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Blues cling to hope that history can repeat

Thursday, 03.18.2010 / 10:27 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Blues cling to hope that history can repeat
The playoff picture isn't pretty for the St. Louis Blues, but after jumping from 15th to 8th last season, they never say die.
NEW YORK -- David Backes compared the St. Louis Blues' season to the stock market, and judging by the numbers, he might be on to something.

After making an improbable run to the playoffs last season, the Blues have not met up with their expectations this season. The ride has been filled with surges and sags that have left the players asking themselves what could have been as they still cling to some leaking confidence that they can make another incredible run to the postseason.

They helped themselves Thursday night with a 4-3 win at Madison Square Garden over the New York Rangers. It gave the Blues 75 points this season, good for 10th in the Western Conference and only five points fewer than the eighth-place Detroit Red Wings.

"We found out last year how well we can play and the teams we can beat and how we can beat them. I think we got away from that a little this year," Blues wing T.J. Oshie told NHL.com prior to Thursday's game. "I don't know (why that happened). Maybe it's getting overconfident, thinking it was going to be easy. Maybe it's forgetting what it took for us to battle back last year. Going from last place to sixth wasn't an easy task and it wasn't just our offense or goaltending that won it, it was everything coming together. We got away from that. Last year we were winning games 1-0 and that was good enough. That's all it takes."

After starting off with a pair of promising wins over Detroit in Stockholm, the Blues foundered until coach Andy Murray lost his job on Jan. 2 and was replaced on an interim basis by Davis Payne.

St. Louis was 5-13-3 at Scottrade Center and a putrid 14.2 percent on the power play (20 for 140) before coach Murray lost his job.

"If you really analyze it, you can look at our home record in the first 12 or 13 games and I think it stems right back to that," Blues GM Larry Pleau told NHL.com. "We had great goaltending and we weren't scoring at home and the power play wasn't very good. If you go back to those first 10 to 15 games at home I think there are a lot of answers there."

Pleau says a lot of what led to those rough first few months of the season can be traced back to growing pains.

The Blues are still a relatively young team with an average age of 28.3 that is inflated by Keith Tkachuk (38 later this month), Darryl Sydor (37) and Paul Kariya (35). They're all unrestricted free agents after the season.

They have 10 guys who are 25 or younger, including core players like Backes, Oshie, Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund and David Perron. Big-time prospects Lars Eller and Alex Pietrangelo aren't even a part of the equation yet.

It can be argued that last season, when the Blues went on their ridiculous run from 15th place to sixth over the second half, they were playing way above the curve for a team that is supposed to still be building its foundation.

"A lot of people say that, but I don't think I buy into it," Backes told NHL.com. "We had a group of guys here that bought into the system, bought into the team concept and did what is best for the team every night. We get that out of this group most nights, but there are other nights we get a little to individualistic. This game is a team game and if you try to do it on your own then the teams that play together will eat you alive."

Perhaps the expectations after last season have also eaten the Blues alive. Eight of their top 11 scorers have experienced a dip in production from last season. Included among the group that didn't dip is Erik Johnson, who sat out all of the 2008-09 with a knee injury.

"You can't say we got ourselves in the playoffs, but now we can't expect that again. That's the wrong way to think," Pleau said. "We expected it and now we have to learn how to play and operate in a situation when you're expected to do things. That's how you get better."

And, since Payne took over the Blues have been slightly better. They're 16-11-3, including a 6-4-2 record at home, and their power play is 21 for 115 (18.3 percent).

It still hasn't been good enough to put the Blues into the top eight in the tightly packed Western Conference.

St. Louis recently experienced one of its market surges by winning seven of eight games bridging the Olympic break, but barely made up any ground. Any of the little ground the Blues did make up was washed away with back-to-back losses earlier this week to Minnesota and Colorado.

"We don't like the way the landscape looks as opposed to one week ago," Payne said, "but we have every intention of making sure the picture changes over the next week."

The thing is they really do. Count them out if you want to, but the Blues believe they can get into the playoffs. They played that way Thursday night when Kariya turned his 400th career goal into the game-winner 8:24 into the third period.

"We still have a lot of energy in this locker room," said Oshie, who assisted on Kariya's goal. "I think we're up to the challenge."

It'll only happen if their market experiences another major surge.

"It doesn't go up every day," Backes said. "It takes a hit here and there. I think the same type of ride is happening here."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl


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