In the past five years, the St. Louis Blues' worst season was the 2007-2008 campaign in which the team finished with a record of 33-36-13 for 79 points good for last place in the Central Division.
For those that remember the high-flying NHL of the 1980s, it seemed like any team with 81 points made the postseason (which partially accounted for how the Blues made 25 straight playoff appearances, a streak which began in 1980 and ended in 2004).
Gone are the figure-skating days where a scorer's 100-point season was barely a blip on the radar. Not when Wayne Gretzky eclipsed the 200-point plateau in 80 games with regularity. True enforcers roamed the ice and no one—I mean no one—messed with the other team's top skill guy. And in a broader context, a hockey team had to be truly atrocious to miss the playoffs.
In today's NHL (take this season for example), the 8th place team in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Kings, earned 95 points. Last year, the Chicago Blackhawks also placed 8th even though they earned 97 points on the season.
Every team that punches a ticket to the playoffs is there for a reason—they either have talent offensively, an All-Star caliber goalie, smothering defense, excellent special teams, or a combination of those strengths.
So when the Blues caught fire for nearly five months following the appointment of Ken Hitchcock (who replaced the overmatched Davis Payne) and finished with 109 points, expectations were reasonably high for the young, but maturing Blues. St. Louis earned its first Central Division title in 12 long years.
After handling the San Jose Sharks in Round 1, the Blues seemed to have a clear path to their first Stanley Cup appearance since the 1960s.
The flawed and aging Detroit Red Wings were ousted by the Nashville Predators. Phoenix knocked out the dangerous Chicago Blackhawks. And in Round 2, the Coyotes were in the process of dispatching the Preds.
Essentially every team in the Western Conference that gave the Blues fits during the regular season was headed for the golf course—if the Blues could just hold up their end of the bargain against the Kings.
It was billed as a showdown of mirror-image teams—low-scoring, great goaltending, physical hard-checking forwards. But something seemed very wrong about this matchup. How could a team that included Anze Kopitar, Dustins Brown and Penner, Mike Richards and Drew Doughty end up scoring 16 fewer goals than the offensively-challenged Blues?
At the trade deadline, while the Blues stood pat, sitting in first place most of the year (but also handcuffed financially), the Kings were scrambling and addressed their low-scoring ways by picking up Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets which re-united him with former fellow Flyer Richards.
As it turns out, all questions about the Kings (and the Blues) were answered in the playoffs. L.A. never clicked until it brought Carter aboard, who was like a missing piece in a "Where's Waldo" jigsaw puzzle. Apparently the Kings found Waldo just in time.
The Kings, a supremely talented team, had underachieved all year. The St. Louis Blues, by contrast, were finding success by playing a perfect team system brought in by Hitchcock. But that also meant the Blues were walking a fine line with little margin for error, lacking the offense to overcome many mistakes.
When the Kings dominated and eventually swept the wide-eyed Blues in four games, ignorant fans and critics were quick to call the Blues squad a 109-point fraud. When in reality, it was the meeting of two teams headed in opposite directions—both toward who they really were, talent-wise.
And as the Kings have gone up 3-0 in their series with the Phoenix Coyotes, it is all the more confirmation that there is no hotter team in the NHL playoffs than the Kings. They have a world-class goalie in Jonathan Quick, plenty of hard-hitting grit in captain Dustin Brown and defenseman Willie Mitchell, and loads of offensive wizards like the aforementioned Kopitar, Richards and Carter.
Yes, the Blues were a mirror-image of the Kings—just minus all those players mentioned in the previous paragraph.
The Blues had a very successful campaign despite being hit with concussion after concussion to their top contributors, but they persevered. Young guns T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Backes, and David Perron finally have a taste of playoff hockey in their mouths.
We expect they are already looking forward to a second helping in 2013.
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