Early dominance aside, Ken Hitchcock’s team is built for a long playoff shelf life.
This time, I really mean it. It seems every year for the past three, I write a column on this being the “Year of the St. Louis Blues.”
Turns out I was just ahead of the game — or completely wrong.
Two years ago, St. Louis’ 109-point season was spoiled in a sweep in the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Kings again dispatched the Blues last season in a hard-fought 4 vs. 5 matchup in Round 1.
This year? Nobody’s beating the Big, Bad Blues.
At 18-4-3, they’re one of the best teams in the NHL, a well-balanced team from top to bottom with four lines that can be rolled, a deep defense corps of six and two great goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
Offensively, they rank second. Defensively, they rank fifth. Their power play stands atop the rest. Their home rink has been a place of dominance.
“Hopefully we crescendo at the right time, and that’s at the end of the season and into the playoffs,” captain David Backes said.
The Blues have made it clear the window is now. It started in 2011 when the Blues traded Erik Johnson as part of a deal to Colorado that brought Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Last season, the Blues acquired defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold, then extended both contracts after the season.
Backes called the Johnson trade the first “wakeup call for everyone. The guy you draft first overall, for him to be traded, you’re going, ‘No one is off the hook here, everyone is accountable. You’ve got to make sure you’re helping our team or else you might be saying goodbye the next day.’ ”
Backes called the Bouwmeester blockbuster the next realization that management was for real.
“The time is now and there’s no more rebuild,” Backes said. “That time has come and gone. We do have a great core of guys that’s grown together through some tough times. Now with ownership getting guys like Bo and Leopold and other guys we have that accentuate some of the other pieces, it’s a sign that we’re committed, we’re all in and it’s time to produce.”
Backes, a native of Blaine and former Spring Lake Park standout, is off to the best start of his career, scoring 12 goals and 25 points and being a plus-11 in 24 games. He has played on a line in every game but one with Blues third-leading scorer T.J. Oshie (22 points) and leading scorer Alex Steen, who is tied for first in the NHL with 20 goals and tied for second in the NHL with 31 points.
Steen, the son of former NHLer and Wild pro scout Thomas Steen, is as dangerous as they get in the offensive zone. He never stops moving and pucks seem to find him.
“He’s just a complete player,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It’s everything else he does that makes him a good player, not just popping in a few goals.”
Hitchcock has been as impressed with Backes, who has had some slow starts in his career. But last summer, Backes changed his workout regimen. Instead of going months working solely on strength and endurance, Backes began skating at Fogerty Arena in June.
“He looks quicker,” Hitchcock said.
The strength of the Blues is they have the ability to transition quickly out of their zone, chip the puck deep and go to work on the forecheck.
|Texas - WP: S. Tolleson||16||FINAL|
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|New Mexico St||77|
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