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Why the Blues will win the Stanley Cup

by Jon Lane

There's no denying the recent history of the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Three seasons ago, the Blues won the Central Division but were swept in the second round by the Los Angeles Kings. The past two postseasons each ended in extreme disappointment after St. Louis took 2-0 series leads but went on to best-of-7 first-round losses to the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.

That track record has planted seeds of doubt about whether the Blues can go far this time after qualifying for the fourth straight season.

This time, this postseason, there is no debate. The Blues will hit the high note in June when they exorcise their playoff demons and win the Stanley Cup.

The Blues are the deepest they've been in years thanks to the preseason additions of centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera, and a breakout season from forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who leads an offense ranked in the top 10 in points-per-game and power-play percentage. They're led by an elite coach, Ken Hitchcock, the fourth coach in NHL history to win 700 games. Hitchcock wants to advance to the conference final for the first time since 2004, when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers.

A big opportunity awaits the Blues and they're ready to take full advantage.

"Every time you're in the playoffs, you're giving yourself a chance, but I think the thing I'm proudest of is we're consistent," Hitchcock said in early March. "We don't cheat ourselves. We have a great work ethic between coaching staff, players, trainers, everything. We have a great work ethic here. I think that permeates through the organization."

Aside from grit, the Blues have talent and lots of it.

They began April without Tarasenko and forward Alexander Steen because of lower-body injuries, yet Hitchcock improvised because of the depth he had. In the first two games without Tarasenko and Steen, the Blues scored 11 goals.

Two nights later, the Blues' first win at United Center in 17 visits catapulted them into first place in the Central Division, arguably the toughest in the League. It also provided a potential psychological boost that the Blackhawks can be defeated when it matters most.

"It's good to keep the momentum going and know that we're not afraid in this building, that we can win here, because you never know if you're going to play them down the road or not," Stastny told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Aside from health, the only question surrounding the Blues is which goalie will start Game 1. Jake Allen won three straight to begin April with a goals-against average of 1.01 and appears on track to get the call, but Hitchcock can't go wrong either way. Allen and Brian Elliott are one of three goaltending tandems to have 20-win seasons from each goalie.

"If Jake has a tough night, we just go play [Elliott]," Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch. "It's a pretty good situation for us. We've got two good goalies, two guys you count on. They have their own internal competition, which is fun. ... That's their competitive cauldron that they're involved in."

Defensemen Zybnek Michalek and Robert Bortuzzo were acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline to add depth and physicality to a defense led by playmakers Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. Once Tarasenko and Steen return, all the pieces will be in place. The Blues are loaded and their time to win the Stanley Cup for the first time is now.

"I think St. Louis has the number of many teams," Flames coach Bob Hartley said. "Looking at the size and the strength of that team, they're not easy to play against."

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