If the St. Louis Blues can’t take any positives from a six-game losing streak to end the regular season, maybe they can find some in four straight losses at this time last year.
The Blues were up two games to none on the defending Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings in the 2013 Western Conference quarter-finals and were starting feeling pretty good about themselves.
“We were kind of like: ‘OK, this is good. We’re playing well, everything’s rolling good,'” defenceman Ian Cole recalled. “Then to come back and lose four straight like that, you lose one, you lose two and you start thinking, ‘Holy crap, what’s going on?'”
Suddenly the Blues were done and left to watch the Kings reach the conference final. With his team again a Stanley Cup contender, general manager Doug Armstrong hopes St. Louis makes the most of that memory.
“I think we went to the school of hard knocks last year losing to L.A. the way we did,” Armstrong said during the Blues’ visit to Toronto. “I think we saw that L.A., as the defending champion, they knew how to go to a different gear. … They showed the character of a champion. I believe our players learned something from that.”
Different players may have learned different things. For captain David Backes, the aftermath of the six-game elimination provided a bad juxtaposition while watching the Kings go far or the Chicago Blackhawks win the Cup.
“They’re getting their ultimate dream, their goal accomplished, and we’re sitting here working on our four-irons at the driving range,” Backes said. “That’s something that really fuels the fire inside you.”
The fuel is burning now for the Blues, who are forced to again open against the defending Cup champion, now the Blackhawks, after missing out on not only the Presidents’ Trophy but the Central Division title and one of the West’s top two spots.
Losing six in a row was so rare for St. Louis because it hadn’t lose more than two in a row all season. Defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said that was a product of consistency.
It’s also one thing the Blues learned from dropping four straight to the Kings in last year’s playoffs.
“We learned how hard it is to win, and it’s not always going to be pretty, it’s not always going to be the perfect game, but I think this year we’ve gotten into those situations where it might not be our best game and we’re tied or we’re down by a goal and we just find ways to win,” Pietrangelo said. “That’s something to take a lot of pride in.”
These Blues also take a lot of pride in their balance. They have 11 players with 30-plus points, led by Alex Steen’s 62 and then T.J. Oshie’s 60.
“I think one of our greatest strengths might be our greatest weakness is we’re the sum of all the parts and we have no alpha male,” Armstrong said. “When we have an injury, our team is what makes us successful.”
Lately the Blues haven’t been so successful, but the injured Oshie, Backes and Vladimir Sobotka could all be back for Game 1 on Thursday in St. Louis. Despite a recent swoon, having that full complement back in addition to Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk on defence and Ryan Miller in goal makes coach Ken Hitchcock’s group a legitimate championship contender.
Last year’s exit can only help now, in Bouwmeester’s eyes.
“It’s experience,” he said. “You go through those playoff rounds against good teams, and now this year I think the expectations are higher.”
Finishing behind the Colorado Avalanche in the Central and also behind the Anaheim Ducks in the West may have tempered expectations that were sky high not too long ago. While they were cruising along, Bouwmeester said he and his teammates were just working “with the obvious goal in mind.”
To reach that obvious goal, the Blues realize they must win 16 games, not just two. Even four would be a start, and the Kings could be a template.
“When they lost the first two games, there was no sense of panic in their organization, no sense from their coach or their manager and more importantly their players,” Armstrong said. “They just believed in themselves, they believed in (goaltender Jonathan) Quick and they had a steady, workmanlike approach.”
Workmanlike describes what the Blues want to be under Hitchcock, whose focus hasn’t been on his team’s lack of scoring but what it can do while short-handed.
“I’ve seen a lot of (teams) do really well who have had bad power plays do really well in the playoffs, but I’ve never seen any team play worth a damn if you can’t kill penalties,” he said. “It’s more on can you kill the penalty at the right time because you can live with poor power plays and still win hockey games. But you can’t surviveif you can’t kill penalties.”
St. Louis also won’t survive beyond the Central Division semifinals if it can’t find that extra gear. Armstrong hopes that’s the case this time around.
“I thought we could’ve found it last year, too,” he said. “But you don’t know until you get into the competition.”
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