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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Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.