The 2011-12 season was a year in which the Blues believed they were ready for prime time. Even the experts said so, predicting the club to fare well. But the team lasted two rounds in the NHL playoffs before bowing out to Los Angeles.
The postseason appearance was billed as a “learning experience,” and there was no doubt that it would carry them further in the future.
The 2012-13 season was their turn, but they were knocked out in the first round by LA, and again the term “learning experience” was applied.
In the eyes of many, the 2013-14 season is time to put up or shut up.
“I think yeah, for sure,” Blues winger Chris Stewart said.
The Blues open tonight hosting Nashville at 7:30, and while they can’t clinch a playoff series with a win, the players acknowledge that it’s time to set the tone for what could finally be the year they live up to expectations.
“Every team has to do it every year, but I think our opportunity here is a lot greater than most teams,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “It’s time for us to really step up now and answer the bell. It’s going to be important that we don’t let a lot of the hype get to us.”
The Hockey News has anointed the Blues as its Stanley Cup favorite this season, and recently EA Sports ran a simulated season of its NHL 14 video game, which ended with the club beating Pittsburgh in the Cup finals.
“We’re good on the computer, that’s great,” Blues captain David Backes chimed.
In other words, the software success won’t help the team lift the silver chalice.
“There’s not going to be a team that lays over because they lost to you in the EA Sports video game,” Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. “I know many of my friends have won the Stanley Cup in a simulated season, but they haven’t done it on the ice.”
But other than not reading into the hype, what has the club learned from back-to-back playoff heartbreaks?
“A lot,” Blues center Patrik Berglund said. “Obviously we know how it feels to lose in a bad way. It’s important that you know how it feels to lose. I think that makes you want to take the extra step. I think we learned a lot about that.”
The Blues say they also understand just how difficult it is to win in May and June.
“We have learned how hard you have to play and how hard it is to finish out a series,” Shattenkirk said. “I think when we look back to two years ago, that San Jose series, really was not an indication of how hard it is to win in the playoffs. But once we ran into LA, and that’s where we really saw how hard it is to win.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock hoped that his team grew up after having their season end in consecutive years by the Kings, but as the club embarks on a new voyage, he believes there’s a sense of starting over.
“You go through the process again,” he said. “Everything can change in one hockey game. You could have three injuries in one hockey game and now you’re in scramble mode. I think all of that stuff ... what it does is it allows you to have a stronger focus from the start of training camp until now, which we’ve had. But I don’t think it matters until you play games and figure out what you’ve got.
“What you find out when you go through the stuff that we’ve gone through is that you can overcome it. You can find ways to win hockey games that aren’t pretty some nights. We’ve got some of that information, where we don’t need to be 100 percent every night to win. We’ve learned that if we play the right way, we’re an awful good hockey club.”
Dallas general manager Jim Nill, a longtime executive in Detroit and a former Blues player, has watched the Blues evolve for the past couple of years and says they will benefit from the experience.
“Teams have to go through a growing phase and I think St. Louis has gone through that,” Nill said. “For the last two years, everyone said, ‘Oh they’re one of the teams to beat,’ and they are, but you’ve got to go through the losing to win. I think St. Louis has gone through those bumps and they’re going to be hard to handle.”
Newcomer Brenden Morrow agreed with Nill.
“It takes some heartache for you to get that thick skin and build that character,” Morrow said. “I think the last few playoff series have done that for this team and I hope to be catching them at the right time.
“Whatever the media and coaches and fans expect and say about this team, I know as individuals, we’re the hardest on ourselves and we probably expect more than anyone else.”
Added Jackman: “There’s some anger within the dressing room about what has transpired the last couple of years. We know that time is ticking right now with the group that we have. We’re (ticked) off and we’re hungry to finally take that step towards the Stanley Cup.”
It’s time to put up or shut up.
“I just know we’ve got a chance to be a good team because we want to be a good team ... that’s what is really important for us,” Hitchcock said. “I think we’re willing to look in the mirror a lot to try to get to the next level.
“I don’t care how much you want to win. If you’re not a good team and you don’t act and behave as a good team, you’ve got no chance to win in this league. To me, it’s about Game 1, get ready to play.’’