We're not sure how much worse the 2019 Stanley Cup Final could be for hockey fans in Western New York when you look at the matchup this year. The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues in the Finals is pretty much a worst-case scenario for the Sabres but it is what it is and despite emotions ranging from embarrasment to anger, it should prove to be a good series between two tough, hard-nosed clubs.
And it has some history to it.
One of the most iconic photos in the history of sports came in 1970 when Boston's Bobby Orr scored the Cup-clinching goal in overtime against the St. Louis Blues. Orr is horizontal to the ice about three feet up, courtesy of a Noel Picard trip, with arms raised in a joyous goal celebration as he flew through the air.
An aside to that courtesy of The Hockey News' Luke Fox. The person who took that photo, Ray Lussier, had shifted to that area of the rink during the intermission. Legend has it that he found that open spot after the previous photographer vacated it to hit the beer stand. With the overtime lasting a mere 40 seconds said photographer came back to his spot with Boston Garden in a frenzy and the game over.
This was the third time the Blues were in the Stanley Cup Final and the third time they got swept (the other two by the Montreal Canadiens.) St. Louis was part of the NHL's 1967 expansion that saw the league double with the addition of six teams. They were part of the Western Division made up exclusively of expansion teams while the East was made up of the Original Six. They really had no chance against the juggernaut's of the Original Six but the Blues are in the history books as reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in the first three seasons of their existence.
The Orr image and whatever highlights in and around that will be shown ad-nauseum as the teams don't start the 2019 Stanley Cup Final until Monday and for Sabres fans it might constitute an eternity.
It's the Bruins, and the ostentatious Boston sports community looking to further their stranglehold on 21st Century championships. In fact we even saw a photo of a billboard in Boston calling for an end to their championship drought (it was 104 days since a Super Bowl win.) The heavy lifting of this run is courtesy of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots as they have come away with six Super Bowls including the most recent one in February. The Boston Red Sox finally broke "The Curse of the Bambino" in 2004 with a World Series win and they've totaled four championships including the 2018 Series. The Boston Celtics and the Bruins each have one championship.
The Bruins/Sabres rivalry dates back to the 70's although Boston fans brush off Buffalo with a flick of the wrist theses days. There's no rivalry if there's no competition and the way the Sabres and Buffalo Bills have been playing for the better part of this century, as opposed to the Boston teams, gives credence to that notion.
The Sabres hit the ice for the first time in 1970-71, the season right after the famous Orr goal while the Bruins were at a hockey zenith. The Sabres were placed in an extremely difficult East Division with five of the Original Six teams and from the get-go they fought for respect, both figuratively and literally, especially when it came to the Bruins.
Over the decades you knew what to expect from Boston--a rugged game where they'd often times crossed the line while throwing menacing talents from Terry O'Reilly to Milan Lucic to Brad Marchand, at you. They'd get great goaltending from Gerry Cheevers to Andy Moog to Tim Thomas to Tuuka Rask and have a list of Hall of Fame defensemen from Orr to Brad Park to Raymond Bourque to future Hall of Famer, Zdeno Chara.
The Sabres have had their moments, but never anything close to what the Bruins, among other great franchises, have had. Add in the Patriots success and you have a sitatuation that Sabres fans would rather see anybody but Boston win the Cup this year.
Even if it means rooting a team that pulled off a lop-sided trade that makes Buffalo look like a chump right now.
Ryan O'Reilly is a St. Louis Blue. He started out in Colorado then came to Buffalo in a deal with the Avalanche. The Sabres gave up a real good package that included two strong pieces for Colorado including a young player in J.T. Compher that might end up being the same player O'Reilly is. At the time it looked like a great move as O'Reilly would be Buffalo's No. 2 center behind Jack Eichel, whom the Sabres picked second-overall in 2015. The idea was that the duo would provide one-two punch down the middle for years to come.
On paper it looked great but in three years everything fell apart. Buffalo was supposed to be on the upswing after drafting Eichel, and they showed signs for a season-and-a-half but in 2017 it began to fall apart as internal strife eventually cost the GM and his coach their jobs. The 2017-18 season was played with a rookie head coach and it was an unmitigated disaster which led O'Reilly to declare at locker room cleanout that he had "lost his love for the game on multiple occasions." As forthright and refreshing as that comment might have been to hear, it sent shockwaves throughout Buffalo and the hockey community and eventually he was traded.
From the get-go the trade favored St. Louis as they were able to unload two contracts of serviceable players that equaled O'Reilly's cap-hit. Blues GM Doug Armstrong basically paid to keep his top prospects as he agreed to pay O'Reilly's upcoming bonus as the price for keeping them. The Sabres got a solid prospect in Tage Thompson, a 2019 first round pick and a 2020 second rounder to finish the trade. Even if they didn't get an upper-level Blues prospect, it looked as if the Sabres would get a mid-upper first round pick in the draft as the Blues fell to last place in the league.However, St. Louis went on a run that saw the first-rounder drop with every win. Right now with the Blues in the Finals, that 2019 first rounder will be in the 30's or basically at top second-rounder.
The deal itself is a huge egg in the face of the Sabres franchise already and for many who wrote off O'Reilly as overpaid and overrated, seeing him hoist the Cup would be just an added kick in the groin. O'Reilly was always said to be a potential Selke candidate, and it's one of the reasons why former GM Tim Murray acquired him, but unlike in St. Louis where he was nominated this year, he never approached that status in Buffalo.
O'Reilly will always be a lightning rod for debate in Buffalo just because of the circumstances surrounding his time here. However, what it may come down to is that he just wasn't a fit in Buffalo. A huge weight was placed on his shoulders and he wasn't able to handle it as well as one would have hoped or expected. He walked into St. Louis with a solid, veteran team and a strong captain in place and simply did what was expected of him on the ice. After they figured out their coaching situation and the expectations Craig Berube place upon them mid-season, it was rocket launch to the Finals.
The 2019 Stanley Cup Finals is shaping up to be a real good series between two teams that are a bit of a throwback to the 70's, not so much in the fighting sense but moreso in a rugged style of hard-nosed play with skill woven in and excellent goaltending coming from both creases. Had this been a battle between almost any other two teams, Sabreland would be ecstatic. Unfortunately, Boston and St. Louis--one representing a long-term headache and the other representing a new one--are slated to go for the Cup and generally speaking it's not very appealing to those in Sabreland.
C'est la vie.