Boston, MA. – There’s been a lot said and written about the local players of the Boston Bruins fulfilling childhood dreams of Stanley Cup glory for their hometown team. Whether it’s Charlestown’s Matt Grzelcyk, East Weymouth’s Charlie Coyle, or Noel Acciari of Johnston, RI, but they’re not the only New Englanders involved in this Final. Manchester, NH’s Zach Sanford is pursuing his own version of local boy makes good, only it’s for the St. Louis Blues.
Sanford, a second-round pick (61st overall) of the Washington Capitals, played two seasons at Boston College. His time on Chestnut Hill, 2014-2016, seen the Eagles capture the Beanpot and a regular season title in 2016, as well as two NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the 2016 Frozen Four in Tampa, FL. Sanford recorded 38 goals and 41 assists for 63 points in 79 career games with the Eagles.
The 6′-4″ forward played in 26 games for the Capitals before he was dealt, along with Brad Malone and a 2019 conditional second-round pick, at the trade deadline in 2017 for St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. Sanford suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for six months during the 2017-18 season. During preseason this year, Sanford lost his father, Michael, to a heart attack at age 54.
“I think about him a lot. Every day, every game, every practice even,” said Sanford after last night’s 2-1 Blues win over Boston. “It’s been a little different not having him but I know he’s watching. He’s definitely pretty psyched up there. My whole family has been with me for this ride too. So it’s been awesome to have them, my teammates, my friends and everyone along for this ride.”
This ride has been rocky, to say the least. Sanford posted 20 points (8 goals, 12 assists) in 60 games this year. The 24-year-old hadn’t seen the ice since April 14th, in game three of the Blues opening round series against the Winnipeg Jets. With Oskar Sundqvist out of the lineup in game three of the Finals, suspended after his hit on Grzelcyk, Sanford took his spot on the fourth line. Despite the Blues getting beat 7-2 at home, Sanford recorded an assist on Ivan Barbashev’s second-period goal. His overall play prompted Blues coach Craig Berube to move Sanford up to the second line with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron. The move paid off immediately as Sanford set up O’Reilly just :43 seconds into game four.
In game five, Sanford’s first NHL game on TD Garden ice, he again threaded the needle to O’Reilly, giving the Blues the 1-0 lead :55 seconds into the second period. Sanford’s skill was on display when he dropped a no-look through the legs pass, and through Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy’s legs as well, to a wide-open O’Reilly out front. O’Reilly’s play and production have picked up since the pairing with Sanford. “Since he’s been in he’s made an impact,” said O’Reilly. “As you can see not only on the scoresheets with making big plays and getting points but just overall wearing teams down. He’s being physical at the right time, making plays on the puck possession, he’s been a huge piece in finding ways for us to to create against this team.”
Sanford’s teammates sang his praises after his game five performance. “He’s been really good for us,” said Sundqvist. “I mean his pass was unreal. He’s been playing great and since he’s come into this series, he’s been really good every shift and I’m sure he’s just going to keep going.”
“I think he’s been great. He’s made great plays,” said Tyler Bozak. “His assist tonight was fantastic. He’s been hard on the forecheck laying hits. Obviously, he’s a guy from Boston, probably means a lot to him playing in these games, and he’s done a really good job for us.”
“It’s been stellar,” said Colton Parayko of Sanford’s play since getting back into the lineup. “He’s chipping in every single game, that’s what we get from him when he’s in the lineup. That’s just the player that he is, he’s a hard worker, he makes things happen. We’re happy for him obviously, just to see him continue to play well, and we’re going to watch him finish off this season well too.”
“He’s done a great job,” added Vince Dunn. “He started off on the fourth line, that a very characteristic role, it’s sometimes hard to jump into the lineup in the middle of the playoffs. He’s done a great job and he’s found himself creating offense and creating plays and coming up big for us. He’s been great. There was no doubt in our minds when he was coming in that he wouldn’t do a good job.” “He’s very shifty, he’s very skilled,” said Dunn when asked about Sanford’s pass to O’Reilly. “I think that’s what makes him so effective as a big guy. He likes to create plays, and he’s not afraid to try to create things that some people think is risky, but he knows what he’s doing with the puck. He knows where guys are and he’s making a difference offensively.”
“He was great again,” said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo. “It’s not easy to come in the Stanley Cup Final and play that way, but he’s been lights out these last couple games for us.”
As well as his captain’s praise, Sanford received some big props from Berube after the game. “I think since we’ve moved him there that line’s been scoring, so it’s been good,” said the first year coach. “I thought they were very good tonight, that line overall, and you know he’s been a real good player since he’s come back in.” The jump in O’Reilly’s play hasn’t gone unnoticed by his coach, who credits Sanford. “He looks more… he looks energized to me a little bit more,” added Berube. “More jump in his stride out there and he’s finishing. You know, I think that he gets chances all the time, but I think that he’s finishing right now, and I think since we’ve moved Zach Sanford there that line’s had some chemistry which helps too.”
“Early in the year we had a lot of success together,” said O’Reilly. “I think at times we showed great chemistry, you can see when we get the puck. We forecheck well, get the puck back. These guys are making great plays, possessing it, just like on that goal. I’m coming in late but these guys are working it, and protect the puck. Obviously, he’s got outstanding vision that’s able to find me to put it in. we just work well together.”
Sanford was humble after all the praise heaped upon him. “It started with an awesome play by Perron there, to hold the puck and keep it alive while we finished a change,” said Sanford. “We’re always talking on the ice. O’Reilly is letting me know where he is, same with DP. I was able to find him there and it was a pretty sweet finish by him.”
“It’s been fun. It’s a fun ride when you’re part of the team and to get in some games is pretty awesome,” said Sanford. “You know at the same time its been all business and we’re just looking forward to the next game.” That next game is Sunday night at 8:23 pm Eastern, in St. Louis, with Sanford and his Blues looking to close out the Bruins and live out the dream of lifting the Stanley Cup.