St. Louis looking to exorcise demons of playoffs past with deep run in 2012
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- It will be eight years to the day since the Blues franchise last won a playoff game. It came against the same opponent these Blues will face when the Western Conference Quarterfinals start Thursday night.
But when the Blues open the Western Conference Quarterfinal series Thursday against the San Jose Sharks (6:30 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM), memories of years past will be thrown out the window.
Only Barret Jackman remains on that 2004 team that lost to the Sharks in five games, so that drought is insignificant to the remaining 25 players on this Blues roster.
The Blues, who finished the regular season at 49-22-11, are the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, and San Jose (43-29-10), which has made it to the conference finals in each of the last two seasons, comes in as the No. 7 seed.
The Blues, who won all four meetings with the Sharks this season, outscoring them 11-3, will face a team with more than 1,000 games of playoff experience compared to the Blues' 484.
But after three hard days of practices leading into this series opener, it's time to draw the battle lines and drop the puck.
"I think we were excited and focused today, which is a very good sign," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Usually one of the days, you have a really poor outing and we didn't have that, which is a great sign. We wanted the temperature turned up from a compete standpoint and they responded. But I think they're tired of practicing and they want to get playing. Both teams will be more than ready. I think both teams will come at each other like nobody's business."
The Blues will christen three skaters (Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan Reaves) into the postseason for the first time; Tommy Wingels will be the lone Shark to make his NHL postseason debut. But for a younger team looking to make its mark and one that wants to prove that the regular season was no fluke, expect the Blues to come out flying.
"This is my first playoff and I'm excited to be a part of it," Shattenkirk said. "I've been getting lots of text messages and calls from around the league from buddies who are out of it but said they're pulling for me and our team. It's a nice position to be in when you're still playing."
Added veteran Andy McDonald: "It's exciting, I think. Just being disappointing the last three or four years, it's been a work in progress, just a lot of ups and downs. We've kind of gotten better together, so that's why I think tomorrow is such an important game, important series, important start to something big. We've gone through it together and now everyone is excited about it."
Jaroslav Halak will get the start in goal for the Blues after going 26-12-7 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the regular season. With Brian Elliott missing part of Tuesday's practice and Wednesday with an upper-body injury, the decision Hitchcock was anticipated to make became an easy one.
"Whoever got the start, we know is really going to play well," Jackman said. "I don't know if it's going to be a 1-2 rotation or ride the hot hand, but no matter what happens between the pipes, we have confidence in both guys."
And there was no bad choice in the matter, as Halak and Elliott combined to help the team win the Jennings Trophy, given for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL this season. They allowed 155 non-shootout goals in 82 games, which equals out to 1.89 goals per game.
"They're playing really good hockey right now," Blues winger T.J. Oshie said of the Sharks, who finished the regular season winning seven of nine, including four in a row. "Most of their players have been to the playoffs before more than once and they know how to play this time of the year.
"They're going to try to have the confidence to come in and try to push us out, but with us knowing how to beat them in the regular season, we've just got to apply that and stick to our game. We don't have to do anything spectacular. We've just got to play as a team."
The Blues continue to play with a healthy lineup. They have 26 players on the active roster and have a number of skaters at Hitchcock's disposal to choose from. The 20 guys that will skate in the opener are what Hitchcock calls guys playing "in the now." Those guys "in the now" are players that can elevate this team offensively, which ranked 21st in the NHL during the regular season.
"I really believe this. I really believe that we have another gear offensively," Hitchcock said. "I think we're better offensively than we get credit for."
The Blues appear to be ready. When the puck drops at Scottrade Center, which will be buzzing for playoff hockey, the Blues will buzz right along with it.
"Playoffs is all about passion and emotion for the game and growing up, back home, we played street hockey and we played for the fake Stanley Cup," winger David Perron said. "Now we're playing for the real one. Every single guy, that's why we started to play hockey. It's to play in the NHL and hopefully win the Cup. That's what it's going to be all about."