PHT Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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There are real, meaningful hockey games starting on Wednesday, and that means it is time to take our first real look at the Power Rankings for the 2018-19 season.

After spending most of the summer ranking everything from the best trades of the summer, to the most absurd mascot moments, to the people around the NHL that need to be better this season, to the best teams to not win the Stanley Cup yet in the salary cap era, to those old, random third jerseys it is finally time to start looking at where the NHL’s 31 teams stand entering this season.

Our plan for the season is to do a bi-weekly traditional power rankings, and then mix in a different sort of ranking on the off week in between (similar to what we did over the summer).

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — They have potential award winners behind the bench (Jon Cooper), on the top line (Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), on defense (Victor Hedman) and in net (Andrei Vasilevskiy). The top of the roster is as good as any other team in the league, and the complementary players are outstanding. You don’t become a final four team in three of the past four years by accident. Now they just have to figure out a way to go from being a consistently great team to a championship team.

2. Nashville Predators — Their defense is, at worst, the second best group in the NHL and they have to goalies that are good enough to start and play at a high level. They will be one of the toughest teams to score on once again and a top-10 offense.

3. San Jose Sharks — They are loaded, especially on the blue line where they have three players that are regulars in the Norris Trophy voting. That alone should make them Stanley Cup contenders. Then you add in the fact they have a solid goalie and a deep group of forwards and it is hard to find a weakness here.

4. Washington Capitals — It is pretty remarkable — and kind of funny —  that the Capitals team that finally did it, that finally overcame the postseason demons, that finally brought a championship to Washington, was probably one of the weaker Capitals teams (at least on paper) during this era. That this was probably one of the “weaker” teams is also a testament to how consistently great and competitive they have been, because it was an obviously great team.

5. Winnipeg Jets — The forwards on this team are incredible, especially on the wings where they boast one of the best depth charts in the league. Patrik Laine scoring 50 goals this season is a legitimate possibility. If Connor Hellebuyck comes close to matching his performance this team could win it all. If he does not they could disappoint.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins — If Derick Brassard has a bounce back year after a disappointing debut with the Penguins following the trade this lineup could be laughably deep.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs — The oddsmakers have them as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, and they are definitely loaded with talent up front especially after adding John Tavares in free agency. But they also have some flaws that could hold them back, particularly on defense and in potentially in net if they overwork Frederik Andersen again. We also have to acknowledge the fact that before they can win the Stanley Cup they have to get out of the first round of the playoffs, something they have not done in two NHL lockouts. I know, I know, different teams, different players, different times. But facts are facts.

8. Boston Bruins — The depth is a question mark after the top-line, but they have some really intriguing young players all over the lineup. Tuukka Rask could be the one player that makes or breaks where this team goes.

9. Vegas Golden Knights — Asking them to repeat the success and magic from year one might be asking the impossible, but this is still a really good roster with a lot of salary cap flexibility and the assets (prospects and draft picks) to make another big move if needed.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Even with all of the preseason distractions relating to the contract statues of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky this is a really talented team. Talented enough to finally get through the first-round of the playoffs? That remains to be seen, but a talented team nonetheless.

[Related: Roundtable discussion on Blue Jackets, Rinne, surprise teams]

11. Minnesota Wild — The Wild are going to make the playoffs where they will likely run into a powerhouse Nashville or Winnipeg team in the first round, and should they happen to get through that they will probably have to face the other one in the second round. They are good. They are not good enough to get through both of those teams.

12. Philadelphia Flyers — Could see this team making the playoffs and winning a round (maybe even two?) or being a massive disappointment and missing the playoffs because the defense and goaltending end up not being good enough. A true wild card of a team. At least the mascot rules.

13. St. Louis Blues — The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league a season ago and missed the playoffs because they could not score. They tried to address that over the summer with Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Patrick Maroon. O’Reilly is the big addition here because he is an awesome two-way player that does everything well, mixing shutdown defense with 60-point offense, and a tough, hard-nosed style of play that does not result in him taking penalties.

14. Anaheim Ducks — Losing Corey Perry hurts the offense, but the defense and goaltending should be good enough to carry this team back to the playoffs in a weak (after the top two teams) Pacific Division.

15. Florida Panthers — They were the hottest team in the league in the second half and added a 25-goal scorer to a core group of forwards that already boasts one of the league’s best two-way players (Aleksander Barkov) and some top-line talent in Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck.

16. Dallas Stars — Maybe first-year coach Jim Montgomery can find a way to get something more out of this team than what Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock were able to get in recent years. Still a lot of talent on this roster even if it never seems to translate to success in the standings.

17. Los Angeles Kings — The most stunning thing about the way the Kings were swept out of the playoffs isn’t just that they dropped four consecutive games to the Vegas Golden Knights, scoring just three goals in the series, it is that they looked completely overmatched, slow, and never seemed to be a threat to score. It was like they were playing a different sport.

[Related: Are the Los Angeles Kings in trouble already?]

18. Carolina Hurricanes — Absolutely love this defense with Dougie Hamilton joining the team and Justin Faulk remaining there (for now). But will Scott Darling be better than he was, and what sort of impact will rookies Martin Necas and Andrei Svechnikov make on an offense that was one of the worst in the league and traded one of its leading goal-scorers over the summer?

19. Colorado Avalanche — The big question here will be what type of player Nathan MacKinnon is and will be. After a great rookie season his career kind of stalled a little bit. It is not that he was bad, but he just did not really build off of that debut year in a big way … until 2017-18. Will the Avalanche get that Nathan MacKinnon or will they get the 60-65 point Nathan MacKinnon?

20. New Jersey Devils — A healthy Marcus Johansson will help, and Nico Hischier looks like he has star potential, but what if Taylor Hall does not duplicate his MVP level performance? Even with that performance this was a very average team.

21. Calgary Flames — Like the signing of James Neal in free agency as he should be able to add some secondary scoring to a team that badly needs it. Love Johnny Gaudreau and the way he plays. Hate the Dougie Hamilton trade, the mindset behind it, and the return they got for him.

22. Edmonton Oilers — Connor McDavid is going to dominate, but who is going to help him? This is still a team lacking depth, defense, and goaltending.

23. Arizona Coyotes — Call me crazy but I think this team has the potential to make a big leap this season, especially if Antti Raanta can stay healthy and repeat what he did a year ago. A breakthrough year from Dylan Strome would also be helpful. Probably not a playoff team yet, but certainly a better team.

24. Buffalo Sabres — Jeff Skinner is a great pickup for that price, even if he leaves after this season, and they have a couple of preseason Calder Trophy candidates on this team in Casey Mittelstadt and 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin. Jack Eichel is pretty great, too.

25. New York Rangers — There are a lot of questions for the Rangers as their rebuild begins. Among them: How much does Henrik Lundqvist have left? Can a healthy Kevin Shattenkirk make a difference? Which veterans are the next go be traded?

26. Chicago Blackhawks — If Corey Crawford is not ready to go this team could be a mess again, and as we sit here on Monday on the verge of the season opener we still do not what he will be able to do or when he will be ready to go.

27. Montreal Canadiens — They traded a lot of offense this season with Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk leaving town, and this was not a great offense with them. Shea Weber may be starting to break down and the rest of the defense around him is suspect at best. They will need an MVP season from Carey Price to have a chance.

28. New York Islanders — I am not sold on what they are doing in the short-term with the grit-and-sandpaper approach to building a roster. What is most concerning is how many of those players are signed to long-term contracts. That does not even get into the state of the defense and goaltending.

[Related: Latest round of roster moves should make Islanders fans angry]

29. Vancouver Canucks — The best thing the Canucks will have going for them this season are the return of a healthy Brock Boeser and the potential emergence of Elias Pettersson.

30. Detroit Red Wings — Henrik Zetterberg may not have been Selke contender and Conn Smythe winning Henrik Zetterberg anymore, but he was still probably the best player on the team. Now his playing career is over, Mike Green is not ready to start the season due to a health issue, and the rest of the roster does not inspire much confidence.

31. Ottawa Senators — This was a bad team with Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson. Now they are both traded for nothing that is going to make a significant impact this season and they are almost certain to deal more players off of this roster. Their fans do not even have a first-round draft pick to look forward to. Things are not going to be fun in Ottawa this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

A bet on a whim could net Blues fan $100K, another $50K

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If you’re in Las Vegas next year around January and there’s a team in last place, perhaps put a few dollars down on them winning the 2020 Stanley Cup. You never know.

That’s what St. Louis Blues fan Scott Berry did on a business trip at the beginning of the year.

Speaking to The Action Network’s Darren Rovell, Berry bet the $400 he was planning on gambling away on the Blues — at that time a 150-to-1 longshot to win the Cup.

The hotel he was staying at — Paris Las Vegas Hotel — had the Blues at 250-to-1. Telling Rovell it seemed high, he strolled over to the Bellagio and found them at only 150-to-1.

“So I sprinted back to the Paris and put down everything I had planned on spending on gambling — $400,” Berry said. “To win $100,000 sounded really good.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

With the Blues beating the San Jose Sharks in six games with a 5-1 win on Tuesday night, Berry is now on the cusp of turning his January bet into a June haul if the Blues win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Berry wasn’t the only one to throw down some cash, either.

Brendan Chapel, who plays with Berry in a rec hockey league, saw the odds after a message from the latter and dropped $200 of his own hard-earned cash on the Blues. He stands to win $50,000 if the Blues can overcome the Boston Bruins, a series that begins next Monday at TD Garden in Boston.

That’s $600 that could turn into $150,000.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kaapo Kakko has made his case to be top pick at 2019 NHL Draft

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If the IIHF World Championship is a last-chance-hotel of sorts for a few lucky youngsters looking to lift their draft stock, Finland’s Kaapo Kakko certainly hasn’t checked out yet.

If anything, he’s given the New Jersey Devils brass a headache leading up to the NHL Draft on June 21.

A good headache, of course.

Jack Hughes, the American prodigy who’s set the USA Hockey National Team Development Program ablaze, has been the consensus No. 1 prospect for most of the year, and the year leading up to this draft, and perhaps sometime before that, too. He’s a special player who, in 50 games this season with the program’s U-18 team, put up 34 goals and 112 points, 20 more at the U-18 world championships and four assists in four games at the world juniors.

Thus, Hughes is rated as the top prospect in North America from NHL Central Scouting, and the top prospect in the world by several pundits. When you average 2.24 points per game, these things come pretty naturally. When you put up 228 points in 110 games with the USNTDP — a 2.28 point-per-game clip — you become one of the best, if not the best, to ever emerge from the program.

Hughes has earned his stripes heading into Vancouver, but has his reputation warded off Kakko’s rise at the Worlds?

Kakko hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. Not at all, but he’s lived in Hughes’ shadow. At least, he did.

While both are playing at Worlds right now, it’s Kakko who’s getting the big minutes playing on a Finnish team that isn’t nearly as star-studded as the U.S. So while Hughes has a lonely assist in the tournament, and has only really featured in spurts, Kakko has launched a full-on assault on the minds of Devils general manager Ray Shero and his scouting staff.

Kakko has six goals and one assist in seven games played now at the tournament. He’s shown he can take over games with his hat trick vs. Slovakia, and he’s shown his sublime skill.

That’s two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray between the pipes.

Kakko cares little. Just like he didn’t when he slotted home the game-winning goal to give Finland a gold medal against Hughes’ Americans at the the IIHF World Junior Championship in January.

Kakko is another link in the chain that’s been Finland’s golden years of young prospects who are remarkable. Whatever was in the water 18 to 22 or so years ago should have been bottled.

And it has to make the Devils think.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds already, Kakko comes ready for the NHL game in size. He’s played with men in the Finnish Liiga and is having no issues at all against NHLers at the Worlds either.

In his first full season with TPS, Kakko put up 38 points in 45 games, including 22 goals.

The recent Finnish lineage has included the likes of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Arturri Lehkonen, Mikko Rantanen and Miro Heiskanen, among others. Neither of those guys were first overall picks, yet all of them are making massive impacts of the teams they play on.

Hughes probably still goes first in June, and that might just be alright for the New York Rangers, who sit in the second hole knowing they get one or the other.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The 10 dates from the ’18-19 season that led Blues to Stanley Cup Final

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The Cinderella story for the St. Louis Blues continued on Tuesday night.

A convincing 5-1 win pushed the Blues past the San Jose Sharks and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 long years. St. Louis will get its chance at redemption, nearly a half-century in the making, when they face the Boston Bruins beginning next Monday.

But while it is a little less than a week’s wait for the Cup Final to begin, it’s as good a time as any to reflect on just where the Blues came from over the past five months. Truly, the Blues started from the bottom and now they’re here, competing for hockey’s grandest prize.

Here are 10 dates from the 2018-19 NHL season that changed the course of history for the Blues.

Nov. 19, 2018

We’re going to skip back a month and a half before things really kicked off for the Blues on the ice, and look back at the date they made a change behind the bench. A troubling 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings — their third shutout defeat in their past four games at the time — and limping along with a 7-9-3 record despite going guns a-blazin’ in the offseason, attracting the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, general manager Doug Armstrong pulled another trigger, this time firing Mike Yeo as head coach and replacing him with Craig Berube, who was an associate coach of Yeo’s.

Jan. 3, 2019

Things under Berube didn’t get off to the best start. The Blues lost their first game with him behind the bench 4-1 to Nashville and two games later got obliterated by Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets in an 8-4 rout. Losses to Arizona (6-1) and Edmonton (3-2 SO) is how the Blues began December. They’d go on to fall twice to Vancouver in 2018’s final month and came back from the Christmas break to post a 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh and a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers. All the losing meant that when the Blues awoke on Jan. 3, they were wallowing in last place in the NHL. Happy New Year.

Jan. 6, 2019

A few players ventured to a bar in Philadelphia the night before they were set to face the Flyers. Presumably, we could assume they were drowning their sorrows of a season that had gone completely off the rails. Instead, Laura Branigan came on over the speakers during the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff game against the Chicago Bears. The song, “Gloria,” would end up turning into their victory anthem. Who knew it would be played so many times in the weeks and months to come. “When I hear it, that’s a good thing, right. That means we’ve won the game,” Berube would later say.

Jan. 7, 2019

The Blues lost Carter Hutton to free agency several months earlier and had placed all their faith in starter Jake Allen. Allen’s play certainly hadn’t helped the team in the first half of the season, a stretch summed up quite succinctly by a .896 save percentage. Enter Jordan Binnington, a 25-year-old career minor leaguer who played a grand total of 13 minutes in the NHL, and had never started a game. By now you know the name, but back then, you didn’t. Nevertheless, Binnington started to push his way into the spotlight, first by blanking the Flyers in a 3-0 win. Binnington stopped 25 shots that night. The next several days and weeks, even, everyone wondered if the skinny kid with the iceman demeanor was just the next Andrew Hammond. We know the answer to that now.

[RELATED: Jordan Binnington’s incredible, season-saving run for Blues]

Jan. 23, 2019 – Feb. 24, 2019

Twelve St. Louis skaters figure into the points in a 5-1 win against the lowly Anaheim Ducks on a Wednesday night in late January. The game by itself isn’t especially important but is the start of something much more grandiose. The Blues began that day four points adrift from the league’s basement but would go on a season-defining 11-game winning streak over the next month that would eventually end in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 24, in the second half of a back-to-back. The Blues gained a whopping 12 places in the overall league standings, going from 25th to 13th. More importantly, they went from sixth place in the Central Division to third.

March 6, 2019

If we’re looking for a date where the Blues announced their intentions to the rest of the league, it may have been an early March game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Blues owned a 3-1 lead midway through the game when a very poor Ducks team staged a comeback. They scored twice to close out the second period to tie the game and then Adam Henrique gave the Ducks a 4-3 advantage. Knowing the Ducks, no lead is safe, and sure enough, Robert Thomas found the back of the net to tie the game. Overtime, surely:

April 6, 2019

The final day of the regular season for the Blues, who won 3-2 in a shootout win against the Vancouver Canucks. For a brief moment, they were first in the Central Division before the Nashville Predators eventually won it later in the day and the Winnipeg Jets slotted into the second spot, tied on 99 points with the Blues. They closed out the season winners of 14 of their final 16 games and narrowly missed out on going from worst to first in a four-month stretch. Still, U.S. Thanksgiving statistics be damned, the Blues were headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and were the hottest team entering the postseason.

May 7, 2019

The Blues had won Game 6 two nights earlier to force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in Round 2. Two third period goals, including one after a Colton Parayko point shot that drilled Stars goalie Ben Bishop, sealed Dallas’ fate on that night. Two days later, they had to do it all over again. Bishop was shaken up, but the Vezina Trophy finalist dressed for Game 7 and was spectacular. A 1-1 deadlock after 60 minutes meant overtime, and the first period of play solved nothing. Bishop had made 52 saves in the game up until the 5:50 mark of double OT. It was then that Bishop didn’t get all of a puck that dropped behind him, allowing St. Louis native Patrick Maroon to get his stick on it to push it over the goal line. The Blues, in front of a sold out Enterprise Center, were off to the Western Conference Final.

May 15, 2019

The San Jose Sharks had caught a tremendous break in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights. Essentially, a missed call resulted in a major penalty for Vegas’ Cody Eakins. The Sharks, who trailed 3-0, scored four on the ensuing power play and would go on to win in overtime. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Sharks were on the receiving end of what could have been another series defining missed call. This time, the Sharks are in overtime against the Blues in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Timo Meier appears to bat the puck (a blatant hand pass) into the front of the net where an anxiously awaiting Erik Karlsson sits. Karlsson makes no mistake, winning the game to take a 2-1 series lead. The Blues were irate on the ice but Berube went into the dressing room after the game and calmed the troops. Unlike Vegas, the Blues had a chance to right that wrong.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

May 21, 2019

The Blues kept a level head after Game 3’s debacle and came out and took Game 4 by a 2-1 margin. Now a race to two wins, the Blues took the path of least resistance, beginning with a 5-0 blanking of the woeful Sharks in Game 5. Injuries began to mount for San Jose, who were without Karlsson, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl for parts of Game 5 and all three for Game 6. There, the Blues secured a 5-1 win, putting themselves into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 49 years.

From Jan. 3, where they sat last, to discovering “Gloria,” and finding their diamond in the rough in Binnington, the Blues have put together one of the most memorable and impressive comebacks in NHL history. Now, they have one more hurdle in the Bruins (minus Bobby Orr), the team they last faced in the 1970 Cup Final. Does redemption, nearly 50 years in the making, await?

It would add the final chapter to what’s been a storybook season in St. Louis.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck