OK, admit it: How many of you feared the worst when the Blues lost the first game of their opening-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks?
After all, the Note hasn’t made it to the playoffs at all in several years and hadn’t won an opening round since 2002. That’s one full decade ago, long before any of the current players were even on the roster. That’s several owners, presidents, general managers and coaches in the past as well. The only constant in all that time was repeated failure in the post-season.
Then, earlier this year GM Doug Armstrong ignited everything when he fired coach Davis Payne and replaced him with savvy veteran Ken Hitchcock. Since Hitch, who won the Stanley Cup as coach of the Dallas Stars in 1999, came aboard the Blues have lit up the National Hockey League with the best record of the regular season after that 6-7 start.
They surged into the playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference behind the vaunted Vancouver Canucks. Already, the first round featured upsets aplenty, as the Los Angeles Kings knocked out the 2011 Western Conference champions in five quick games.
After their initial stumble in the first game of their series with the Sharks -- at home no less -- the Blues came charging out of the gate and swept the next four contests in decisive fashion. With the same stellar net-minding demonstrated during the season by Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, the Blues stifled the Sharks in the second game in St. Louis and both contests in San Jose.
In the fifth game, a tight and taut affair that was scoreless for the first two periods, San Jose drew first blood with a goal in the third period. This version of the Blues, however, was undaunted. In stirring fashion they came back with two goals within 45 seconds late in the period and then held off the desperate Sharks to clinch the series, four games to one.
Now, a conference semi-final clash with the Kings looms ahead, with the first game scheduled for Saturday night at the Scotttrade Center. Suddenly, the Blues find themselves one of eight teams still in contention for the Stanley Cup.
Hitchcock has been a steady, determined presence in keeping his young players focused on one game, one period, one play at a time. That disciplined approach, along with a one-for-all and all-for-one team attitude, has enabled the Blues to advance this far without a single major ‘star’ dominating the action on their side of the ice.
Beyond that team spirit and resolve, the Blues dazzling duo of Halak and Elliott combined for a staggering 15 shutouts during the regular season. They now have answered the bell in the first round of the playoffs as well. That’s significant, because an old NHL maxim says that the team with the hottest goalie most often wins Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Something tells me we may be witnessing something very special this year by Coach Hitchcock and his hard-working unit. The Blues’ long-suffering fans at long last are having some serious fun, and making the most of it.
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