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Blues finally break through to Western Final

Defeat Stars in Game 7 to advance past second round for first time in 15 years

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

DALLAS -- Celebratory shouts and cheers could be heard from behind a thick, black curtain while the Dallas Stars trudged into their dressing room. Their heads were down, their dreams over. The free-wheeling team described as "the future of the NHL" by St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock would have to wait another season.

The Stars had succumbed to the League's present, in the form of those formerly downtrodden, dismissed Blues, who have never won the Stanley Cup and hadn't even played in a Western Conference Final in a decade and a half. The Blues had been a team that couldn't get out of the first round, that nearly cost their coach his job, that just wasn't quite good enough when it mattered after being more than good enough through regular season after regular season.

They are good enough now. They are here. They are moving on, with a no-question-about-it 6-1 win against the Stars in Game 7 of the second round at American Airlines Center on Wednesday.

St. Louis scored three times in the first period, twice in the second and into an empty net in the third in defeating Dallas and earning the series-clinching win.

Video: STL@DAL, Gm7: Fabbri lifts backhander past Lehtonen

Next up, that conference final.

"It's been on the goal sheet every single year," said Blues captain David Backes, who has spent all 10 seasons of his NHL career in St. Louis and who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. "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, different guys stepping up, and a goaltender that's been fantastic. You love having good goaltending in the playoffs. It seems to be a key to winning."

There was a wink in that statement, grin on his face.

It was, in the end, just what the Stars didn't have. Dallas coach Lindy Ruff was forced to pull Kari Lehtonen after he allowed three goals on eight shots in the first period; another goal was called back because Vladimir Tarasenko was offside. Antti Niemi did not fare much better, in a series in which the Stars were forced to pull their goaltender three times in seven games.

Video: STL@DAL, Gm7: Backes pads the lead with great shot

The Stars were betrayed by their goaltending. The Blues were lifted by theirs, including in a game after which Troy Brouwer could find no other word to describe his team and his teammates than "dominant."

"It's taken a lot of hard work from these guys," Backes said. "It's taken a group that has really bound together when we've had our back against the walls in a couple Game 7s and played our best hockey when we really needed it."

But maybe this was here all along, building. Maybe this was presaged by all that losing and those disappointments. This is what teams do. They miss and miss and miss and then, when the right ingredients are finally mixed, when the veterans come in and the rookies emerge and the stars line up in just the right way, teams make a push. This is the Blues' push.

They have defeated the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in a Game 7. They have defeated the Western Conference No. 1 seed Stars in a Game 7. They are not cowed. They are ready.

"Struggles can be struggles for a lot of different reasons," said Brouwer, who the Blues acquired from the Washington Capitals in the T.J. Oshie trade July 2. "They were a team that was playing L.A. and Chicago in the first round and the second round year after year. [L.A. and Chicago] kept going on to win Stanley Cups. So it may not have been because they weren't able to do it; they were just up against phenomenal opponents.

"I think we've really risen [this season], we've really come together as a team. We've really wanted this from Day One. We're putting ourselves in a good situation to continue going forward. But we're only halfway there."

Video: STL@DAL, Gm7: Elliott denies the Stars in the 2nd

This is not yet a coronation. The Blues still have one more series to get out of the Western Conference, one more after that to possibly add their names to the Cup. But this is something; something special. Something that hasn't come to St. Louis for 15 years, and for 15 years before that.

It has been a long time. But the future is still the future. For the moment, St. Louis is now.

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