Winners of five of past six, St. Louis wants
to keep the momentum going against Wild
ST LOUIS -- Last season, the Blues entered the playoffs battered and bruised -- both on and off the ice.
A virtual injury-free season began to take a different turn towards the end of the regular season, with players falling off in droves. It took its toll with six straight losses to end the regular season. And as the Blues tried to bandage whatever lineup they could for their opening-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks, they eventually would succumb in six games despite winning the first two for the second postseason in a row.
But last year is last year. The year before was the year before. The past is the past.
The Blues, who ended the regular season 51-24-7, are healthy, they're confident, and they come in with a full head of steam winning five of the past six games.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Jori Lehtera and the Blues are all smiles and enter playoff
action winners of five of the past six games against the Wild.
And as they prepare for their first round series against the Minnesota Wild, Saturdays opponent in the regular season-ending 4-2 victory, the Blues have a business-like attitude moving on to the "second season."
"We're not comparing anything to any other previous years," said left wing Alexander Steen, who returned to play the finale after missing six games with a lower-body injury. "It's just focus on what we're doing right now. The one thing I will say about previous years is we take it as experience and move forward. We don't sit and analyze last year and two years ago compared to this. We're just having a good vibe right now. Goaltending has been great. Our 'D' have been extremely quick, patient with the puck.
"... We played a good game (Saturday). Moving the puck well, supporting each other. It wasn't necessarily a playoff-type game. It'll be different come Wednesday or Thursday when we start. We've got a day (off Sunday) and then Monday and Tuesday at least to get ourselves prepared and in playoff mode. Now the exciting time starts."
Indeed it does; not only for players but for coaches as well. Ken Hitchcock, who's taken the Blues to the playoffs all four seasons in St. Louis, relishes these opportunities. He's the owner of one Stanley Cup, with the Dallas Stars in 1999.
"This is why you coach," Hitchcock said. "You coach to play where you're able to prepare your team, you're able to plan, you're able to adjust; this is why you coach. Having been through so many of these, I really feel like a coach can make a difference. You can help your team through some of this stuff, but to me, when it's a singular opponent, all the other games you watch are just background noise. You don't really pay any attention to what's going on in the league. It's you, your team, the players, it's an awful lot of fun.
"There's a huge difference between stress and pressure and just pressure. Pressure ... every player in there, every coach in there, we welcome that. To get into a pressure situation, it means you've done something well. The teams that don't have any pressure, starting tomorrow, they're not playing hockey; they're out. So that's a real privilege for us to be able to do that. The stress part for me is continually watching all the games and watching the standings and looking at that every day. I find that very stressful."
One thing is for sure: Hitchcock wants the players to enjoy this time. The past 7-8 months have been tough and at times as grueling as anything they've been through. Despite more at stake, this is the time to reap the rewards of a successful regular season.
"It's a big mistake to dismiss what you spent eight months doing," Hitchcock said. "I think we're proud of what this team's done. This is for them; the playoffs are for them. This is why they play, this is why they played it as kids. It's for them, 100 percent for them.
"We're going to help them along. We're going to try to encourage them as much as we can, but this is really for them. Our job is to take the pressure off of them, not heap it on top of them. I think that's our job. That's the fun part. They're going to wear enough of that every day. For us to heap a bunch more on is a big mistake. But for us to not value what we did for eight months is a bigger mistake. There's real value in all the lessons we learned along the way. This is the new group; lots of changes in it, lots of different people, lots of different minutes being played by different people. Some of the younger guys who were support players are now significant players. We just want to go on a ride with these guys. We're not going to throw a bunch of pressure at them. There's enough on them now."
The Blues have their balance at forward all set to go. The defensive unit appears poised and locked in. Unfortunately, there are only enough spots for 20 players. The only question is who will Hitchcock go to as his goalie to open the series.
And Hitchcock won't tip his hand if it will be Brian Elliott or Jake Allen.
"You've got one guy who's had a heck of a season in Elliott and another guy that's had a heck of a month in Allen," Hitchcock said. "We've got no problems, whichever guy we go to. ... Elliott's played well against Minny. Jake's played well against Winnipeg. We'll see.
"We'll base it on what we think is best, but if we've got to change, we'll change. We're not going to hesitate."
No matter if it's Elliott (26-14-3, 2.26 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and five shutouts) or Allen (22-7-4, 2.28 GAA, .913 save percentage and four shutouts), the Blues have no qualms with either.
"It's been like that all year; it's been like that for a couple years," Steen said of the goaltending. "Goaltending's been phenomenal. We know what we've got back there."
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Brian Elliott (1) played in the regular season finale and
made 23 saves in a 4-2 victory against Minnesota.
"Both goalies are really playing good right now," said center Jori Lehtera, who scored two goals Saturday. "That's a good sign before the playoffs. I think we're ready to play when the playoffs start.
"That's a good thing that we have everybody healthy. We're ready to play playoffs."
Elliott was in goal for the season finale, and hoped to make his case.
"I just tried to play my game. That's all you can do," Elliott said. "I tried to stop every shot out there and win this game. It still mattered. We'll see how it kind of shakes out here in a few hours. I just wanted to play a game and be the best I could for the guys."