After the Blues’ morning skate Tuesday, Adam Cracknell looked around at his linemates, Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves, and shook his head.
“To be where we are now, we’ve very grateful of what we had to go through to be here,” Cracknell said. “Sitting on the bus in Peoria, you don’t think you’re going to be playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions. We’ll never forget what it took to get here, but we have to live in the moment right now. … that’s why we’re here.”
With T.J. Oshie returning for Game 1 of the team’s Western Conference playoff series against Los Angeles, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had several options when deciding which forward to remove from the lineup, including among the top six who are underachieving.
Using recent history, Cracknell had been a healthy scratch in two of the Blues’ last seven games. But Hitchcock elected to sit rookie Vladimir Tarasenko and keep the club’s fourth line of Cracknell, Porter and Reaves intact.
“I’ve always believed that the first kick at the can in the playoffs is for the veteran players,” Hitchcock said. “You give them a go. Tarasenko and (fellow rookie Dmitrij) Jaskin will probably get time in the playoffs. But you want to give veterans a chance to prove that they want to take the ball and run with it.”
Hitchcock might have been focusing on the top three lines when referencing the veterans, but he also could have meant the fourth line. While the three have combined to play in only 304 NHL regular-season games, Porter (28), Cracknell (27) and Reaves (26) have totaled 845 games among them in the American Hockey League.
“We all kind of came in on the same boat, ‘Cracks’ a year after ‘Reaver’ and myself, and we’ve taken the same boat on the way up here,” Porter said. “It was kind of a couple of games here and there until we were able to stick. Now we’re going to get an opportunity to play in the playoffs.”
Going into Game 1, the line had been arguably the Blues’ best, accounting for six of the club’s last 22 even-strength goals.
“You’re all talking about our fourth line being our fourth line, but they’re more than our fourth line. ... they score,” Hitchcock said. “The fourth line as an energy line, those days are gone. The hockey is too good. Your fourth line needs to contribute and, boy, ours has come through in spades. They’ve pressured on the forecheck; they’ve played against top-six forwards.
“You’ve got effectively two scoring players (Porter and Cracknell) that play there, two players that really light it up in the American Hockey League. But they’ve learned to play a different game up here. When you give guys like Cracknell and Porter a chance, they score. And I think Revo has even caught on to that. The banging around lines aren’t effective anymore. But this is a very good line, which can play against top lines, which makes us more effective.”
LET THEM PLAY
A year after they combined for 284 hits in a four-game playoff series, the Blues and Kings are expecting another physical series. Hitchcock was asked what his message to the Blues would be considering the history of physical play.
“My message to the players or to the referees?” Hitchcock said, referring to Tuesday’s officials Brian Pochmara and Marc Joanette and supervisor Rob Shick. “My message to the referees was stand in the third row. Just get the hell out of the way and let us play because there’s two teams that know what’s at stake, two teams that play the game the right way and this is a series that deserves to be played 5 on 5. Both teams are great 5 on 5 teams, it deserves to be played that way and I think the referees will act accordingly.”
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester made his NHL playoff debut after suiting up in 764 career regular-season games. … Hitchcock reunited the “Kid Line” of Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund in Game 1. … The Blues’ main healthy scratches Tuesday were Tarasenko, Jaskin and Scott Nichol, along with defensemen Kris Russell and Ian Cole and goaltender Jake Allen.