The St. Louis Blues have been one of the surprises of the 2011-12 NHL season, and they can continue their impressive rise to elite status Thursday night by becoming the first team to clinch a spot in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
St. Louis needs two points against Carolina at newly-named PNC Arena, and the Blues need Calgary and San Jose to lose their home games in regulation, to Phoenix and Nashville, respectively. If those three things happen, the Blues will be the first team to earn an invitation to the NHL's "big dance."
It has been a remarkable season for the Blues. After decades of being a model of consistency, including an NHL-record 25 consecutive postseason berths, St. Louis has been to the playoffs only once in the past six seasons -- a first-round exit in 2008-09.
Not only have the Blues stormed back into playoff contention, they are in the midst of one of the best seasons in franchise history. After a 6-7-0 start, the Blues replaced coach Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock and have risen to the top of the NHL standings.
The Blues are the best team in the League at preventing goals, and it has been the biggest reason for their success. They've allowed 13 fewer than the second-stingiest team (and the New York Rangers have played two fewer games), and St. Louis goaltenders Brian Elliott
and Jaroslav Halak
are first and second in the League in goals against average.
St. Louis' best regular season was in 1999-2000 when the Blues won the Presidents' Trophy and finished with a team-record 114 points. A win Thursday would put the Blues at 100 points with 10 games to play.