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