Playoff inexperience a non-factor for Blues
ST. LOUIS – The question was common this week, and goalie Jaroslav Halak turned to the crowd after practice to explain how the St. Louis Blues have faith in their chance to advance despite playoff inexperience.
The past doesn’t matter, he said without emotion to the cameras and microphones nearby. Hockey can be an unforgiving game, but it rewards teams that stay true to an approach that made them excel.
Such was the Blues’ reality in the days before their Western Conference quarterfinals series against the San Jose Sharks that begins Thursday at the Scottrade Center. St. Louis earned its first playoff berth since 2009. Meanwhile, San Jose has played in the postseason 12 of the past 13 years.
The inquiries came fast in the Blues locker room at St. Louis Mills, each framed in various ways but all similar: How will St. Louis respond against a tested postseason opponent? How will the Blues react knowing few on coach Ken Hitchcock’s bench have lived a deep playoffs run?
“Right now is right now,” said Halak, who was named the Blues’ Game 1 starter. “It’s the present. I just need to play simple, play my game. … I know in the playoffs, it’s a little different game than the regular season. But you still have to do your job – stop the puck and help the guys. … Just play and have fun and don’t put any extra pressure on yourself.”
Avoiding pressure will be crucial, and the Blues will lean on seasoned teammates to do so. Defenseman Kent Huskins, winger Jamie Langenbrunner and centers Jason Arnott and Scott Nichol have played 339 postseason games between them.
Meanwhile, some key contributors such as defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk have never appeared in the playoffs. Other notable names such as center David Backes, defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and wingers T.J. Oshie and David Perron have each played in four postseason contests.
“I think the biggest thing is be a calming influence,” Langenbrunner said when asked about being a mentor. “It is the playoffs, but it’s still the same game. It’s a little ramped up. … Teams aren’t going to get better. It’s about teams that can make the other team crack. For us, it’s just about staying with that focus and doing the things that we do well.”
The Blues did plenty well in the regular season to clinch the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed. They formed a reputation as one of the NHL’s best with a 30-6-5 record at the Scottrade Center. They formed an identity as a group that relies on stars such as Backes (24 goals) and Perron (21) to provide opportune scoring to supplement the league’s best goaltending tandem in Halak and Brian Elliott.
But, as Halak made clear, what happened before the puck drops in the playoff opener is irrelevant. The Blues will confront the grind of the NHL’s second season. They will confront a mental challenge as well as a test of attrition.
Yes, few in the Blues locker room have experienced a long playoffs stay. But they hope the same focus that allowed them to clinch the franchise’s first Central Division title since 2000 will prolong their season in the coming weeks.
“What I like about our players right now is every little detail we talk that we need to do, we’re doing,” Hitchcock said. “We’re going to need all those details in place. We’re lucky, because the players have bought in since day one. … We are doing a lot of things to get us ready for what we think is going to be a very significant challenge.”
And the Blues’ challenge will be stiff. St. Louis swept the four-game series against San Jose in the regular season. However, the Sharks closed their campaign by winning four consecutive contests to finish with 96 points – one behind the Phoenix Coyotes for the Pacific Division title.
Halak and Elliott were strong in the previous meetings, allowing the Blues to outscore the Sharks 11-3. Each goalie started twice and earned a shutout. So despite a vast difference in postseason experience between the teams, the Blues have reason to believe they can control their opponent.
“You’re going to have your ups and downs,” Nichol said. “You’re going to learn from it. That’s why it’s a seven-game series. If we stumble and lose a few, it’s not a panic. You’ve got four games to win. Experience helps, but we have so much youthful enthusiasm. It’s exciting – these guys haven’t been in this situation. We’ve got some young legs that are ready to go.”
Those legs will gain more playoff experience beginning Thursday. A new season begins, and the Blues have faith their postseason push can take them far.