Nobody expected the St. Louis Blues to finish atop the Central Division, especially after firing Davis Payne and hiring Ken Hitchcock. It seemed as though this would be yet another year of rebuilding for the young Blues, but the quick turnaround turned into a wildly successful season that surpassed even the highest of expectations.
Now that it's playoff time, the Blues will look to turn that regular season success into the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup. We asked Sean Gallagher of Blues blog St. Louis Game Time to answer a few questions about the team as they prepare for the postseason.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Blues heading into the postseason?
First of all, "Blues fans" and "confidence" aren't frequent sentence-fellows, so it's hard to say that any of us are feeling over-confident about the Blues' playoff run this year. That said, the Blues are accustomed to playing a style of game that is very similar to what the playoff battles will look like. They battle hard for the puck in all three zones, work well together as a unit to keep the other team to the perimeter and use quick counterattacks to create scoring chances.
The way they won games all year is how they'll win games in the playoffs: they have no superstars to carry the load, so everyone knows they have to work hard and contribute to win.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding the Blues heading into the playoffs?
The Blues' playoff history and is long and full of fluky, back-breaking goals against. My biggest question mark is if we can avoid having a defenseman throw a puck into our own net this time around.
Beyond that, the big question is whether the Blues, who got so far out in front of the division that they were able to take their foot off the pedal down the stretch, can find that gear again. The Blues of the last 10 games did not play with the same tenacity and killer instinct that the earlier version of this team did. Which team shows up for round one?
3) If there's one player on the Blues that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
David Backes is built for the playoffs and I think that he'll be the go-to story for nearly every national broadcast. But Alex Pietrangelo is the guy whose career could go to the next level this spring. He has started to get more notice outside of St. Louis, but his poise and excellent play in all three zones is about to finally turn a lot of heads around the league. Fame, meet Alex Pietrangelo; Alex Pietrangelo, meet Fame.
4) When all's said and done, the Blues' playoff chances hinge on ...
It's easy to say goaltending, because Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have been so great for the Blues this year, but having two guys who can go into lockdown mode is a good thing. The playoff life of the Blues hinges on whether they can stay in the team concept they played all year and battle hard on every play of every shift in every game. When they do that, they look a lot like last year's Boston Bruins. When they don't, they look like a team that won't weather the playoff storm very well.
That and not giving up goals to guys like Owen Nolan from center ice. That would definitely help.
5) Give a prediction. How far will St. Louis go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
A bold, non-jinxy prediction, you say? Hmm. How about this: this Blues team has the capability to go just as far as they can manage to go this year by putting in the work and dedication to get to that level.
For more on the Blues, check in with St. Louis Game Time.