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McDonald's return boosts Blues' playoff bid

by Larry Wigge
The trip home last April was, for the most part, quiet and reflective for St. Louis Blues center Andy McDonald.

Heading to his cottage near his hometown of Strathroy, Ontario, with his wife, Gina, and infant son, Jack, Andy had a lot on his mind -- and a lot of pent-up frustration that he was trying to bottle up. It was just 10 months earlier that McDonald made the same trip after scoring two goals one minute apart in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final to help the Anaheim Ducks beat the Ottawa Senators for his team's first Cup title.

The emotions this time were much, much different.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'Five months until next season, I'd better make the most of it,' " McDonald said of an offseason training program that saw him stronger and quicker than he was when the Blues obtained him from Anaheim last December in a trade for Doug Weight. "It wasn't one of my better years. I was traded from a place I thought was home after reaching the ultimate goal in hockey. Then, in less than a year, no playoffs at all.

"I came to St. Louis and it was a struggle for me offensively, and it was a struggle for the team."

But there is no quit in the heart of a champion. There's a resiliency, a relentless drive in the heart of a champion. And with Andy McDonald, there are even more of those intangibles, considering he always had battled long odds and succeeded.

McDonald was once considered a too-small, undrafted product of a school that wasn't a hockey power. He also overcame a pretty fierce wallop to his head by Colorado defenseman Adam Foote in January 2003 that rattled him so severely he wondered if he'd ever play again. It took Andy almost a full calendar year before he felt right again after the concussion.

The hockey gods had yet another test for McDonald earlier this season, when Andy sustained an ankle injury in mid-November. He had gotten off to a 7-goal, 12-assist start in 16 games this season before he found out that his right ankle was both broken and sprained, a double whammy in terms of recovery time. He missed 36 games.

Since Jan. 2, the Blues have a 19-9-6 record, the second-best mark in the NHL. While some look back to the team rallying from a deficit against the Bruins with time running out Jan. 19 in a matinee affair in Boston as a turning point. Others look to Chris Mason taking over in goal for Manny Legace after 5-3 loss in Detroit on Feb. 2 and solidifying the team's goaltending. But a Feb. 10 date with Vancouver also has to be thrown into the mix -- the night that McDonald limped back into the lineup.

When Andy scored the game-tying goal in a 3-2 victory at Calgary on March 20 to put the Blues just one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, it was McDonald's fifth goal to go along with 12 assists in 20 games since his return to the lineup.

"He was our best player when he went out of the lineup and adding his experience and skills to the lineup since early February has been worth more than a big trade we might have made at the trade deadline," coach Andy Murray said.

"He came back this season more focused and he turned it up a notch again when he came back from the ankle injury," said Brad Boyes, the Blues' leading goal scorer. "I'm his roommate on the road and I can't tell you how important it was to have someone to talk to about what it takes to be a success in this League. It's hard. But he's smart and experienced and always has the right words to explain how I -- or another teammate -- can be better. It's crystal clear that he knows how to win and that he was a part of a long and successful playoff run in Anaheim. He's a champion."

When you sit down next to McDonald, he doesn't look or sound scary. But for most of the last three-plus seasons, he's been Barney Fife turned Incredible Hulk.

"He'll back you off in an instant with his speed and strength on the puck," Toronto Maple Leafs All-Star defenseman Tomas Kaberle said. "I remember watching him in that Stanley Cup Final against Ottawa. He was dominant. He'd fly through the neutral zone and into the opposition end with Teemu Selanne on one side and Chris Kunitz on the other and ... well, seeing that can scare you."

McDonald had 10 goals in 21 games in that playoff run of 2007 after getting 27 goals and 51 assists in 82 games during the regular season. He was a man on a mission that spring -- a caring and motivational leader for the Ducks more than most because he was injured in 2003 when Anaheim went to the Final and lost to New Jersey.

After getting a fair return of 14 goals and 22 assists in 49 games, but playing to a minus-17 after his trade from Anaheim last season, it's safe to say that Andy didn't feel like he was scaring anyone. He uncharacteristically got knocked off the puck too often to his liking.

"I knew I had five months to get stronger and help clear my mind of the kind of season I had," McDonald, 31, said. "That wasn't me -- and my perspective was reinforced in my exit meetings with (Blues president) John Davidson, (GM) Larry Pleau and (coach) Andy Murray. I had five months ... and a lot of work ahead of me."

"The explosiveness in his game was missing," Murray said. "He wasn't on the top of his game from what I remember coaching against him when I was in Los Angeles and he was in Anaheim and I'd have to game-plan against his speed and skill so often being in the same division.

"I wasn't surprised to see him come back to camp this year stronger and with a greater determination. Andy was out to show us he is a champion in every sense of the word.

"All the reports I was getting from our training staff on him during the offseason were that he was off the charts -- and it showed when he stepped on the ice for the first time in camp and you could see he was stronger and back to being dangerously fast. When he got here, I told him we were going to put him on a line with Brad Boyes (43 goals last season) and Lee Stempniak (27 goals in 2006-07). You should have seen the smile on his face.

"He was our best player when he went out of the lineup and adding his experience and skills to the lineup since early February has been worth more than a big trade we might have made at the trade deadline."
-- Blues coach Andy Murray

"Andy is a caring player. To a fault, he's almost too hard on himself. So I tried to put him in a situation like he was in Anaheim when he was at his best. To me, Brad Boyes is that big goal scorer always in the right spot going to the net like Teemu Selanne and Lee Stempniak is like Chris Kunitz is strong on the puck jumping into holes and going to the net."

The situational experiment was an immediate success as McDonald posted 11 points in just four preseason games to lead the NHL and after the first game of the regular season he had four assists on two goals apiece by Boyes and Stempniak. Time and injury ended that experiment as Stempniak was traded to Toronto. But was no coincidence to see McDonald and Boyes combine for that important tying goal in Calgary March 20 -- even if handy Andy has been playing mostly left wing since his return.

"Our entire game is a lot quicker, faster, since Andy came back in the lineup," Murray said.

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