St. Louis Blues

Could this be ‘The Year’ for St. Louis Blues and their fans?

The St. Louis Blues' bench celebrates along wth their fans after Patrik Berglund (21) scored the third goal against the Dallas Stars in the first period during Game 7 on Wednesday.
The St. Louis Blues' bench celebrates along wth their fans after Patrik Berglund (21) scored the third goal against the Dallas Stars in the first period during Game 7 on Wednesday. TNS

I made a spur of the moment decision Wednesday night and it led my wife, Chris, and I to Pitchers Sports Pub and Pizzeria in downtown Belleville.

I had to watch the Blues’ Game 7 against the Dallas Stars anyway, but wondered what it would be like to watch it surrounded by fans rather than just sitting at home with no real game-time atmosphere.

The intensity and excitement of Game 7 brought a huge turnout and the crowd seemed to get even larger as the game wore on.

There seemed to be a nervous feel as the first few minutes of the game unfolded and then scrappy rookie Robby Fabbri dug a loose puck out of a scrum 5 minutes, 23 seconds into the opening period and put the Blues on top 1-0.

It was an instant eruption of noise as people sitting at various tables jumped out of their seats and began high-fiving people they probably had never met on the next table over.

That’s a really cool thing that a sports team can do for a region, especially during the playoffs. Sports teams bring people together in a way few other things can.

They create a common bond that cuts across all socio-economic factors and puts everyone on the same level as they back their team at the biggest time of the year.

You may be going home to O’Fallon or Red Bud or Cahokia or Carlyle, but for one night you’re all brothers and sisters drinking the Blues Kool-Aid and hoping this seemingly cursed franchise can make another trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals just once in your lifetime.

You may be going home to O’Fallon or Red Bud, to Cahokia or Albers. But for one night you’re all brothers and sisters drinking the Blues Kool-Aid and hoping this seemingly cursed franchise can make another trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals just once in your lifetime.

The Blues haven’t been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1970. Yes, it’s been that long.

It was an eclectic mix of fans at Pitchers, with everyone from college students to older adults bonding through a shared love of Blues hockey and hoping that this year might actually be “The Year.”

There were plenty of Blues jerseys in the crowd, many Blues hats and T-shirts, too.

The goals kept coming later in the first period as Paul Stastny scored to make it 2-0, sending another jolt of electricity and energy through the crowd.

Fans seemed a bit stunned when a shot by Patrik Berglund eluded beleaguered Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen with four seconds remaining in the first period.

Could this indeed be the Blues with a 3-0 lead on the road in Dallas at the end of the opening period? Indeed it was.

Most Game 7’s seem to be decided on a third-period goal or even in overtime. The shocking nature of the Blues piling up a 5-0 lead on the way to a 6-1 win, and doing it on enemy ice, kept the folks packing the bar and tables at Pitchers buzzing throughout the game.

Blues fans are an interesting bunch. They always see bad news around the next turn, wait for the sky to fall — or for goalie Roman Turek to surrender a back-breaking goal from center ice.

These are fans that have seen one of their own defensemen score a playoff goal — for the other team — by inadvertently tossing a puck into his own net.

Blues fans are an interesting bunch. They always see bad news around the next turn, wait for the sky to fall — or for goalie Roman Turek to surrender a back-breaking goal from center ice.

These are fans who witnessed the joy of the Monday Night Miracle playoff win over the Calgary Flames in 1986, only to see that joy stomped on in the next game when they were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champs.

Blues fans can still recall exactly where they were on that 1996 night when a long, high shot from Red Wings star Steve Yzerman snaked its way past defenseman Murray Baron and goaltender Jon Casey, giving Detroit a 1-0 victory in double-overtime in another Game 7 playoff battle to end the conference semifinals.

That turned out to be the last game Wayne Gretzky, hockey’s brightest star in the universe, ever played for the Blues.

Blues fans aren’t like Cardinals fans, who have become so spoiled by that franchise’s winning ways they fully expect nothing less than an appearance in the National League Championship Series every year.

Those younger Cards fans that fill Busch Stadium on a nightly basis may not even realize there was a dreadful span between 1968 and 1982 when the Cardinals never even reached the playoffs.

The Blues had a great streak of making the playoffs in every season from 1979 to 2004, but each season ended with the disappointment of watching someone else win a championship.

Hall of Famer Brett Hull scored 527 goals for the Blues from 1987-98, but never won a Stanley Cup until he left town. He later won two, one with Dallas and another with Detroit, before returning to the Blues as an executive vice president hoping for another shot.

As I watched a group of young Blues fans celebrating and slap fives, I wondered if they realized the Blues once had a player named Red Berenson who scored six goals in a game.

Do their ears pick up when they hear announcer Ken Wilson’s famous call of “Here comes Cheveldae!,” referencing the famous brawl between the Blues and Red Wings that included a fight between Wings goalie Tim Cheveldae and Blues netminder Curtis Joseph?

Enter the 2016 Blues, which again have captured the imagination of the region’s sports fans. It’s too early to get overly excited or angry about the Cardinals and spurned St. Louis Rams fans are eager to get behind anyone not involved with Stan Kroenke.

These players are a gritty, resilient bunch, a team that has created much angst in the first two rounds of the playoffs by being forced to Game 7’s before eliminating the Blackhawks and the Stars.

Coach Ken Hitchcock has pushed, prodded and guided this team to the Western Conference Finals. They are within eight wins of something that before the season even the most die-hard Blues fan could hardly have imagined.

Blues fans know to savor every one of these wins because opportunities like this only come around so often. Their dream of a Stanley Cup championship parade down Market Street, one shared by every player that has ever worn the Blue Note, could be within reach.

(Norm Sanders has covered the Blues since 1995 for the Belleville News-Democrat).

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Western Conference finals schedule

Sunday, May 15

Game 1: Nashville/San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

Tuesday, May 17

Game 2: Nashville/San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

Thursday, May 19

Game 3: Blues at Nashville/San Jose, TBA (NBCSN)

Saturday, May 21

Game 4: Blues at Nashville/San Jose, 7:15 p.m. (NBC; KSDK Channel 5)

Monday, May 23

Game 5 (if necessary): Nashville/San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

Wednesday, May 25

Game 6 (if necessary): Blues at Nashville/San Jose, TBA (NBCSN)

Friday, May 27

Game 7 (if necessary): Nashville/San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

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