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Clutch win in Boston still paying off for Blues

by Larry Wigge

"Because of all of the injuries at the start of the season, we all had to find the chemistry. It took us a while to find the chemistry and develop it. Now, young and old, there's a belief in the room. We can look into one another's face and count on the guy standing next to us."
-- Chris Mason

It wasn't the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park. The proximity was close, but the result wasn't.

St. Louis Blues center David Backes didn't swing and miss on his team's last chance at TD Banknorth Garden in a matinee game Jan. 19. He connected, even if the outcome felt surreal to him.

"The puck was letter high and I just ripped it down the left-field line for a double," Backes recalled. "You dream about scoring a goal with one second left. I thought ..."

Backes' voice trailed off from exhilaration to patience as he recalled awaiting a replay decision on whether he hit the puck with a stick above the crossbar.

"I'm on the bench waiting for what seemed like five minutes, not knowing," Backes said. "I crossed my fingers. I said a prayer, hoping the hockey gods would give us one."

His faith was rewarded when referee Rob Schick signaled a goal to send the Blues, then the last-place team in the Western Conference, into overtime with the first-place overall Boston Bruins.

In this up-and-down battle between teams at the opposite end of the NHL standings, the Blues rallied for goals by David Perron with 1:20 left in the third period, and then Backes' buzzer-beater with just eight-tenths of a second left in regulation for a 4-4 tie. Brad Boyes and T.J. Oshie scored in the shootout for a 5-4 St. Louis victory.

It was a triumph everyone in the Blues' dressing room points to as the night this team, that had seven players in the lineup that were not there on opening night, a team that was missing star forwards Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald and defensive standouts Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer.

The Blues went into their March 26 home game against Vancouver on the cusp of the eighth and final playoff spot after a turnaround of Herculean proportions -- St. Louis was 17-7-5 from before that celebration in Boston until after goaltender Chris Mason blanked the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, March 24, a stretch that included a nine-game span in which the Blues got at least one point in eight of those games.

"That afternoon in Boston, we became a team," veteran Keith Tkachuk said. "We became a team that sticks with it, pulls together every step of the way -- finding a way to win.

"What makes this team such a pleasure to watch is how the old guys pull for the young guys and the young guys listen to the more experienced players. It's fun to see the excitement of the first NHL playoff run in the faces of most of our younger guys."

In the nine games that remain in the season, six of the last nine for the Blues are against teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. They finish a homestand with Vancouver and Columbus (March 28 -- the first of three games against remaining against the Blue Jackets) and then play six of their last seven games on the road.

This is a team that has survived the adversity of losing key players and learned how to find a way to win -- a team that is young and, according to most experts, ahead of schedule in battling for a playoff spot, considering that Backes, Perron, Boyes, Jay McClement, Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Steen, Mike Weaver, Jeff Woywitka, Patrick Berglund, T.J. Oshie, Roman Polak and backup goalie Ben Bishop never have appeared in an NHL playoff game.

Coach Andy Murray smiles when he points out that his team only has had a handful of games where they did not bring the energy and try that usually results in victories.

"What was missing was one save, usually one save at a key time," Murray said when thinking about his team's low-water point, when it was 14-21-3 following a 2-1 loss at Carolina on Jan. 2. "To me, there's not a more dominant position in sports than goaltender. Not in football, baseball or basketball -- and especially at this time of the year. We just weren't getting that save."

That save started to come from Mason, who, like incumbent Manny Legace, struggled in goal until Legace's last straw -- a 4-3 shootout loss in Detroit on Feb. 2 in which Legace surrendered three goals on just eight shots 11 1/2 minutes into the second period before he was replaced by Mason. Since then, Mason has started 24 consecutive games -- posting a 14-6-4 record, .927 save percentage, 1.99 goals-against average and three shutouts.
"You don't win without great goaltending -- and he's given us a chance to win every night." -- Keith Tkachuk on blues goaltender Chris Mason
"Mase has been our rock," said Tkachuk. "You don't win without great goaltending -- and he's given us a chance to win every night."

We all know that the goaltending is your best penalty killer -- but the Blues have risen faster than expected on the strength of penalty-killing and power-play units ranking in the top 10 in the NHL all season. That, combined with getting goals at key times from almost anywhere in the lineup, speaks to the team effort. Only Boyes, with a team-leading 29 goals, Backes and Tkachuk have 20 or more goals. But the team concept is wrapped into a group of 10 players who have at least 10 goals each.

Youngsters Oshie, Berglund and Perron represent solid first-round draft decisions, coming 24th in 2005, 25th in 2006 and 26th in 2007, respectively. The threesome together brings a look of the future to Blues fans. Not to mention Berglund's 2 goals in the 2-0 triumph against Los Angeles on March 24 and the threesome combining for 11 goals in the team's previous 14 games.

"Because of all of the injuries at the start of the season, we all had to find the chemistry," Mason said. "It took us a while to find the chemistry and develop it. Now, young and old, there's a belief in the room. We can look into one another's face and count on the guy standing next to us.

"It's been desperation for us for two months now. There is no time for a night off for any of us, not with the urgency we face. We've gone from a team that found ways to lose the close ones to a team that works hard to find ways to win. I felt it in this room for the first time after that Boston game -- a game that had so many ups and down and we found a way to win."

Without Kariya and McDonald, players like Brad Winchester, B.J. Crombeen, Steen, McClement and Backes were thrust into bigger roles. Ditto on defense; without Johnson and Brewer, the Blues have seen former Rookie of the Year Barret Jackman's best season. Polak came from nowhere to the top defense pairing with Jackman. Newcomer Colaiacovo got his chance to play big minutes after coming over from Toronto with Steen in a trade for Lee Stempniak. And Weaver, Woywitka, veteran Jay McKee and Tyson Strachan have been more than accountable in their own end.

"That team has come a long way," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock recently said. "For them, it's Game 7 every night. They're playing for their playoff lives."

Effort. Key saves. Timely goals and a never-give-up attitude that sparked third-period rallies in the team's most recent victories, in Calgary and against Los Angeles.

The Blues may be looking at that not-being-able-to-take-a-night-off mindset, but opponents looking for points in the standings have to play with that same mentality when facing St. Louis.

The Blue-print in St. Louis, where team President John Davidson has stressed building brick by brick to construct a team for the future that will be a contender for many years, will show in the next few weeks if that game plan is indeed ahead of schedule, enabling the Blues to make the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 2004.
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