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Pain, but plenty of gain for Blues

Feel injuries have made them a stronger team heading into playoffs

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The ice was full, with the right names, the right faces, the right numbers on the backs of sweaters. These were the players general manager Doug Armstrong assembled last summer, with the intent to bring the St. Louis Blues back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Except it didn't turn out quite the way Armstrong planned. The Blues did make the playoffs with 107 points and a second-place finish in the Central. But they didn't do it with Armstrong's full group, as one after another after another fell out of the lineup with injuries, as one after another returned, as the roster shuffled and shifted.

For the moment, the shuffling was over. The shifting was done. The full complement of Blues had taken the ice. They were all back. They were ready, one day before facing the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series (9:30 ET; NBCSN, CSH-CH, FS-MW, SN360, TVA Sports).

That included forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer; the latter was the only Blues player to appear in all 82 games this season. Each returned to practice Tuesday after relatively brief absences: one practice for Brouwer, three games for Backes.

"Ready to go," Backes said, adding he felt good in practice. "Now I've just got to make sure I can crack the lineup and get a spot in one of the four lines for Game 1."

Video: Backes says he's good to go for Game 1

That, in itself, was heartening. But so was the relief of having an entire roster, the one the Blues were were supposed to have the whole time.

"I think this is the first day since the middle of the summer that we've had every body available to us as a team," Backes said, "and that's impeccable timing because this is when you want all your weapons on hand, and we have that. We'll have plenty of depth and ability to do whatever we need to."

They're looking forward to that, to the 100 percent availability coach Ken Hitchcock said the Blues now had in an 18-second session with the media in which he answered two questions.

"First time all year," Hitchcock said. "Nice to see. Got some choices now."

Though Hitchcock declined to say much beyond that, before ending with "Let's play," and walking off, there is meaning in having all the Blues back. But perhaps there was more meaning in what St. Louis went through to get here with its strange one-in, one-out player rotation all season.

The list is long, starting with forward Patrik Berglund's absence before the start of the season, running through injuries to forward Robby Fabbri and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, forwards Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, Steve Ott and Alexander Steen and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, and goalies Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. No one, it seems, escaped.

Video: WSH@STL: Elliott stones Ovechkin on the doorstep

"I think there's belief from the locker room that we have gone through a lot of adversity and we are going to know how to handle it when it comes," Shattenkirk said. "I think every guy in here knows that you have some tough losses during a playoff series, especially a long run, you're not going to have everyone all the way through.

"But I feel like from our standpoint, the guys that we know will be filling in have that experience now, and they don't have to go through it in a playoff series. I think that goes a long way when you have young guys who are going to be thrown into bigger roles, especially with the intensity that we're going to have in these upcoming games."

It has made them, as Berglund said, "mentally stronger." Because of that, they believe they have the ability to be themselves in this upcoming playoff series, the selves they were originally supposed to be and the selves they became through this sometimes trying season. They also, finally, have reinforcements, as Backes pointed out, with extra players who can address a deficiency, should the coaching staff see one.

"That's something we haven't had all year," the Blues captain said. "It's been, 'If you're healthy, you're in.' That's a luxury we haven't had, and now we do."

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