has continued to maintain. Everybody has looked for him to falter or just be a flash in the pan, but I think his personality has allowed him to continue to keep an even head about himself and continue to stay focused and keep out the noise.”
Blais has earned similar praise from St. Louis teammates. After 18 points in 26 games with the Rampage this season, and four points in 32 games for the Blues, Blais has been an effective playoff forward on both sides of the puck.
A sixth-rounder in 2014 who spent three years in the AHL, Blais had to work to become a complete player to be a playoff performer.
“Sammy’s a guy that for whatever reason just doesn’t seem to be fazed by this stage of the game right now. If you look at the chaos he was creating in that San Jose series, every single guy on [the Sharks] wanted to take his head off,” said Butler. “He continued to go out there and be physical and make plays and be a positive contributor.”
Blais brings not only an offensive touch with three points in eight playoff games but also a physical edge that is difficult for others to match. That physicality will be critical against the heavy style the Bruins will play.
“Right now he knows that he might not be an everyday top-six, but when he comes in the lineup he brings an element of skill and physicality that not a lot of guys can bring,” said Butler. “He catches a lot of guys off-guard because he’s extremely strong on his feet and he has that motor that keeps going and allows him to be physical all game long, where for some guys it might wear them down a bit.”
Throughout Binnington’s improbable season, in which he went 24-5-1 for the Blues, observers have tried to find a fair comparison. Andrew Hammond’s 2014-15 campaign with the Ottawa Senators was a strong candidate, but Binnington’s playoff success has separated him from Hammond.
“It’s almost unheard of. There isn’t really a comparable anymore, I don’t think, to what he’s accomplished this season,” said Butler. “But you’d never know that from his day-to-day demeanor. He hasn’t changed, he prepares the same, he practices the same. I know he’s kind of coy and interesting with the media, but he’s a quiet guy who enjoys his teammates and he kind of has his routines and goes about them in a very professional manner.”
The Blues were in last place in the NHL at the start of January, and they are now where no one thought they would be. They will depend on the calm demeanor of their rookies, the mental and physical toughness of two players that no one could have imagined would be here either.