Travel back in time two weeks, and it would’ve been no surprise then that the teams in the Stanley Cup Final are going to be the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins.
But go back to late November and that suggestion would’ve been borderline laughable.
Back then, the St. Louis Blues had just fired their coach, Mike Yeo. They were 7-9-3 and in last place in the Central Division. Before the season, many had expected the Blues to be a playoff team, making it all the more surprising that they stumbled out of the gates. At that time, the goaltender who has since helped lift the Blues to the Cup final, Jordan Binnington, wasn’t even in the NHL.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins were 11-6-3. But they had stiff competition in the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were 14-6-1 and wound up becoming quite literally one of the best teams in NHL history. There was also the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were 15-6-0 and had just added superstar John Tavares in the offseason.
It’s not that the Blues or the Bruins were never talented enough to make the Stanley Cup, because they were. But in late November, and late December, and early January and so on, all signs pointed to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final to face a team almost certainly not from St. Louis.
In the oddity that was this 2018-19 NHL season, reality never met expectation.
The Blues’ playoff run was was fueled by new head coach Craig Berube, a rookie goaltender and their adopted victory song, the 1982 hit by Laura Branigan, “Gloria.” It saw them leapfrog through a Western Conference that was sluggish to start the year and had few standout teams, only to surge at the end of the year with multiple clubs in the mix for the final wild card spots, including the Arizona Coyotes.
Elsewhere in the west, the Dallas Stars’ performance was poor enough at the beginning of the season to prompt CEO Jim Lites to request an interview with the media — yes, you read that right — and go on an expletive-laced tirade wherein he referred to the play of two of his star players as (paraphrasing) horse manure.
The Stars made it to the second round of the playoffs after beating the first-seeded Nashville Predators.
The Bruins’ playoff run, while less shocking given the team’s talent and early-season performance, took them through an Eastern Conference that had several juggernauts, as well as a Carolina Hurricanes team that upset traditional fans with their “Storm Surge” victory celebrations. The wacky performances became such a spectacle that it drew the ire of one analyst to call the Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks,” a moniker the team embraced for the rest of the season.
And for the Bruins to reach the final, they had to get through the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that at some points late in the season sat outside of a playoff spot, yet somehow clinched and then swept the powerhouse Lightning. Columbus sweeping Tampa Bay was one of the most remarkable upsets in sports history, pulled off by a team whose GM went all-in at the trade deadline … and now will probably lose a bunch of free agents.
Right after the Blue Jackets were eliminated, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky reportedly listed his Columbus condominium for sale.
Then there’s the fact that a season ago, no coaches were fired mid-season. This year, the Blues, Blackhawks, Flyers, Ducks, Oilers, Kings and Senators all made changes mid-season behind the bench, and the Panthers and Sabres fired their head coaches after the season, too. One of the fired coaches was Joel Quinneville, the second-winningest coach of all time.
And speaking of the Senators, remember months back when their players were caught on camera in a rideshare in Phoenix speaking poorly of their own team?
It was a season filled with oddball moments, unusual storylines and surprise performances. So the fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning are enjoying their offseason and the Bruins will be playing the back-from-the-dead St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final, well, that’s just the 2018-19 season in a nutshell.