By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Only once since the 2004-05 lockout season have the Blues been able to not schedule those spring vacations. No golf clubs for the Boys in Blue this spring.
At least not for the time being.
Not when the playoffs are in full swing, beginning with today's opening game of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the San Jose Sharks (6:30 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
"We took them out of the closet two days ago and put them back into the closet," joked Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "I was told emphatically [by Hitchcock's wife Corina] that they're not to come out of the closet. Don't put them in your trunk and think you're going to slip out and hit a bucket of balls. Don't even think like that. They went from closet to closet and they're not to be removed. It was locked and the key taken away."
That's what Blues fans like to hear, especially with so much hope for the team that's the No. 2 seed.
"My golf clubs have been sitting in my apartment since September," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "I remember we had the shorter season and I didn't have my clubs. I was banging my head on the wall not being able to do anything. But I think I'm pretty happy they're stowed away."
Added winger David Perron: "Hopefully I keep them hidden, is that the right word, until mid June. That's my goal, but we'll see what happens."
Forward Andy McDonald had the best answer.
"In my garage collecting cobwebs," he said. "Obviously we don't want to be golfing until July. Unfortunately our season has been over early the last three years. We've got to find a way to fix that. It's nice to come back in August and have the short summer. That's the goal here."
And obviously, the mood among Blues players is there's no hurry to worry about wedge shots or chips from the bunkers.
"My golf clubs, I think they're in my old man's garage right now," winger Chris Stewart said. "There's tons of time for golf later. This is why you play the game. This is where you want to be. I wouldn't change it for the world."
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With his mind demeanor and often joking mood, now that the playoffs have engulfed the Blues and their organization, players and coaches both change with the times.
Now that the race to win 16 games is underway, Hitchcock is in full arsenal and ready to unleash his coaching fury.
"This is why I coach, for right now," Hitchcock said. "Bottom line, this is why I coach. I think I'm good at this time of year, I think I can get the guys focused, I think I can keep them focused.
"This is what I'm good at right now."
He added: "I find the higher the stakes, the calmer I am and the lower the stakes, the more boisterous I am. I find I work opposite. I just try to remove myself completely from all the emotion that goes on right now. I think you spend 90 percent of the time in the playoffs calming people down and getting people to refocus. I think if you as a coach lose your focus, your players will be a direct reflection of you. So for me, I love this time of year, when it's just one opponent. You're just a fan of the other games, you don't have to worry or focus on them. I love it when it's just one team. It's a fun time."
Hitchcock's players agree that everyone changes because the stakes are higher.
"Everyone's going to be a little bit more intense," defenseman Kris Russell said. "You're playing for your lives now. We're really proud of what we did in the regular season, but at the same time, we've got a lot to prove in the playoffs. We don't want to be a team that just excels in the regular season and then deflates (in the playoffs). We want to be a team that gets better and better. Intensity is going to pick up. It's going to be picked up by the players and coaches as well."
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The Blues' success against San Jose goes well beyond the X's and O's.
There weren't any fluke wins. The Blues outscored San Jose 11-3 in four meetings and it goes from the goaltending to the shutdown defensive play to getting timely goals and winning the special teams' battles.
"We've studied them pretty good and I think we have a fairly good understanding of what they're going to try to do," winger Jamie Langenbrunner said of the Sharks. "It's all going to boil down to us is control what we can control. The unexpected's going to happen, but you deal with it and you move on. It's going to happen both good and bad for you.
"We caught them at some right times of the year. At the end of the season when they had to win, they were finding a way. We do a lot of things that make it hard on teams. When we play San Jose, we're looking at them as a top team. It's a big measuring stick for us. It was a game where we know we wanted to be at our best and for whatever reason, we seem to be against them a lot this year. We're going to need to continue to do that in this series."
Russell added: "I think we played within our strengths against these guys. We know they're a really good team. I thought we were ready and prepared for every game and I thought we kept it simple. We got pucks deep, we got pucks to the net. We have a team when we get our forecheck going, we're pretty dangerous. We've got a lot of big bodies with a lot of skill up front. When those guys get going, it's pretty tough on other guys' defensemen."
A sellout crowd is expected to blow the roof off of Scottrade Center tonight, and Russell said the players have to pounce on the emotion.
"We've got to use it to our advantage," Russell said. "You can't let it overwhelm you at all. They're going to come in and try to have a good, solid first period. We've got to make sure we have a solid start. We can't make fancy plays or get away from our game plan just because we're at home with the fans and everything. We've got to play simple, solid hockey. At the end of the day when we do that, we've been successful. We know it's going to be a good test and I think everyone in this room's ready for it."
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The Sharks, who come in as the seventh seed and in uncommon ground in the opening round, will start on the road for the first time in an opening-round playoff since 2007. They will look to take advantage of a situation by trying to wrestle away home ice advantage.
"We haven't had that in the four years that I've been there and certainly longer in the organization," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Opening up on the road is new to us. I think it's something that we need to take advantage of. That may sound strange, but the pressures that go with being a one- or two-[seed] are different that being a seven and an eight team. We can spin that any way we want. We can say it's coaches playing mind games and all that type of stuff, but it's real. It is what it is.
"As a coach, I feel that playoff intensity but I feel different right now than I have in some of the other series, and that may be a really good thing for our team; it may be a bad thing. That's why we have to play it."
Center Logan Couture agreed.
"It's a different feeling. We're used to starting at home, but it's a different opportunity for us," Couture said. "This is a tough building to come in and win in. We're looking forward to that challenge. ... We want to get off to a good start. You want to get the lead in the first game. We're going to try to get the start going and hopefully get the first goal."
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The mental hurdle of going 0-4 against the Blues this season is something the Sharks will look to overcome as these playoffs start.
The Blues outscored San Jose 11-3, but the Sharks, with their advantage in experience, hope to overcome the challenges and look to prove they can beat the Blues.
"You remember those games, but you also can't forget about them as well," Couture said. "It's 0-0 right now, it's a brand new season. We know we didn't play our best when we played these guys in the regular season. We've got a chance to prove to ourselves that we can beat them."
So what did the Sharks learn from those games against the Blues?
"We know they check tight, they check smart," winger Ryane Clowe said. "Some teams you feel like you get a little more space, but against them, it's more congested and they're in your face. ... At the start, everyone's hyped up. They're going to come out with a lot of energy."
Added Couture: "They forecheck really hard. They're a fast team, they don't turn pucks over, so we really have to bear down on our chances when we get them because they're so good defensively."
The Sharks skated with an edge this morning in anticipation of the beginning of the playoffs.
"I think there's an energy that comes with playoffs," McLellan said. "It's not just our group; I watched them skate a little bit. They had some energy and some excitement in their game as well. That happens in the first round.
"All that early emotion exists. You'd like to have a controlled emotion. Probably after five-six minutes, everybody settles in and starts playing. But there is an excitement. It's a shortened season now, it's a 28-game year. You know what you're playing for. Everybody's at the starting line. Excitement's spread out amongst the 16 teams."
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The Blues' probable lineup tonight:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Alex Steen-Patrik Berglund-Andy McDonald
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
Jamie Langenbrunner-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Kent Huskins-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Kris Russell-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak gets the start in goal; Brian Elliott is the backup.
Elliott, who has been nursing an upper-body injury the last couple days, was back on the ice Thursday morning after missing a day and a half and has been deemed 100 percent by Hitchcock. Goalie Jake Allen, recalled from Peoria Wednesday, was sent back to the Rivermen Thursday afternoon.
The Blues are injury-free and their healthy scratches include forwards Matt D'Agostini, Jaden Schwartz, Chris Porter and B.J. Crombeen as well as defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian Cole.
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The Sharks' probable lineup:
Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Martin Havlat
Daniel Winnik-Andrew Desjardins-Tommy Wingels
TJ Galiardi-Dominic Moore-Torrey Mitchell
Dan Boyle-Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Douglas Murray-Brent Burns
Colin White-Justin Braun
Antti Niemi gets the start in goal; Thomas Greiss is the backup.
The Sharks' healthy scratches include D Jason Demers, D Jim Vandermeer, LW Brad Winchester, RW James Sheppard, LW Benn Ferriero and C Michal Handzus.