Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blues not buying favorite label from Sharks coach

McLellan said his team comes into Western
Conference quarterfinals as underdogs

ST. LOUIS -- San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan was playing the coach-speak card to a tee on Sunday afternoon. His message: we're the underdogs.

"We didn't play well against St. Louis this year," McLellan told the San Jose Mercury News. "They've had our number.

"We're going in as the underdog, and we're going to have to relish that role."

The Blues, who finished the regular season 49-22-11, are the No. 2 seed in the West; San Jose (43-29-10) is the No. 7 seed. But according to Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team won all four meetings with the Sharks by a combined 11-3 margin this season, he's not buying it.

(Getty Images)
The Blues' David Backes (42) and San Jose's Brent
Burns will be two main players for the upcoming Western
Conference playoff series.
They've been chasing this dream for a few years," Hitchcock said of the Sharks. "They're a team built for now. That's why they added (Brent) Burns and (Marty) Havlat to get them to the next level."

The Blues are certainly the inexperienced group. Aside from a few veteran pickups to the roster this season, most of the Blues players have never been a part of a playoff victory. In fact, the last one came against these Sharks back in 2004.

In the meantime, the Sharks have won 38 playoff games since the Blues' last win.

"I think it's experience versus inexperience," Hitchcock said. "Who's the favorite or what your record was during the regular season is not relevant. They have a lot of experienced players, who have been down this path before. For some of us, it's a new experience. They're playing their best hockey right now (7-2-0 in the last nine games) and the challenge facing us is, 'Do we continue down the same path that we had in the regular season?' That's the challenge for us."

The Blues will come into this series feeling confident. They own two shutouts -- both at home -- against San Jose this season and have been the better team on both sides of the special teams battle.

"We know we can beat them obviously," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said of the Sharks. "We had success against them this year, but it doesn't matter who you play in the playoffs, it's going to be a tough series here going forward.

"I just think if we play our game, we'll beat anybody. We're going to need contributions from everybody. They've got top guys there that our guys are going to need to shut down. It's going to take four lines, six d-men and two goalies to beat not only San Jose but anybody here in the playoffs. But that's what we're built on, we're built on depth."

Hitchcock feels the regular season success could help boost his team's morale.

"Having some success against them this year has given us confidence that we can play against them," Hitchcock said. "Not many teams can say that.

"... I think first of all, the fear factor is there a little bit. They've got a lot of offensive weapons. They've got a lot of guys that score points. And I think when we play against teams where there's a little fear that you're going to get lit up offensively, I think we play better. So I think the fear factor got our attention and I think we've done a good job in trying to keep the game 5-on-5. I think in all the games, getting the lead early really helped us."

The Blues, whose only other post-lockout playoff appearance was in 2009 when they were swept by the Vancouver Canucks in a very competitive series, hope to learn from past experiences.

They come in with the stingiest defense in the NHL this season which culminated in the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed on the season (165). That averaged out to 1.89 goals per game.

"I think it's the style we play. It's defense first, it's not run-and-gun," Blues forward David Backes said of the team's style of play. "It's taking control of the puck and controlling your own destiny.

"We've still got a relatively raw group as far as playoff experience. When the time comes, just make sure it's not something different. It's the same game. We've been playing that style for a long time. We've just got to play it harder and longer than our opponent and we'll come out victorious."

Some feel the experience against the Canucks will be beneficial as these playoffs begin because they didn't have to grind their way into the playoffs like they did three seasons ago.
(Getty Images)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (46) will be looked upon to help contain
the Sharks' Ryane Clowe (left) in the upcoming playoff series.

"We played Vancouver three years ago and it was a good experience for some of the guys," Blues President John Davidson said. "It's a different mindset right now than that. That was a real hard thing to do just to get in. Here, we learned a long time ago that we were in.

"It's going to be very hard because it's so close. It's so close from top to bottom, but this is what you all dream about, what you wait for. When you're a player, and I was a player, it's the greatest time of your life. I always found it easier to play in the playoffs than I did the regular season because that's what you earn. ... What a great time it is. It's easy to get up for games. It's easy to peak, it's easy to have passion. Now's the time to take your own play and your team to another level. Now's the time to really step up."

And the Blues will do so with a healthy lineup.

"When you go into the playoffs, you have to be concerned about how you're going to play and what you're going to do," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "We're healthy now. It shouldn't be difficult to focus now. Over the last 10-14 days is when we knew we were going to make the playoffs, we were getting our players back, we were trying to find our footing. I think we've found it now. We've just got to win that first game coming out now (in the playoffs). We worked hard to get that home ice. We want to make sure we maintain it."

The best-of-seven series opens Thursday and Saturday for Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis, then moved to Silicon Valley for Games 3 and 4 on Monday, April 16 and Thursday, April 19.

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