The St. Louis Blues came into the shortened 2012-13 season with lofty expectations after flirting with winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2011-12. The ended up two points short with 109 and two wins shy of matching the franchise record of 51 wins.
Coach Ken Hitchcock was coming off a Jack Adams Trophy, along with a Jennings Trophy for goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who were the backbones of a team that allowed a League-low 165 goals, one off the NHL record of 164 set by the 2003-04 New Jersey Devils.
But after a strong start, there was a rocky middle that left the Blues on the cusp of falling off their playoff perch. They have righted the ship in April and are firmly entrenched among the Western Conference's top eight after clinching a postseason berth Tuesday night.
DRIVE TO THE PLAYOFFS
Here are the five reasons why St. Louis is back in the postseason for a second straight season:
Elliott was half of the Blues' goalie story last season, posting a League-best 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage while tying for the most shutouts with nine. But he fell off the ledge quickly to start the new season. He was 3-6-1 with a League-worst 3.65 GAA and .851 save percentage at the end of March. But Elliott took a two-game conditioning stint with the American Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen and has come back in April to post a 9-2-0 record with a 1.33 GAA and .947 save percentage. He set the franchise record for most consecutive shutout minutes at 201:17 during his recent hot stretch.
However, it was Allen who saved the Blues' goaltending early on and steered the ship back on track. The Blues were in an 0-4-1 funk when he got the call to make his first NHL start Feb. 13 in Detroit; he won that game, which began a stretch of five consecutive wins in games Allen started. He's 9-4-0 with a 2.46 GAA and .905 save percentage.
2. Impact of Bouwmeester/Leopold trades
The Blues had one of the top defensive units in the NHL last season, but there were glaring holes this season, especially on the left side. But general manager Doug Armstrong's ability to trade for veteran defensemen Jordan Leopold from Buffalo and then pull off the blockbuster for Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary has helped the Blues win 10 of 13 and move them from ninth place to being on the verge of gaining the home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Bouwmeester was the top-unit defenseman the Blues had searched for to pair with Alex Pietrangelo, and he's tallied a goal and five assists with a plus-4 rating in 12 games. Leopold has been a steadying influence for youngster Kevin Shattenkirk. He has two assists in 13 games.
3. Strong penalty kill
The Blues were horrendous on the penalty kill in the first 15 games of the season despite going 9-5-1; they were saved by a League-high power play that was eclipsing at a ridiculous 36-percent mark. The PK was in the bottom third of the League, and it began to affect the team's position in the standings.
But in the past 31 games, the Blues have killed 78 of 87 opposition power plays [89.7 percent], and that has vaulted them into eighth in the NHL at 84 percent. Even more impressive is that the Blues have allowed just four power-play goals in the last 47 opportunities at home and have allowed seven total at home, tied for the fewest in the League.
4. Vladimir Sobotka's consistency
The Blues are stacked with talented forwards, but the consistency and versatility of Vladimir Sobotka makes him arguably the team's MVP. Sobotka has been used anywhere from the second- to fourth-line center in a season that has seen him already tally a career-best eight goals to go with 19 points. Over an 82-game season, he would surpass his career high in assists (22) and points (29).
Hitchcock has asked Sobotka to play a gritty role on the fourth line when needed as well as play between skilled forwards [he's currently with Andy McDonald and Chris Stewart] on the second line. Sobotka's been a rock in Hitchcock's lineup that has seen McDonald, Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko's lose time with injuries as well as some inconsistent offensive production by some of the top-line forwards.
5. Road warriors
The Blues, who had the NHL's best home record a season ago (30-6-5), have seen their home record get better after an inauspicious beginning. But the team's ability to win away from Scottrade Center -- especially while going 5-1-0 during in April stretch that saw them play six of seven on the road -- has more than compensated.
The Blues' 14 wins away from home (14-9-1) trail only the Chicago Blackhawks (18) and Pittsburgh Penguins (18) in road victories. They've needed that road success it to balance out a rather mediocre 13-8-1 home mark through 22 games.