Last time the St. Louis Blues advanced beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs, Barret Jackman was a rookie who appeared in just one playoff game. The Blues were led by players like Al MacInnis, Doug Weight and Scott Mellanby -- 40-plus point producers on that 2001-02 squad who have long since joined the ranks of NHL management and coaches.
Modern observers hear the Blues are in the playoffs in 2012 and think of it as an oddity. Their victory in game 5 over the perennially contending San Jose Sharks seems to make their tale all the more novel.
But the Blues used to be accustomed to this sort of thing. Once upon a time, the Blues made the playoffs every year and made a little noise every few years, always starting over again the next season while the true league powers rose and fell.
The conundrum for Blues fans: From 1980 to the 2005 lockout, the team made the playoffs 25 consecutive seasons, yet advanced beyond the second round only twice during that span. There was dependable regularity to their being in the NHL's spring dance, but also a Sisyphean feel to the exercise. One round, maybe two rounds, and out. Every year.
Now, after several years spent rebuilding from the franchise implosion that former high-spending owner Bill Laurie and the lockout wrought, the franchise is officially back. Unlike their most recent playoff appearance -- a brief, four-game sweep by the Vancouver Canucks in 2009 -- this time they dispatched their foe, finishing off the Sharks with a 3-1 win Saturday night.
Will things be different this time?
Ken Hitchcock's hiring in November -- the first coaching change of the season -- signaled the franchise's serious intent, their expectations for this to be the year a young squad stepped to the next level. With Hitchcock at the helm, the team has delivered everything team management expected and more. The goaltending stabilized. The scoring chances against continued to be limited. Young players of whom much was expected finally exhibited their potential on a nightly basis -- no inconsistency or absent nights for T.J. Oshie or Patrik Berglund. Veterans like Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol were given dedicated bottom-six roles with specific assignments.
The Blues now pose such a balanced threat throughout their forward and defensive corps that league experts even call them ... a contender.
It's a different era for the Blues. A strange feeling for fans. Truly, the team still hasn't done anything yet. (Making the playoffs and winning a round? Why, that used to be old hat!) But they look better equipped and more poised to do something big than any of their playoff predecessors of old ever did.
This team wasn't built simply to make the playoffs. It was built to do something once it got there. Is it for real? The next round, quite possibly against the very tough Los Angeles Kings, should provide the answer.