Reason to hope: More than any Blues team in years, this group was built for the playoffs
ST. LOUIS — Bernie Federko has been around the block for a while.
He spent 13 of his 14 NHL seasons with the St. Louis Blues. His No. 24 sweater was retired in 1991 and hangs from the rafters at Scottrade Center. The Hockey Hall of Famer (Class of 2002) even has a statue outside the rink. He’s now in his 17th season broadcasting Blues games.
So, yeah, Federko has seen a little bit of everything through the years.
What he sees now, he says, is the first St. Louis Blues team in a long time with a legitimate chance to capture the organization’s elusive first Stanley Cup.
This Blues team, despite how the final two weeks of the regular season played out, was built for the playoffs. And even though St. Louis has won just one playoff series (2012) in the past 10 seasons, this is a group that has been assembled to make a playoff run — not just this year, but beyond as well.
"So this team, under Doug Armstrong, this is perfect building," Federko says. "This is how you build a hockey club and this is how you see what you feel are your weaknesses and then you build around them. I think this team, especially with the signings and who he’s got under contract, too, this is a team that’s built for not only these playoffs, but probably three or four more years. No matter what happens this year, this is not just a one-time shot at winning. This is a team that’s been built that’s still real young that really has a fine future ahead of them."
Federko points to building through the draft with picks like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko; making smart trade acquisitions such as Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, Ryan Miller and Steve Ott; and then adding to the core with free agents such as Brenden Morrow and Derek Roy.
Of course, you can say that Federko is reciting the company line. He does, after all, bleed blue more than just about anybody else in St. Louis.
He’s certainly not alone in that opinion, however.
How about Las Vegas? Is there a more unbiased opinion than that of the sports books?
On Tuesday afternoon, even after losing their final six games, the St. Louis Blues were still getting 6-to-1 odds to win the 2014 Stanley Cup, according to Bovada.
The Presidents’ Cup-winning Boston Bruins, at 7-to-2, were the only team with better odds to win Lord Stanley’s Chalice than the Blues.
"This group is built to win the Stanley Cup, but winning a Stanley Cup is a lot easier said than done," said Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan. "You look at Anaheim, you look at the L.A. Kings, you look at San Jose — and that’s just the Western Conference. Then you look at the Bruins. …
"They’ve got good leadership. Now they’ve got good goaltending. The difference that separates good teams from great teams is goaltending. You look at all the past Stanley Cup winners and their goaltender was usually nominated for MVP of the tournament or if not won it. They are big. They’re aggressive. They’ve got a lot of character on their team. They have a lot of guys who play with passion. They’ve got as good a chance as any."
The Blues have been building toward this for a couple years now.
They’ve been through playoff battles with Ken Hitchcock the past two seasons, beating the Sharks in 2012 before losing to the Kings, and then losing to the Kings in six games in the rematch last year.
After competing for the Presidents’ Trophy until their late-season swoon, the Blues (52-23-7, 111 points) still finished fourth in the NHL behind Boston (117 points), Anaheim (116) and Colorado (112).
What’s different about the Blues this season?
"They’ve got two very dangerous lines," Dallas coach Lindy Ruff said before his team’s last game at Scottrade, when the Stars handed the Blues their first of seven losses in their final nine games. "I think, when I look at their team, their special teams have been excellent in my eyes. Power play has been a difference-maker. When their power play has struggled, a little bit of their offense has been lost. But, for me, when I look at their games, they feed off their special teams.
"That back end is as good as any back end in the league. I think they have some real good grit that can change the course of a game, some heavy bodies that can slug it out in the corners and play a possession game. Then they’ve got some guys, watch the Minnesota game, it’s 4-0 and Oshie gets one crack and it’s in the top corner."
Oshie’s emergence this season is part of the growth the team envisioned a few years ago. With players such as Oshie, Backes, Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk maturing and youngsters such as Tarasenko — who the Blues are hoping will be healthy at some point in the playoffs — and Schwartz emerging, the team’s long-term plan is taking shape. Add in guys with playoff experience — Miller, for example, has won 25 playoff games, and Morrow has played in a Stanley Cup finals series and 19 playoff wins — and the roster is as suited for a playoff run as any in St. Louis in quite some time.
"The one thing I really admire about St. Louis, they just come after you wave after wave after wave," Nolan said.
There are plenty of issues surrounding St. Louis going into the playoffs, including injuries, lack of scoring and whether Miller can rebound after a rough stretch. But the positives that propelled the Blues to a 52-win season are still the reasons to think they can turn things around, starting with their first-round matchup against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
This is a team that finished second in the NHL in penalty-kill percentage (85.7), third in goals-against (2.3 per game), sixth in goals per game (2.9) and eighth in power-play percentage (19.8).
St. Louis will go into the playoffs relying on depth, veteran leadership, a goaltender in Miller who has plenty of big-game experience, and a defensive unit led by Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester that ranks as one of the stingiest in all of hockey.
"The part of this Blues team that I’ve liked all year in comparison to previous seasons is their defence," wrote Toronto-based TSN.ca columnist Scott Cullen in an email. "It’s not like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk haven’t been good all along, because they have been, but adding Jay Bouwmeester last year and getting Jordan Leopold in the offseason, made this a deeper group, one through eight, to the point that I think their group matches up favourably with any others."
The Blues know their first-round opponent is formidable.
Even though St. Louis won the season series, winning three of five meetings, the Blues are now considered the underdog by some because of the way they finished the regular season.
That’s fine by them. They understand.
But they also know that this series provides a chance to show how far they’ve come these past few years and to make a statement that they’ve grown up and they’ve learned from their playoff disappointments of the past.
They were built for this opportunity.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.