Shaking off regular season slide easy for Blues; starting
with the best; Backes physicality; first meeting since 2002
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Dealing with adversity was something the Blues, who won a franchise-best 52 games in the regular season, didn't have to bother themselves with.
Nothing like a six-game losing and a rash of injuries to test one's psyche as the defending Stanley Cup champions come to town to open the Western Conference First Round.
"It's been a group and it's been a season where we didn't have a ton of terrible downturns in the year," said Blues captain David Backes, one of the injured looking to return for Game 1 Thursday night. "At the end, we hit the skids for a little bit, but I think after the game was over against Detroit, you kind of felt a deep breath by everyone and say, 'OK, that's over. Everything starts at zeroes now. We're into the second season, we're in home ice of a tough Western Conference.'
"We've got a great opposition, but we feel like we got a pretty darn good team in here with Hitch (Blues coach Ken Hitchcock) having to decide who's not playing rather than who he can play and those are good decisions for our coaches to have to make."
It's easy for the Blues to forget about the season-ending slide simply because the Blues are gaining injured players back into the foray. And those players will be relied on to curb some of the goal-scoring deficiencies the team experienced in the last half of the season, where the Blues finished near the bottom of the league.
"We've had the injuries mounting at the end of the season, but a lot of guys are healthy and feeling good," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We're definitely looking to the second part of the season here. The first couple shifts in the first game are going to be big for us."
Added defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk: "I think we got away from what we did most of the season and did best most of the season. The injuries didn't help, but it's a tough spot to be in. It's great when you can clinch early. Sometimes it's kind of hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel after that, but now we're here and this is what we've all been waiting for. We're a completely different team than we were on Sunday after the game against Detroit. ... Everyone's ready to play.
"We got a couple days off to regroup. Everyone got a chance to just get away from it a little bit. Now everyone realizes it's playoffs now. No one's really going to care what happened in the last six games for us once tomorrow happens. We have to approach it that this is the start of a new season and it is because whatever happened in the past, we're all here now and we're in the playoffs. Whether we play Chicago or someone else, you're going to have to play a great team in order to move on to the next round."
Derek Roy was one of those that said turning the page on the end of the regular season wasn't a problem.
"Pretty easy," Roy said. "We had some tough bounces, we were lacking a lot of players in a lot of games. Every team goes through it throughout a season and we happened to go through it at the end of the season. Every team I've been on since the start of my career always had a round of injuries in a season and you go through a losing spell. It happened to us at the end of the season and now we're ready to go. We're refreshed and excited to get started."
* Start with the best -- With the Blues' season-ending slide, it dramatically changed the landscape of who they would start with in the playoffs.
Much of the focus late in the season was geared towards facing a wild-card team, perhaps Minnesota or Dallas or Phoenix.
But when the Colorado Avalanche overtook the Blues by one point to claim the Central Division crown, it thrust the Blues (52-23-7) into a first-round matchup against the defending champ Chicago Blackhawks (46-21-15).
The Blues don't care.
"First of all, what does it matter? If you play them in the first round, second round, there's a good chance you've got to go through them, and you might as well find out what you've got right away," Hitchcock said. "For me, I look at it like if you expect to win in the West, you might as well start by beating the best right off the bat.
"They're the team that (has) all the knowledge. Everybody can talk about all the knowledge they have and even if you've been and played in the Cup and you missed the next year, you lacked a little bit of knowledge. They got that knowledge and we've got to learn from them quickly the first couple games on exactly the pace of play, what it's going to take, the furious activity that's going to go on in games like this. But for us, we've got to gain the knowledge quickly so we can use it against them. If you're sitting there picking your opponent, it doesn't get to work that way. For us, I think who we play is not as relevant as who's in our lineup and how we're going to play based on personnel. That's more the focus for us."
* Focus on Toews/Kane -- The Blackhawks will get their top offensive players (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane) back for the series against the Blues. Toews (upper body) has been out since March 30, Kane (lower body) since March 19, coincidentally against the Blues.
It will be Backes that will draw the majority of the assignments against the pair, who coach Joel Quenneville will likely keep split apart in order to keep Backes away from the two.
Backes' physical presence will be something to keep an eye on as the series moves along.
"I don't know how they're justifying physical, but they're two elite players in this world," Backes said of Toews and Kane. "You see it all over the place. They take over games.
"If they're in tight-knit quarters, they're getting leaned on, they've got to earn everything, they play a lot of minutes, that's how you've got to try and contain them. Stopping them completely, I don't know if you do that, but to make them earn everything and make sure they're tired and nothing's easy for them, that's the way I feel I have to play them to have success and we'll see how all that sorts out over seven games."
* Twelve years in the making -- The Blues and Blackhawks will meet for the first time since 2002 in postseason play, a series the Blues won in five games thanks to three straight Brent Johnson shutouts.
Jackman just began his Blues career that season but was not a player in that series. He played one game in the regular season and one in the playoffs against Detroit in the second round.
Winning two of the past four Stanley Cups will certainly grab the Blues' attention facing the Blackhawks.
"It's going to be great," Backes said. "The playoffs in general amp it up a notch. Our building seems to be nuts, their building's crazy always. The game on the ice, it's going to be hard, physical, it's going to be a war out there. There's not a lot of surprises from one team to the next. Little details, little plays are going to be the difference in the games. From the details I saw today on the ice from our practice, our guys are hungry and ready to make a statement.
"There's no love lost, no secrets. It's going to be one heck of a series."
A guy the Blues brought in (Roy) with a one-year, $4 million contract, he could prove beneficial in a series that could come down to skill and playmakers
"This is what we've been working for all season long as a team," Roy said. "Everybody got better as the season went along. We just want to make sure that we're ready for Chicago. I'm ready for the playoffs. Everybody here is going to be ready. We've got the game plan together. We've just got to execute it."