So last week the Blues dropped out of the playoffs with a loss to the Sharks. It was an ugly final score, 5-2, in a conference finals that had a lot of ugly final scores. It was the end of a chance for the Blues to go to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. The Blues did win a couple of games, which is nice, but as any number of teams will tell you, sometimes you only get that one season where everything truly comes together, and then you never quite recapture the magic.
It hurts. But it doesn’t hurt as much as it might. You see, the Blues lost because they were outplayed. They lost because Brian Elliott came back to earth, because the offense laid some eggs. And those zeroes in Games 2 and 3 are embarrassing. Giving up 11 goals in the last two games is embarrassing.
But that’s hockey. That’s hockey that can happen to any team.
I grew up during the ’90s listening to the Cardinals and Blues on the radio and watching them on TV. As a child living in that naive bubble where of course your favorite team is supposed to be winning all the time, the Cardinals were frustrating. They had all these good/great players (some of which doubtless seemed “good” only because of the familiarity of their names) and yet they spent much of the decade struggling to get away from the .500 mark. Adults who had followed baseball for longer probably had more realistic expectations than I did.
The Blues, though, they were supposed to be contenders in legitimate pursuit of the Cup, putting up good records back when .500 meant you were just mediocre and not abysmal.
But something would always happen. Either the Blues would shoot themselves in the foot, or some ridiculous event would hit them. The Blues poached Mike Keenan away from the Rangers, and the NHL came down on them harshly. So many hopeful playoff runs stopped early by the Red Wings (who were generally the best team in either conference), or occasionally the Avalanche. One playoff run that was cut short when Nick Kyprieos ran over Grant Fuhr right there in the crease. The year that the Blues won the President’s Cup with the best regular season record, and St. Louisans, normally intelligent about sports, took a first-round win for granted, only for the Sharks to exploit Chris Pronger’s youth and win in seven games. The year I’m pretty sure we were leading the series against Vancouver, only for half the Blues to suddenly come down with the flu. Always, always, a feeling that we weren’t being allowed to see our full potential.
About this time the Blues started running a series of clever ad campaigns. One year it was a ’50s theme with a man with a “#1” foam hand. But the one that’s stuck was “Do you bleed blue?” (which has transformed into “We all bleed blue” or the like). To which the correct answer is: Yes, I proudly bleed blue, but I would like for the bleeding to stop already, and also that mosquito billboard needs to go away.
But this year something was different. The NHL again rigged things so that we had to start the playoffs against the Blackhawks again this year. Instead of rolling over, or folding in the pinch, the Blues responded, taking out Chicago and showing the rest of the league up in the process. Next the Dallas Stars. The Blues struggled a bit, never quite shaking the Blues tendency to choke, but they won out in the end. And then the Sharks. The Blues won a couple of games, but were unable to prevent the Sharks from winning four. As I said at the start, I’m not happy about the loss. But it’s a breath of fresh air to lose because the Blues happened to meet a team who simply outplayed them, rather than because “Oh, we always lose to them” or because of some freak injury or illness or because the NHL docked them five goals and a draft pick for skating the wrong way around the ice during warmups.
It gives me hope for the future. And that may turn out to be some long-term cruelty as we win the President’s Cup the next five years running and the NHL just matches us up with whoever has a hot streak at the moment. But for now, the sense that some sort of curse has lifted feels good.