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Invigorated by youth, Blues are on cusp of playoffs

by Larry Wigge

"When you're a young player trying to make a team, you want to make big plays and be a big part of the club. I see the same skill and confidence and the want to prove night-in and night-out that they belong in our young guys here, too."
-- Jay McKee

First it was T.J. Oshie scoring on his own rebound. Then it was David Perron stickhandling past a defender and neatly lifting a backhander into the net. That was followed by a quick power move by Patrik Berglund around the net and a quick shot that had eyes.

Three goals by three very special young players that ended a pressure-packed weekend that turned out to be the second victory in less than 24 hours against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The wins put the St. Louis Blues into the eighth and final playoff spot in the hotly contested Western Conference ... for a day at least.

Now, they are preparing for another test in Chicago on Wednesday ... and another in Detroit on Thursday ... followed by another in the final days of this season to see if this bunch is indeed ahead of a schedule for a playoff spot.

For the Blues, it's been a series of these pivotal games since they were in last place in the conference in January and their fans were talking about the virtues of playing for another high draft choice. But that wasn't a part of the chatter in the St. Louis dressing room.

The Blues came from behind in dramatic fashion in a matinee in Boston on Jan. 19, with David Backes scoring with 0.8 seconds left to set the stage for a shootout victory. Since then, they've been a team ... a team of individuals playing for one another when few outside of their room believed in them.

Last season, this same chemistry and rally were being felt in Chicago, where youngsters Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane joined with a group of other top draft choices to bring life to hockey in Chicago once again. It's amazing how youth can spark a resurgence, especially in a game where passion and character are needed to survive.

The other day, Toews could only shake his head and smile when he was asked about his former University of North Dakota linemate T.J. Oshie and the fact that twice in that home-and-home desperation series against Columbus, the Blues' rookie forward, who stands a modest 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, was on a collision course with 6-foot-4, 218-pound Rick Nash, a premier power forward who normally get the best of such confrontations. But Nash was sent to the ice each time with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.

"I've seen that quite a few times. Just not against a guy like Rick Nash," Toews said. "Oshe competes against all comers. No matter the size."

With goals, points, or hits, T.J. Oshie has been turning a lot of heads since he returned from missing 24 games with a high-ankle sprain sustained Nov. 1. Since Jan. 1, he has had 11 goals and 20 assists -- good for 31 points in 37 games. The only rookie with more points in that time span is Anaheim's Bobby Ryan, who had one more point.

"T.J. is such a tenacious player," admired Blues goaltender Chris Mason. "In every game he seems to create scoring chances out of nothing.

"It's so hard to create separation in this game today, but he has a knack of getting a step on players with a series of quick moves. Against Vancouver the other day -- one of the best corps of defensemen -- he came down 1-on-1 a couple of times (and) they missed by three feet slamming into the boards."

With the Blues, it's not just Oshie or his young linemates -- Patrik Berglund (21 goals and 26 assists) and David Perron (14 goals, 35 assists), although the youngsters combined for 9 goals and 11 assists in a five-game winning streak (the team's first five-game winning streak since December 2003). Brad Boyes has a team-leading 30 goals, while David Backes, Tkachuk and Berglund each have 20 or more goals. But the most telling number in St. Louis is 10 players with 10 or more goals.

I'll never forget Keith Tkachuk, a veteran of 17 NHL seasons in Winnipeg, Phoenix and St. Louis, bubbling over the energy he felt on the first day of training camp this season.

"I've been to a lot of training camps," Tkachuk said. "But after skating with most of the guys here for several weeks and seeing the skill and energy we now have, I don't think I've felt as excited to start a season in a long, long time."

A search down the Blues roster shows that 11 players are 25 and under -- Backes, Alex Steen, Jeff Woywitka, Cam Janssen, Oshie, Berglund, Perron, B.J. Crombeen, Roman Polak, Tyson Strachan and Ben Bishop.

And these youngsters have leaned on veterans for advice and examples, especially in the first few months of the season when many of the youngsters were getting a taste of the NHL for the first time. You don't overcome the peaks and valleys, especially the valleys, without a veteran influence.

"These kids are very respectful of the veterans," Mason added. "When you look into the faces of young and old, it's not age you see, however, it's teammates. Guys you go to battle with."

Jay McKee raved about the different attitude these kids brought with them into the NHL.

"When you're a young player trying to make a team, you want to make big plays and be a big part of the club. I see the same skill and confidence and the want to prove night-in and night-out that they belong in our young guys here, too," he observed. "But when I was growing up there was a sense of hesitancy among the young players -- awe, if you will, at being in the NHL. This group, speaking of T.J. and Patrik and the last two young levels of players have brought us a skill and a determination that you try to build on. Smart players. Instead of being hesitant, they show a passion you love and not as much a sense of nervousness or caution to their game. There seems to be a push to keep proving that they belong."

Coach Andy Murray is careful not to put any player ahead of the team, especially the youngsters. He's tough on them, knowing they are going to be a big part of the Blues' future.

Said Murray, "What I want from them the most is to stay diligent in their work ethic and learn everything the right way ... because they will be a big part of our team when we are in the hunt for the Stanley Cup for a lot of years in the future."

Future? A lot of Blues fans think that future may already be here.
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