DALLAS -- When David Backes arrived in St. Louis during the 2006-07 season, the Blues were coming off a rare year without a Stanley Cup Playoff appearance. Before missing the playoffs in 2005-2006, the Blues had played beyond the regular season for 25 straight seasons. The Blues had even been to the Western Conference Final in 2001.
So perhaps his first thought upon joining the team wasn't about the years of frustration he might endure, years without playoff success, years without playoffs entirely. As Backes said after St. Louis eliminated the Dallas Stars 6-1 in Game 7 of the second round on Wednesday, "It's been on the goal sheet every single year.
"But this year we seemed to have a closer group that was willing to sacrifice more and when things got tougher, bind closer together rather than start pointing fingers. That's something we've been trying to build here for a long time. We seem to have the right group now."
That was why, after the Blues reached the conference final for the first time in 15 years, coach Ken Hitchcock reflected on Backes (10 seasons in St. Louis), Alexander Steen (eight), Alex Pietrangelo (eight) and Patrik Berglund (eight), the players who had endured in St. Louis, the players who were finally being rewarded.
"I'm happiest for the guys who were here before I got here," said Hitchcock, whose Blues will face the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). "And those are the guys that did all the bleeding to get us into a position now. They were the guys that took their lumps when the team was trying to just rebuild itself. Those guys, like Backes and Berglund and Petro and those guys that have been here a while, I'm happy for them because they get a chance to strut a little bit."
This is the time for the imported players, too, for Troy Brouwer and Paul Stastny. This is the time for the rookies, for Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko.
But for the rest of them? The Blues veterans? It is more than time. And they were far from passengers in this run. Backes has six goals in the playoffs, one more than he had previously scored in his postseason career. Berglund got a goal in Game 7, a back-breaker with 3.8 seconds remaining in the first period. Steen and Pietrangelo have been among the most steady and reliable Blues, doing all the little things and many of the big ones.
"We were due to have a little breakthrough performance," Backes said. "We beat a heck of a team (the Chicago Blackhawks) in the first round, [it] gives us a lot of confidence and builds our game. Then we're up against a heck of a team over there, too, that they just never would say die and kept coming and coming and coming."
But so did the Blues.
Since Backes, the longest-tenured member of the Blues, arrived, they have missed the playoffs four times. They have reached the second round once. They have lost in the first round four times. And they have made it back to the conference final, four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
"We get a chance to play for something, a trophy that's very important to get to a bigger trophy that's even more important," Hitchcock said. "But those are the guys that I was really happy for because they've been through - Alex Steen and these type of guys - they've been through so much just before I got there. I'm more new to it. Five years isn't very long, but these guys were in there three to four years even before I got in there. That's a long time."
That it is.
And there are no guarantees of returning again soon. That was something that Hitchcock reflected on in a speech to the team before Game 7. He talked about how he had gotten to the top, won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with Dallas, how he had thought it was easy. It wasn't.
"It's the chance of a lifetime, you can't pass it up. You just can't pass it up," Hitchcock said, referencing what he had told his team. "To play in a conference final, I know as a coach here in Dallas I took it for granted and it was a big mistake.
"I left here thinking that all you do is play in conference finals, Cup finals. I went to Philadelphia and we had good early success there. I thought that's all you do. That was 2004. Never been back [to the conference final] since. That's 12 years. Sometimes you can play your whole career and never get to play in a conference final."
For this group, there had been no conference finals. There had been no Cup runs.
"The reality is it's not the norm in the League," Backes said, of what Hitchcock had experienced early on in winning the Cup in his fourth season as a head coach. "It's a heck of a task to get to this point. You put the work in and you get rewarded and it's well worth it and well worth the investment."
This season is not over yet. St. Louis is still alive, with dreams of even bigger things to come, dreams that have been a long time coming.