The Blues begin their pursuit of a Stanley Cup tonight at Scottrade Center, once again straining to reach for the ultimate but elusive prize. The quest has tormented the franchise and its fans the past 44 seasons, but this new generation of Blues is ready to take up the challenge.
Futility, be damned.
The seasoned, sizable San Jose Sharks loom as a difficult obstacle, and they've done more than enough damage to the Blues through the years.
The 1999-2000 Blues of Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger had an NHL-best 114 points and were upset by No. 8 seed San Jose in the first round. Not only did the 2003-2004 Sharks boot the Blues in the first round, but things took a bizarre twist hours after the final game when Blues grinder Mike Danton was taken into custody in San Jose, arrested for trying to hire a hit man to assassinate his agent.
Do we need to remind anyone of what Sharks captain Joe Thornton did to poor David Perron on Nov. 14, 2010? Put it this way: Thornton would have qualified for a generous payment from the Gregg Williams' bounty fund.
There's been no end to the frustration, but the Blues can't get caught up in that now. They have to live in the moment, and not the past. A nervous hockey town will be watching to see if the Blues' 109-point season was a tease, or something that can last into late May or June.
Once upon a time, we took these springtime adventures for granted, but that's no longer the case. The Blues qualified for the NHL playoffs over 25 consecutive seasons, with the historically underrated streak coming to an end in 2006.
There's more appreciation for these postseason appearances now. That only increases the urgency to get something done. The Blues missed the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. They haven't won a postseason series since 2002.
A new cast of Blues is in place to pick up the tattered flag, and rush up that hill again. The playoff failures of the distant past can't be blamed on Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Perron, Chris Stewart or Jaroslav Halak. The past playoff busts can't be pinned on Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott or Andy McDonald — three proud veterans who contributed to postseason success in previous stops.
The sequence of early exits had nothing to do with Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who led them to a 43-15-11 record after taking command on Nov. 8.
The 2011-2012 Blues deserve a chance to create their own legacy. But they'll be judged, for sure. After seeing the Blues accumulate 109 points, losing in the first round would be unacceptable.
To frame it in the most simplistic terms, the Blues should win the series. After all, they finished No. 2 in the Western Conference, and San Jose is the No. 7 seed. The Blues were 4-0 vs. the Sharks during the regular season. It's more complex than that, however. According to old-school hockey wisdom, the more experienced teams have an edge this time of year.
Hitchcock believes that.
"Playoffs are for veteran players," he said. "It's their time to shine."
The skaters on the San Jose roster have combined to play in 1,041 NHL postseason games. And you can add another 40 when including goaltender Antti Niemi, who played brilliantly two years ago in helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup.
The skaters on the St. Louis roster have combined to play in only 432 NHL postseason games. But much of that 432 count is consolidated among four players: Langenbrunner (137 games), Arnott (115), McDonald (41) and Kent Huskins (47.)
Among the players eligible to compete in this series, 16 Blues have competed in fewer than 10 NHL postseason games. Several, including Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, will be making their NHL postseason debuts tonight. Goaltenders Halak (21 games) and Brian Elliott (four) have limited postseason experience, though Halak was exceptional for Montreal in the 2009 playoffs.
"We have to grow up quick," Hitchcock said.
That didn't happen for a young Hitchcock team in 2009. His Columbus Blue Jackets were mauled in a first-round sweep by the Detroit Red Wings.
Hitchcock thinks that experience will help him prepare the young Blues for their test with the more playoff-savvy Sharks.
"The postseason is all about the emotion and the intensity of the game and how you handle it," he said. "We have a lot of guys on our team where this is new ground. Are you ready for the stage? Are you ready, knowing that this is going to be the harder than anything you've ever done?"
The Blues flunked a late regular-season trial run by going 4-4-4 in their final 12 games. They couldn't find another gear when pushed by more desperate opponents.
"You have to know when to dial it up," Hitchcock said. "This is all about adjusting to the speed and tenacity. From this point on, the game is played at a much different level."
That's my concern.
I wonder if the Blues are too green.
This is the first time this group will enter the playoffs together. The core of younger Blues were kids back in 2009, when Vancouver won the first-round series 4-0. But what, if anything, did Backes, Oshie, Perron and Berglund gain from that?
GM Doug Armstrong brought in more experienced players (Arnott, Langenbrunner, Huskins, Scott Nichol) in an attempt to round out the maturity. That should help, but I don't know how the Blues will respond.
Hitchcock's presence should be a plus. This is his favorite time of year. He's won 66 NHL postseason games, and led Dallas to the Stanley Cup in 1999. The enigmatic Blues were problem children until he arrived in November. He's made a huge difference. That should continue in the postseason.
"I think I know how to calm them down when I have to, and rev them up when I have to," Hitchcock said. "I think I can press the right buttons."
We can worry about Stanley Cup predictions later; it's one series at a time for now. I like the Blues over the Sharks in six games. This won't be easy. Hitchcock has taken the Blues a long way. Now we'll see if he can get them to graduation day.