After back-to-back 28-goal seasons, Chris Stewart was one of those players labeled to have a breakthrough campaign, one in which eclipsing the 30- or 40-goal plateau seemed reachable.
But heading into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Stewart hasn't even reached the 20-goal mark, which was far below what was expected of the power forward.
"He's got a lot of talent, and I think he'd be the first to admit that this year hasn't been perfect for him," Blues winger Jamie Langenbrunner said of Stewart. "But he's also learned to play a lot more of a team game. It's one thing to go out and score 30 goals when you don't have to play in your own end and do that; but playing for Hitch, that's not going to happen.
"He's had to give up power-play minutes and buy into being a part of a team, and credit to him, he's done that. He definitely can be a game-changer. We're going to need that. We don't have a first line that's going to go out and score four goals a night. They're our best checking line; they're going to have to go out and shut down a top line. It's going to be guys on the second, third and fourth line that are going to have to step up."
Stewart can be easily overlooked when an opponent must contend with the David Backes, David Perron, Andy McDonald, Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund. The Blues don't have the guys with gaudy numbers; instead they spread the wealth nicely. But, having witnessed Stewart's prior successes, including 15 goals in 26 games a season ago after the Blues acquired him from Colorado, Stewart could definitely be an X-Factor in a series, both scoring-wise and with his physical play.
"I sure hope so," Stewart said. "I think that's the time of the year … you look at a team like Boston last year, they had the (Brad) Marchands, but they also had the bigger-body guys like the (Nathan) Hortons and the (Milan) Lucics who scored big goals, helped score big goals and helped play that physical role. They definitely left a big mark on the (Stanley) Cup, they were the difference-makers. I think this time of year, when it becomes a man's game, you've got to have a heavy stick. You've got to play that physical nature."
Earlier this season, Hitchcock moved Stewart out of a top-six role, concentrating on different elements of his game in hopes of getting Stewart's game in order.
"We've worked hard on his conditioning, he's worked hard on his conditioning; he's quicker, he's quicker to pucks, he's more engaged, he's got his speed back," Hitchcock said. "I think he went through a phase where he didn't have his speed, so he was kind of late going to the net, but he's got his speed back. He's a very attractive player now because of the way he's been playing. It's been good for us."
And as the Blues head into the playoffs for only the second time in the past seven years, Stewart hopes he's not taken seriously.
A little extra motivation never hurts.
"I kind of hope they have that mentality, to be honest," Stewart said. "If they want to be doubters, I definitely have to make them believers. You can't just get caught up in goals, assists and points. You look at the bigger picture. … It's going to come down to a lot of pressure, but that's a good thing. You want the pressure on you this time of the year. This is what we've been playing for all year, and this is the time of year to do it."