San­ford be­comes Blues’ new weapon

In mi­nors ear­lier, for­ward has helped change se­ries

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Is­abelle Khurshudya­n

ST. LOUIS — This Stan­ley Cup fi­nals se­ries started with St. Louis Blues for­ward Zach San­ford watching the games rather than play­ing in them.

It started with his friends tex­ting the Mas­sachusetts na­tive that as much as they were root­ing for him, they might be root­ing for their home­town Bos­ton Bru­ins more.

It started with his mother sit­ting in the stands re­mind­ing her­self to cheer when St. Louis did some­thing good rather than when Bos­ton did, and with San­ford think­ing of his fa­ther, as he of­ten does, and what he would say about all this.

It could end with the for­ward play­ing a piv­otal role in knock­ing out the team he rooted for while grow­ing up. His pro­mo­tion into the Blues’ top-six for­ward corps has cor­re­lated with back-to­back wins that have St. Louis on the cusp of a Stan­ley Cup.

Thurs­day’s Game 5 was his first NHL game on Bos­ton’s TD Gar­den ice, and less than a minute into the se­cond pe­riod, San­ford re­trieved a puck be­hind the Bos­ton net, draw­ing both Bru­ins de­fense­men with him. He back­handed it through his legs to cen­ter Ryan O’Reilly in front for the game’s first goal and San­ford’s third as­sist in as many games.

“It’s been a hell of a year, that’s for sure,” San­ford said with a chuckle.

His sea­son has been about as dra­matic as the Blues’ jour­ney to this point — the league’s last-place team in early Jan­uary is now one win away from a fran­chise­first cham­pi­onship.

His fa­ther died sud­denly of a heart at­tack dur­ing train­ing camp, when San­ford was fight­ing to make the NHL ros­ter. Then in De­cem­ber, San­ford got into a fight with team­mate Robert Bor­tuzzo dur­ing prac­tice. Though the team down­played the in­ci­dent, San­ford was sent down to the Blues’ Amer­i­can Hockey League af­fil­i­ate within the week, still not quite a full-time NHL for­ward.

Af­ter San­ford was a healthy scratch for most of the Blues’ post­sea­son run, an injury to for­ward Robert Thomas and Oskar Sundqvist’s one-game sus­pen­sion cleared a path into the lineup. His chem­istry with O’Reilly and David Per­ron on the se­cond line — the trio has scored three goals in the past two games — has helped tilt the se­ries in the Blues’ fa­vor.

“Since he’s been in, he’s made an im­pact — not only on the score sheet with mak­ing big plays and get­ting points but just over­all wear­ing teams down,” O’Reilly said Thurs­day night. “He’s be­ing phys­i­cal at the right time or mak­ing plays and hav­ing that puck pos­ses­sion. He’s been a huge piece in us find­ing a way to cre­ate against this team.”

This time a year ago, San­ford watched from afar as the Washington Cap­i­tals, the team that drafted him, cel­e­brated a Stan­ley Cup vic­tory, and he ac­knowl­edged that “maybe a lit­tle” part of him had won­dered what might have been were it not for a 2017 trade to St. Louis. In a mid­sea­son deal for de­fense­man Kevin Shat­tenkirk, San­ford, who played in 26 games for the Cap­i­tals as a rookie, was shipped out to the Blues as the cen­ter­piece of the re­turn for St. Louis.

But San­ford dis­lo­cated his shoul­der at train­ing camp be­fore the next sea­son, and just as he had re­cov­ered a bruised lung side­lined him again, fur­ther de­rail­ing a year that didn’t see him get any NHL play­ing time.

The 24-year-old played in 60 games this sea­son, scor­ing eight goals with 12 as­sists, but con­sis­tency still largely eluded him. This three-game stretch has been a win­dow into what the Cap­i­tals always hoped San­ford would be when they used a se­cond-round pick on him in 2013: us­ing his big 6-foot-4 frame to be a phys­i­cal force while still pos­sess­ing the of­fen­sive and skat­ing skills to con­trib­ute, a la Washington for­ward Tom Wil­son.

“There’s still a lot of stuff I need to work on ob­vi­ously, but a lot of guys want to tell them­selves they’re a top-six guy,” San­ford said. “Those are the guys who get all the points and play the power play and this and that. But I don’t re­ally try to think about that too much.

“I’ve just been try­ing to work on the things I need to get bet­ter at, and ev­ery­one says to stay good at the things that you’re good at. I think re­cently, I’ve been do­ing a pretty good job at the things I’m usu­ally pretty good at.”

Said Blues cap­tain Alex Pi­etrangelo: “Even if he didn’t get a point, if you just watch what he did on the forecheck — a se­cond ef­fort ev­ery sin­gle time he’s on the puck — he’s relentless. He’d be a pain to play against if I was a de­fense­man.

“It’s not easy to come in on this level, Stan­ley Cup fi­nals, and play at this level. It’s a tes­ta­ment to his work ethic.”

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