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From Buffalo boredom to Cup Crazy: The Ryan O’Reilly story should inspire

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NHL: Stanley Cup Final-St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

I wonder if Ryan O’Reilly will look at the picture used in this article, and instantly lose control of his emotions.

A year ago, the center was wasting away in Buffalo, cleaning out a locker and looking ahead at an unknown future. It was known for some time that O’Reilly wasn’t going to play hockey in upstate New York the following season, but the destination was uncertain.

The St. Louis Blues and O’Reilly had danced around the possibility of joining forces for some time, like a high-paid actor would do with the studio that wants to make the next Batman.

The bromance became a true romance on July 1 last summer. O’Reilly came to St. Louis for a bevy of “payroll waste” and some draft juice. He was 28 years old and hungry, having spent the past few seasons knowing how he’d spend his spring plans. He told Doug Armstrong that he wanted to win a Stanley Cup. The same reason Tyler Bozak signed with St. Louis that very same day. The reason Pat Maroon came home, along with being closer to his son. Win a damn Cup and have your name written on the walls of history forever.

A year later, O’Reilly didn’t just make good on the promise; he blew it out of the water. Along with setting career highs in assists and points, O’Reilly totaled 23 points in the postseason, part of which he played with a cracked rib. When the Stanley Cup Final rolled around and fans wondered if the real O’Reilly would show, he saved his best for last, scoring nine points. The man won the Conn Smythe trophy, joined Wayne Gretzky in Stanley Cup Final history, and did all of this while rocking the best beard in the NHL.

There are few players more fun to watch than O’Reilly. He neutralizes the other team’s best players, creates plays on the other end of the ice, and simply doesn’t stop. He’s a beast on the power play, penalty kill, and at even strength. He’s up for the Lady Byng Award, which congratulates the player showing the most gamesmanship and respect in addition to the most skill. Basically, the man kills you softly out there with a smile instead of an ignorant shove. Young hockey players should want to be this guy.

The minute the Blues signed him, I knew O’Reilly was going to be the missing piece. He can shoot, defend, and use his size to push people around. Being 6’ 1” and 216 pounds doesn’t constitute you for bouncer school, but this guy knows how to throw his weight around without losing discipline out there. When I think of O’Reilly, I think of a smart assassin picking his spots and doing his job with precision.

That’s why so many people knew something was off during the first three rounds of the playoffs. O’Reilly took a couple nasty hits in a Winnipeg game, and suddenly couldn’t win face-offs or execute his game. The shots were softer, the diligence was off, and everything seemed hampered. He had to be playing with an ailment. A wrist injury, possibly? Shoulder? When the cracked rib was mentioned, the sense was easily made. That affects the breathing, contact consequence, and the shot. Most notably, the wraparound maneuver that no one does as well as O’Reilly.

Remember Game 4 in St. Louis? The first goal scored. O’Reilly flew behind the net, and wrapped the puck around the net and past Rask before he could slide over. The key isn’t just taking the puck and moving it around the back of the net. You have to be able to extend the arms and not lose control of the puck, and do it all very fast. O’Reilly does that very often, and executed it right there. If the cracked rib was bothering him, he doesn’t pull that off. Right there and then, the real Slim Shady was back in business. Boston knew it too, and started bitching and moaning about hits and stuff.

There are a bunch of great stories this season in St. Louis. Jordan Binnington’s rise from the talented party hound to stone cold stopper in the NHL net (seriously, read Alex Prewitt’s SI piece). There’s Craig Berube’s redemption. Maroon’s rise, fall, and rise homecoming parade. Laila Anderson inspiration. Finding “Gloria” in Philly. Bobby Plager’s dream realized. Brett Hull’s burgeoning “Old School” sequel. The Thorburn treatment. So many good ones. O’Reilly’s tale strikes me the most.

He was down and out in Buffalo a year ago. Today, he is a Stanley Cup Champion hero in St. Louis.

I keep saying you can’t write this stuff, but then again, I think so many people are as the hours pass this week.

Ryan O’Reilly. Stanley Cup. My goodness, what a feeling.

When he looks at this picture, tears should stream down that face and into that beard. I’m emotional just writing it.