When the St. Louis Blues hobbled into the all-star break sitting last in the Western Conference, they appeared to be a young team saddled with too many injuries to compete.
My how times have changed.
The Blues have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since then, riding a 16-7-5 record right to the edge of playoff contention with just over two weeks left in the NHL season.
They are a classic example of a Cinderella story – undermanned yet undeterred, finding belief in themselves despite a pile of doubt from others.
“There’s a bit of that element to it,” leading scorer Brad Boyes said Friday. “I still don’t think though that there’s a lot of credit given to us. It’s like, ‘Oh, St. Louis is still in the hunt – how are these guys in there? Or they’re in there, but just barely.’
“We’re still maybe overlooked a little bit, which is fine with us. If that’s the case, we’re definitely going to sneak up and make some noise.”
The race for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference is essentially between the Blues and four other teams – Anaheim, Nashville, Edmonton and Minnesota.
With so many squads hovering around the bubble, the seeding seems to change daily. Boyes keeps a close eye on all the action as he looks for the first playoff berth of his NHL career.
Simply being in the race is something he’s experiencing for the first time at this level.
“It was a couple weeks ago that I really started to realize (we were in it),” said Boyes. “At that time, the (NHL) teams I’ve been on have always been out of the playoffs and you’re just trying to have fun and play solid.
“Now it’s so important. It’s exciting, it’s the best time of year.”
The Blues have so far been up to the task.
They’ll ride a three-game winning streak into Saturday night’s home game against Columbus. The biggest test of the season comes directly after that as St. Louis embarks on a five-game road trip that will see it criss-cross the continent.
At least there’s some reason for confidence.
“We’ve been playing good road hockey and I think that’s helped us,” said Boyes. “Especially knowing that we’ve got a bunch on the road coming up. The places that we’re going to, we’ve had success.
“We’ve had success in Chicago and Columbus before, Phoenix and Dallas as well. We’ve won in the buildings we’re going to.”
With six of their final seven games away from Scottrade Center overall, the odds are certainly stacked against them.
That too is a familiar position.
Losing players to injury almost became a theme early in the year. Erik Johnson, Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald (since returned) all went down with serious ailments.
A group of younger players that includes T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron have been asked to help Boyes and Keith Tkachuk carry the load offensively. Defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo has also chipped in a fair bit since being acquired in a trade from Toronto.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the team’s turnaround has been the splendid play of goalie Chris Mason, who has put up solid numbers since assuming the starting job.
“Everyone’s contributing at different times and in different areas,” said Boyes. “We’ve been pretty stingy when it comes to giving up goals. Obviously, Mason’s the head guy.
“Every team that does well goaltending is the No. 1 position. He’s been doing that and filling that void for us.”
The Blues have been filling their arena again too.
They’ve had an impressive 27 sellouts this season as a rejuvenated fanbase has embraced an up-and-coming team. Hockey is back on the sporting landscape in St. Louis.
“It’s really starting to build,” said Boyes. “The whole year the support’s been great. Weekends pretty much sold out. Weekdays, we’ll get good crowds in. Last night we sold out and it was very loud.
“It’s been awesome. The fans have supported us all year, even when things weren’t going well and we were in last place. They’ve been there with us the whole time.”
Even if the Blues end up falling short of the playoffs, Boyes is thrilled that the organization seems to have taken a big step forward.
The 26-year-old has three years remaining on his contract with the team and hopes to do a lot of winning in the Gateway City.
“We’re building and building every year,” said Boyes. “I think for the future, for the next couple years, it’s going to be a lot of fun here.”