PHT Time Machine: When the Blues made three straight Stanley Cup Finals

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Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the St. Louis Blues’ fascinating and mostly disappointing history with the Stanley Cup Final.

The St. Louis’ Blues history with the Stanley Cup Final might be the most bizarre of any team in the NHL.

Unless you are old enough to have been watching hockey in the late 1960s, you have no memory or recollection of them ever playing this deep in the season. The idea of the Blues lifting the Stanley Cup, or even playing in the Final, is almost certainly a foreign one to you and had probably been nothing more than a punchline until about three days ago, simply because it was something you just hadn’t ever witnessed.

When they defeated the San Jose Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, they clinched their spot in the Final for the first time since 1970, the year they lost to their 2019 opponent — the Boston Bruins — on Bobby Orr’s now legendary overtime goal in Game 4 of the series.

It has been a 49-year drought since then that has seen the Blues put a consistently competitive — and sometimes even great — team on the ice only to always have a soul-crushing way of falling just short.

But they have been there!

This is the story of when the Blues, the best of the NHL’s “Great Expansion,” mostly served as a sacrificial lamb in the Stanley Cup Final for the already established Original Six teams.

This is the PHT Time Machine.


The Birth Of The Blues

The 1967-68 season was one of the most significant ones in NHL history as it ushered in the era of expansion. “The Great Expansion,” as it would come to be known by former league president Clarence Campbell.

After being a six-team league between 1942 and 1966, it was obvious that the NHL had woefully fallen behind its major sports counterparts in North America, in terms of both size and national relevance.

The NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball all not only had significantly more teams, they also had teams on the west coast and all had major television deals. And they were all continuing to grow while the NHL remained a stagnant, regional league that was mostly located in the Northeast.

But in February of 1966, the NHL doubled in size in the largest expansion in league history when the league’s owners voted to admit the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, and St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were the last of the teams to be admitted entry into the league and did so even though the city did not make an official bid for a team because there was no suitable ownership situation for a team at the time.

From the Feb. 10, 1966 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (reporting on the entry of the Penguins):

 

The “adequate NHL building” really wasn’t adequate at all and was mostly a decrepit eyesore that was owned by James D. Norris and Arthur Wirtz … the owners of the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was at the insistence of Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks that the NHL admit St. Louis (over a potential Baltimore franchise) as they saw it as a means of unloading a piece of real estate they no longer wanted. Considering the clout that Norris, Wirtz and the Blackhawks had in the league, the Blues were in under the initial ownership of Sid Salomon Jr., who purchased the St. Louis Arena from Norris and Wirtz.

He spent years pouring money into the building, increasing its capacity, and renovating it into something functional.

The Beginning of the Blues and Their Initial Success

When the NHL expanded it separated its two groups of teams (the established Original Six team and the expansion six) into two separate divisions, with the existing teams taking up residence in the Eastern Division and the expansion teams playing in the Western Division.

Under this alignment the top-four teams in each division would play each other in the opening two rounds of the playoffs, and the winner of each division would then meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

This guaranteed that an expansion team would be playing for the Stanley Cup in its first year of existence.

Now, this was the late 1960s, and the NHL was still a mostly wild west in terms of management and roster construction.

Teams didn’t know how to properly evaluate players, and with the NHL draft still in its infancy nobody other than Montreal Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock seemed to have a clue as to how to evaluate and value draft picks. This meant there was going to be a lot of inept management taking place, especially as the newly formed expansion teams tried to put competitive teams on the ice knowing that one of them would have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup immediately.

The result of this was a lot of dumb expansion teams unintentionally building a powerhouse in Montreal (we touched on this in a previous PHT Time Machine).

The Blues were clearly the most competent of the expansion teams in the very beginning, simply because they didn’t give away their future to Pollock and the Canadiens.

When they began play during the 1967-68 season, Lynn Patrick had assumed the role of general manager and head coach before surrendering the latter duty after just 16 games with a 4-10-2 record.

His replacement was a 32-year-old assistant who was given his first head coaching job in the NHL.

That assistant? Scotty Bowman.

The Blues would lose six of their first seven games under Bowman before finally starting to show improvement in the second half, finishing with a 23-21-14 record under his watch, doing just enough to snag one of the four playoff spots in the Western Division.

They would go on to win two Game 7s (against Philadelphia and Minnesota) to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

It was there that they would run into the Canadiens’ dynasty that was in the middle of five consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances (winning four of them) and would ultimately win 10 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1979.

It was an obvious mismatch on paper and the Blues would end up losing in a clean sweep.

Despite the four consecutive losses, the Blues kept every game close, losing all four by just a single goal, including two of them in overtime.

Two More Returns to the Stanley Cup Final With the Same Result

The Blues’ next two seasons would take on a remarkably similar look to the first one.

They would dominate the other expansion teams in their division, struggle against the Original Six teams, and then get swept in four games in the Stanley Cup Final.

They lost again to the Canadiens in 1968-69 and then then now-famous Bruins series in 1970.

During those first three years in the league the Blues, thanks to a strong defense and the goaltending of future Hall of Famers Glen Hall and Jacques Plante, were a battering ram against their fellow expansion teams and compiled a 75-32-23 record against them in the regular season, then never losing a playoff series to them.

By comparison, they were only 26-51-19 against the Original Six teams in the regular season and 0-12 against them in the playoffs, managing just 17 goals in the latter 12 games.

Because of this the Blues have some rather unique Stanley Cup Final history.

They are one of just six teams in the expansion era to have ever played in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, joining a list that includes two different versions of the Montreal Canadiens (all three years between 1968 and 1970 and again in the late 1970s), the Philadelphia Flyers (1974-1976) and the 1980s dynasties that belonged to the New York Islanders (1980-83) and Edmonton Oilers (1983-85).

That is the good history.

The bad history is that their collective 0-for in those games leaves them as one of just a handful of teams that have never won a Stanley Cup Final game (joining Winnipeg, Arizona, Florida, Columbus, and Minnesota — Florida is the only team in that group that has also played in at least one Stanley Cup Final).

Of the 23 teams that have played in at least 10 Stanley Cup Final games (including the original Ottawa Senators in the 1920s and the Montreal Maroons) all of them have won at least four games, while all but two (the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres) have won at least one Stanley Cup.

The aftermath of this was the NHL finally doing a little bit of a realignment for the 1970-71 season. It was at that point that the NHL expanded again, this time adding the Canucks and Sabres. Those two teams would join the Eastern Division with the established teams, while the Blackhawks would shift over to the Western Division with the expansion teams. The NHL also changed its playoff format.

In the previous three years, the format was set up so the first-and third-place teams in each division would meet in the first-round, while the second-and fourth place teams would also play. The winners of each series would play each other in the semifinals.

The change in 1970 was that the winner of the 1 vs. 3 matchup in the East would play the winner of the 2 vs. 4 matchup in the West. This opened the door for two Original Six teams to meet in the Stanley Cup Final and, in the eyes of the NHL, hopefully create a more competitive series. That is exactly what happened as Original Six teams met in the next four Stanley Cup Finals. It was not until the Philadelphia Flyers made it in 1974, starting their run of three consecutive trips to the Finals, that one of the expansion teams would get back.

It would take the Blues another 49 years.

It finally happened, and now they have a chance to complete what would be one of the most stunning in-season turnarounds ever if they can not only get their first ever Stanley Cup Final win, but add three more on top of that.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

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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.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.