BOSTON — When the Stanley Cup Final began two-and-a-half weeks ago, Zach Sanford wasn’t even sure he’d get a chance to play in the series.
By the time the series ended, Sanford’s first career playoff goal put the dagger in the Boston Bruins in Game 7, and he was skating around with the Stanley Cup held high above his head.
“It’s pretty crazy. I don’t think you could write it any better,” Sanford, who grew up in Derry and Manchester, N.H., said on the ice after his Blues won Game 7, 4-1, at TD Garden.
St. Louis was ahead 3-0 when Sanford, the former Eagle-Tribune boys hockey MVP who starred at Pinkerton Academy and later at Boston College, got behind the Boston defense and potted his first playoff marker with 4:38 left in the third period. It was his fourth point in five Final games — the same number of points as Bruin star Patrice Bergeron.
“Scoring the goal was pretty cool as far as a personal memory,” said Sanford. “But I think I’ll remember raising the Cup a lot more than the goal.”
It was quite the journey to the top of professional hockey for Sanford. Last September, he lost his father, Michael, who was a hockey player at Bishop Fenwick (Class of 1982).
The 24-year-old winger had his best season as an NHL player start just a few weeks later, and ended it by winning the title about 20 miles from where he was born.
“It’s been a long year, personally. A lot’s happened,” said Sanford. “I think about my dad a lot. Every day, every game, practice even. It’s been a little different not having him, but I know he’s watching. He’s definitely pretty psyched up there and my whole family has been with me for this whole ride, too.”
When he skated with Conn Symthe winner Ryan O’Reilly, Sanford was one of the Blues’ most underrated and valuable forwards. He had the primary assist on O’Reilly’s series-changing goal that helped the Blues win Game 5 here in Boston. O’Reilly, the MVP, was the best forward in the series and his best shifts came with Sanford on his wing.
“Since he’s been in he’s made an impact. As you can see, not only on the score sheet with making big plays and getting points, but just overall wearing teams down, whether it’s being physical at the right time or making plays, having that puck possession,” said O’Reilly. “He’s been a huge piece of finding a way for us to create against (Boston).”
At 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds, Sanford can play the rugged style of hockey that wins in the playoffs. He laid 13 hits in the series and his ice time went up every game as the Finals went along, with a playoff career-high 13:48 in the Cup clincher Thursday night.
“I think since we’ve moved him there that line’s been scoring, so it’s been good,” Blues coach Craig Berube said of Sanford. “He’s been a real good player since he’s come back in.”
For Sanford’s part, the main focus was on sticking to the North-South straight-line type of hockey that the Blues used to pin the Bruins deep. St. Louis forechecked Boston’s top players into dust over the course of the series, and by the time Game 7 rolled around it seemed like Boston had nothing left.
“It’s nuts,” said Sanford. “My coaches and my teammates trusted me, gave me this opportunity. My linemates are awesome. To have their confidence and their support means a lot to me. This was kind of the perfect team, all the different parts, all the guys who’ve waited so long for this coming together.”
Incredibly, St. Louis won three out of the four games played in Boston. They were one of the best road teams in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but for a kid that grew up a Bruins fan to win three games here in a championship series was surreal.
“We’ve been a good road team all year,” he said. “We proved it over and over. We were confident coming in here that’d we’d prove it again.
“Winning it so close to home is pretty awesome. I think a lot about my family. All the effort, driving me to practices and stuff, making me the person that I am ... I owe it all to them.”