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Blues, Sharks aiming to join League's elite

by Louie Korac /

ST. LOUIS -- Getting off to good starts and raising eyebrows has been common for the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks in recent seasons.

But when the teams clash Tuesday at Scottrade Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN), it will be a battle of two of the Western Conference's elite and unbeaten teams.

And it hasn't taken long for hockey pundits to make the comparison to two other conference giants, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.

The Blues (4-0-0) and Sharks (5-0-0) are being touted as teams that could unseat the Blackhawks and Kings, the last two Stanley Cup champions, as kings of the hill. But the conversation always comes back to one particular area: To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Blues and Sharks own exactly zero Stanley Cup championships on their respective resumes. So until one or the other can reach the pinnacle of the NHL, both teams will stay motivated to reach the promised land

The Sharks and Blues have watched the Kings and Blackhawks emerge from the West as the two most recent Stanley Cup champions. They're aiming to join them among the NHL's elite. (Photo: Getty Images, A.J. Phillips/NHLI)

"We obviously want to reach the point where they've been the last few years," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said of the Blackhawks and Kings. "I think San Jose's been chipping away at it a lot longer than we have, but they're always a strong team and I think we're starting to become that team that has a good team every year and puts forth a great effort to win a Stanley Cup.

"I think this year we're focusing more on ourselves and trying to create our own identity, and not worrying about [whether] we're the new Chicago or we're the new L.A."

The Kings eliminated the Blues and Sharks from the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and for the Blues it marked the second postseason in a row the Kings ended their season. But according to coach Ken Hitchcock, losing to the Kings in 2012 (a four-game sweep in the conference semifinals) was night and day compared to last season's six-game series in the opening round.

"Yeah, we lost, and yeah, they beat us in six, but look at where we were a year ago playing those guys, it wasn't even close," Hitchcock said of the Kings. "It was like men with boys, and then a year later we're there tooth-and-nail every shift. I think our guys figured out, 'You know, that's the defending Stanley Cup champion ... we're there. We can play with them.' And I think our confidence has been able to grow from there.

"Yeah, we're disappointed and bothered and people talk about losing in the first round, and I'm like, 'What's the difference?' Losing in the first round or the third round, it's all based on the opponent. We played an opponent that had a lot of experience, a lot of grit, a lot of character, well-coached and we took them right to the limit."

The Sharks started last season 7-0-0 and were drawing comparisons to previous teams that won the Stanley Cup, only to lose in seven games against the Kings in the second round.

"It's motivation to do better," Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "It's tough when you lose a Game 7. [The Kings] took care of it, but we'll be ready for this year. Every year you want to do better than last year. We did that last year, and this year we'll work on making the playoffs and making it as high as we can and go from there."

The Blues also thought they could make the leap. They led the Kings 2-0 in their series until Los Angeles won the next four. It was a bitter feeling for the Blues and one they can add to the build-on-it department.

"It's about results and they've reached that goal that everyone in the League is aiming for," Blues right wing Chris Stewart said of Chicago and Los Angeles. "I don't think we're at that elite status yet, but that's something we're building for. At the end of the day we're not worried about what anyone else says. We know what we bring to the table and we control our own fate and we're just going to play our own game.

"We're only four games in the season here. We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. We know it's going to be a long grind. You have to have a short-term memory in this game."

Sharks center Joe Thornton agreed.

"It's just so early on in the year," he said. "You're just trying to get your feet wet with your new team. Comparisons [with the Kings and Blackhawks] aren't really fair at this point of the year. It's so early; we're still in the middle of October. We still have a long way to go to get there.

"But [the Blues] have been a good team, we've got a good team. They got caught by L.A. last year, we got caught by L.A. last year. The West has some quality teams out here. The Blues and us are [two] of them."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan said he feels like his team is equipped to battle the top teams.

"I think we're equipped to challenge anybody in the League," McLellan said. "If we play the way we're capable of playing consistently night in and night out, I think that teams have to come in and play their 'A' game to beat us and that's all that we can ask from our group. We're on a pretty long journey here this year. Last year was a sprint; this year the journey is a lot longer.

"We know that we're going to have some stinkers. We know we're going to have some nights where we're not playing the way we want to. Those nights can be addressed and repaired. It's trying to find the consistency. We've had five pretty consistent games so far. We don't want to let that slip. If we stay with that mindset, we can play with anybody."

In addition to the zeroes in the loss column, the teams have a few other things in common. They're the top two teams in scoring -- San Jose leads at 4.80 goals per game, St. Louis is second at 4.75). They're also in the top five in goals-against -- San Jose is second at 1.40 and St. Louis is fourth at 1.75.

All that adds up to make what should be a highly entertaining affair Tuesday.

"Someone won't be undefeated after this game," Shattenkirk said. "Obviously we would like to be that team that still has no blemishes on our record. ... Everyone got caught up in it with Chicago last year [their 24-game streak of at least a point to start the season], and that's when it gets really impressive when it lengthens out that far. I think for us it's four games into an 82-game season. We can't be too worried about it."

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