ST. LOUIS — When the 2019 Stanley Cup Final began, former Boston College standout Zach Sanford may not have understood what lay ahead of him.
But now just one win away from his St. Louis Blues hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, Sanford’s postseason trajectory has changed significantly.
Sanford began the Stanley Cup Final in the stands, watching his Blues lose Game 1 in Boston 4-2, in the same building where Sanford set up the overtime game-winner in the 2016 Beanpot. After a 6-3 loss to Winnipeg on April 14 in the opening round of the NHL playoffs, Sanford was benched as, according to head coach Craig Berube, he decided to go “a different route.”
But he was given a chance after his teammate Oskar Sundqvist was suspended for a hit to the head in Game 2, a 3-2 victory in overtime for the Blues. Sanford took Sundqvist’s place in Game 3.
That game wasn’t a good performance for the Blues, one they dropped 7-2 and were significantly outplayed by the Boston Bruins. But Sanford was a player who Berube believed gave the team some energy and grit.
Thus, when Sundqvist returned in Game 4, Sanford not only remained in the lineup, Berube moved him up to the second line. The result has been a good one.
Early in Game 4, Sanford got his stick on an Alex Pietrangelo shot, allowing Ryan O’Reilly to pick up the loose puck and stuff it past Boston netminder Tuukka Rask in the opening minute to bring the crowd in St. Louis to life. St. Louis went on to a 4-2 victory to even the series at 2.
Earning his spot again in the lineup in Game 5, Sanford was a presence. His ice time increased from 9:15 in Game 3, to 11:17 in Thursday’s Game 5. And Sanford’s slick hands were on display in the opening minute of the second when he feathered a perfect pass to O’Reilly, who gave the Blues a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In three games, Sanford has three assists and is quickly becoming a player who Berube understands he can rely on.
“Zach played some real good games for us this year, kind of in and out [of the lineup] for us a lot,” said Berube. “He’s still learning. For him fortunately, he had a chance to get back in there with the Sundqvist suspension. He’s just had great jump.
“He’s got a real good skill set with his hands. He’s a big guy. Smart player, good defensively. He’s got some good hands and can make plays and he’s made some great plays for goals in the last few games here.”
For Sanford, who grew up in Salem, Mass., before playing at Boston College, there may be a little bit of a conflict among his family. If the Bruins weren’t playing against Sanford’s Blues, there seems little doubt his family would be rooting for Boston. But that’s not something that concerns this 24-year-old who is on the cusp on possibly having a defining moment in his career at a very early point.
“It’s a little weird playing against your team growing up,” Sanford told reporters last week in St. Louis. “I was even talking to my mom. She was at the games in Boston, and she caught herself cheering for the Bruins here there and had to fix that. It’s pretty crazy how things work out like that.”