Rising Blues close window on Sharks

ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Blues answered a whole lot of questions. The San Jose Sharks invited a whole new set.

Few paths are diverging more than those of these two first-round opponents. The young and upcoming Blues are showing they are legitimate contenders, and not just for this year, either.

The Sharks, after three visits to the conference finals since 2004, are possibly staring down a window that's closing on them after a disappointing season from beginning to end, one which began with Cup expectations.

It's one of the best surprise stories of the year -- the second-seeded Blues eliminated the seventh-seeded Sharks in five tidy games, Saturday night's 3-1 win capping four straight victories. And St. Louis has a serious chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

"I think we'll be a tough opponent," said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. "If the buy-in continues at this pace, win or lose we'll be a tough opponent."

The "buy-in," hockey parlance for commitment, began Nov. 6, the day Hitchcock was brought in to take over as head coach. There are many reasons Doug Armstrong should win the GM of the year award in the NHL, but that's the most obvious one.

The Blues under Hitchcock play the most suffocating defensive game in the NHL, allowing the fewest goals this season and seamlessly elevating that effectiveness in the playoffs.

It's a style of game that requires an incredible commitment from every player on the roster.

"Look, our top guy had 60 points; the way we have to play as a team makes you rely on each other," said Hitchcock.

"We play the right way, the way we have to play to win. And everybody is on that same page, and almost afraid to get off it. ... It's a very unique team. There are no superstars. There's just a bunch of guys that grew up together, they're having fun together, and now they're counting on each other."

No team, and I mean no team in the NHL, is playing this kind of defense. It frustrates the opposition and forces it into bad decisions.

"It was a tight-checking series and they're the best team at it," said Sharks captain Joe Thornton.

"They'll give you an opportunity to beat yourself every night," added Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray.

Perhaps now the Blues will get a little more respect around the league. They're for real. Winning their first playoff series since 2002 was a huge step.

"You prove some naysayers wrong," said veteran Blues defenseman Barret Jackman. "You hear the whispers, 'They accomplished a lot through the year, maybe that's good enough for them.' We weren't satisfied. We wanted to come in here and make a statement. We'll be the underdogs, we'll be the guys nobody talks about much, we'll go about our business, and in the end we're hoping it's a Stanley Cup."

The playoffs began with a double-overtime loss to the veteran Sharks, and you wondered how the young Blues would react.

"We said, 'Whoa. Everything we accomplished all year and all this talk about Presidents' Trophies and Jennings Trophies, that means nothing,'" said Blues captain David Backes. "We had to have a reality check and realize we needed to play our best hockey every night or this team could be us. We had some great performances after that which added up to a series win."

By winning in five games, the Blues avoid a long trip back to San Jose and get to rest their bodies. The time off is critical. Most Stanley Cup champions need at least one short series over a two-month run. The Blues get theirs right way.

The Sharks also have lots of time off, the most they've had in a few years. A season that began with such high hopes after offseason trades netted Martin Havlat and Brent Burns on the heels of back-to-back conference finals appearances. But things never really got off the ground.

"We did not plan on being the seventh seed, we did not plan on losing in the first round," said Murray. "So it's a huge disappointment to say the least."

Hunched over at the buzzer Saturday night in obvious disappointment, Thornton couldn't hide his level of anguish.

"Hats off to the Blues, they played great," said Thornton. "But it's a terrible feeling right now.

"It was a battle all year. We had to win our last four games just to get into the postseason. There was nothing smooth-sailing about this year."

Thornton is normally the lighting rod for San Jose's playoff failures, but this one sure isn't on him. Just like it wasn't last year when he played terrific all spring long. He was easily their best player in these five games, laying it all on the line every night but finding too many passengers unable to match his effort.

"You don't have to be a very in-depth fan to see the type of series that he had," said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. "He was by far our leader, both vocally and on the ice. He brought it every night. His work in this series speaks for itself."

Top-six forwards Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski went pointless in the series. Havlat was silent in the four games following his Game 1 heroics. Logan Couture did his best as he played through a shoulder injury.

But as a group, there was very little offense. The Sharks scored only eight goals in five games.

This team, the way it's drawn up now, is not a true contender anymore. It's not deep enough, it's not quick enough. It needs retooling.

Will the Sharks reignite their pursuit of Rick Nash in the offseason? That's a conversation for another day.

Right now, it's about the Blues, who like the young Sharks of 2004, have dreams of long playoff runs for many years to come.

"Our time is now," said Jackman. "We're going to try and grab the opportunity."

For Blues fans who have lived through many non-playoff years, not to mention playoff heartbreak -- including losing to the eighth-seeded Sharks in 2000 -- it's time to rejoice.

"When we scored that second goal tonight, that roof just came right off," said Hitchcock. "You saw joy. People an hour later still didn't want to leave the building. That's just where this fan base is at now. I think they can now enjoy hockey rather than live in the disappointment of not getting through the first round or even making the playoffs."