W2W4: Canucks at Blues
Blues trying out the big boy pool
Remember that first time you went swimming in the deep end at the local pool?
You didn't know if you were going to sink like a stone to the bottom and have to retreat shamefaced back to the shallow end and wait for another turn.
But you also knew, in some unfocused way perhaps, that if you didn't sink, if you kept your head above water, that you had arrived, that you belonged with the big kids.
Welcome to the world of the St. Louis Blues.
A team that has not won a playoff game since April 12, 2004, and hasn't won a postseason series in a decade sits today atop the Central Division. The last time the Blues were in first place in their division at the midpoint of the season was 2001. A regulation win at home Thursday night against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks would move the Blues into a tie for the top spot in the conference in points, with the Blues holding two games in hand.
And the question that looms as the second half of this regular season moves into full gear looms large for this up-and-coming young team: What next?
"We're excited to be in the fight. We're excited to see how we respond," GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com.
These are both nervous and exciting times for teams like the Blues. Full of promise yet not quite sure they belong. And of course the only way to find out is to prevail in these kinds of games.
The Canucks, for instance, will almost certainly ice Roberto Luongo with backup (yes, we know "backup" is a relative term when it comes to the red-hot Canucks), Cory Schneider having defeated Tampa Bay on Tuesday night.
In other words, the Blues have established themselves as a team that requires opponents' full attention. And that's a good thing.
"We know we'll get Vancouver's 'A' game," Armstrong said. "That's how we want to be perceived."
In other words, the Blues won't be sneaking up on anyone anymore. Not since Ken Hitchcock arrived on the scene 14 games into the season and began forging an identity long-suffering fans hope will translate into not just a postseason appearance but postseason success.
"I hope they're enjoying the heightened sense of scrutiny on our team," Armstrong said of his squad. "You have to learn to come to grips with that."
Starting with this tilt against the Canucks, these coming weeks will reveal much about this Blues team. Mostly they will begin to answer the question: Are you ready for the deep end of the hockey world?
Chicago and Detroit have already answered that question -- the Wings by virtue of their back-to-back trips to the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup finals (winning in 2008). The Hawks followed the path now being charted by the Blues, first advancing to a surprise Western Conference finals in 2009 and then winning it all in 2010.
The Blues have little experience in this, which is one of the reasons Armstrong added veteran forwards Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott during the offseason. Both are Cup winners and the expectation is that they will provide ballast for the heavy seas ahead.
"It's uncharted territory for us," Armstrong said.
Longtime NHL netminder and national broadcast analyst Darren Pang recalled a recent game against Detroit that was tied 0-0 midway through the contest, and provided a turning point of sorts for St. Louis.
"Then Detroit pushed it to a different level, and the Blues lose it 3-0," Pang told ESPN.com this week.
That's why games like that and Thursday's game against Vancouver are important for the Blues to discover what they're really about, Pang said.
"These are the games where you find out where your high-end guys are at, more than anything else," Pang said.
Certainly, the Blues are built differently than Detroit and Chicago. Those two teams are deep and talented but they also boast superstar-level players in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom and Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, respectively.
Players, in a pinch, that "can do something magnificent," said Pang, who is also an analyst for the Blues.
The Blues are a team that relies much more on the collective.
"We're not a team that can put all our eggs in one or two baskets," Armstrong said. "But I like the way our team is constructed."
The team's top point producer is David Backes, who is on pace for about 60 points. That'll be about 30 points south of where the top scorers in either Detroit or Chicago figure to end up. But the Blues do have six players with 10 goals or more (and Matt D'Agostini has nine).
The power play has improved to 22nd after languishing at or near the bottom of the league for most of the first half, and over their past seven games, the Blues are an impressive 9-for-30 and have scored more man-advantage goals over that period than any other NHL team.
The team is 20-0-0 when scoring three or more goals.
If they are not an offensive juggernaut, the Blues are as good as it gets defensively.
The team ranks first in the conference and second in the league in goals allowed per game. They are 9-0-1 in their past 10 home games.
They haven't lost in regulation at home in more than a month.
Although a year ago they traded former No. 1 overall draft pick defenseman Erik Johnson to Colorado as part of a blockbuster deal that changed the complexion of both teams, the Blues have not missed a beat defensively as another top prospect, Alex Pietrangelo, has continued to mature, and Kevin Shattenkirk, a part of the Johnson deal, has turned out to be a special player in his own right.
Pietrangelo, a plus-13 on the season, is a plus or even player in 26 of his past 29 games dating back to Hitchcock's arrival behind the Blues' bench. Shattenkirk, meanwhile, is one of just four defensemen with 20 or more points and a plus/minus of at least plus-15.
One thing is certain, the fans in St. Louis are getting a front-row seat to a drama few expected would play at the Scottrade Center this early in the rebuilding process.
The fact ownership remains in a state of flux, with minority owner Tom Stillman now looking to close a deal to buy the team after a deal with Matthew Hulsizer fell through, adds yet another wrinkle to the proceedings. Will that mean Armstrong will get more money to work with come deadline time? No one knows.
Instead, Armstrong is hoping to get Andy McDonald, recovering from another concussion, back in the near future. He is also hoping Alexander Steen, a crucial part of the team's chemistry given his evolution as a top two-way player and leader, will also return from a concussion sooner than later.
"He's the Jere Lehtinen of the St. Louis Blues," Armstrong said, invoking the name of the rock-solid Dallas winger. "He touches all areas of the game for us."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.