Robby Fabbri almost didn’t make the St. Louis Blues this season. And he was almost a healthy scratch in the first round of the playoffs. Seems crazy right about now, doesn’t it?
Regardless of which team wins tomorrow night’s Game 7 between the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, Fabbri will be the youngest player in the conference finals. He might also be the most unlikely, the most fun to watch, the most determined and the most involved. And if he keeps this up, he might just be a Stanley Cup champion, the top scorer in the playoffs and the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when it’s all said and done.
Perhaps we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but Fabbri has done nothing to suggest he won’t continue to be a force in these playoffs for the Blues, a group that is looking like a team of destiny after its 6-1 rout of the Dallas Stars in Game 7 of their second-round playoff series. With a goal and two assists, there was no doubt who was driving the bus for the Blues in a game that was pivotal in the franchise’s attempts to shed the label as perennial playoff choker.
Fabbri started the scoring and was a threat all night, was involved in every shift and was a going concern around the net. But we should not be surprised, given Fabbri’s history. In 2012, he led a Mississauga Rebels team that defeated a Toronto Marlboros unit led by Connor McDavid to a 2-1 overtime victory in the OHL Cup. He then went five picks after McDavid in the OHL draft, then two years later led the Storm to an OHL championship. Had he not been injured early in the tournament, he would have undoubtedly helped Canada to a gold medal in the 2015 World Junior Championship.
So when the Blues needed their best players to step up at a crucial time, nobody did more than a 20-year-old kid who stands just 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 pounds. Fabbri has been punching above his weight all his life and there’s no reason to believe he’ll stop doing so anytime soon. Vladimir Tarasenko is the offensive centerpiece of the Blues, but he needed a meaningless empty net goal in the third period to keep pace with Fabbri for the Blues playoff scoring lead.
To be sure, Fabbri was not alone in his heroics, he just led them. The Blues, losers in the first round of the playoffs the past three years, needed this win a lot more than the Stars did and it showed. And even though they were battling the ghosts of playoffs past, the Blues looked comfortable in the situation, no doubt helped by the fact that they dispatched the defending Stanley Cup champion in the first round. From the outset, the Blues looked determined to make believers out of those who have doubted them and were singular in their purpose.
As captain David Backes told Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports after the game: “I think we’ve proven to ourselves that when we play our game the right way for 60 minutes, it’s a tough game for the opponent to respond to.” You should never end a sentence in a preposition, but we’ll let that slide, particularly for Backes, who has endured his share of criticism for the Blues’ lack of success in the playoffs and likely would have found himself on a one-way ticket out of St. Louis if the cycle had been repeated in this year’s tournament. But with inspired play and big goals, Backes has undergone the same transformation his team has.
It was truly a team effort by the Blues, from goalie Brian Elliott out. The same could not be said for the Stars, who were ultimately let down by their two fatal flaws – their lack of defensive acumen and goaltending. But who’s kidding whom here? It was mostly about terrible goaltending and the fact that anytime you put Kari Lehtonen in the crease for a big game, you never really know which guy is going to show up. The wrong one appeared at the American Airlines Center for Game 7.
It probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but the Stars had an opportunity to yank Lehtonen when Tarasenko’s goal to make it 2-0 in the first period was called back on review because of an offside. Lehtonen had already proved he was going to be leaky and the change in goaltending might have made a difference. The Stars and their able GM Jim Nill likely won’t make the same mistake this summer when it comes time to decide whether to buy Lehtonen out of the final two years of his contract. To be frank, the Stars simply cannot go into next season with a status quo situation in goal.
It may be a tough one for the Stars to accept, but they will learn from this setback. For some reason, the hockey gods do not look fondly on teams that come out of nowhere. The Stars did that, winning the Central Division with an offensive juggernaut one season after failing to make the playoffs. There’s an unwritten rule that teams that perform that way must endure at least one soul-crushing defeat in the playoffs before they can learn what it takes to get over the hump.
Come to think of it, that’s exactly what happened to the Blues. And after years of pain and suffering, they’re on the cusp of doing great things thanks to players like Robby Fabbri.