SPORTS

Deep Blues see lessons in early exits, must overcome playoff demons make Cup run

04/15/2015 11:05 EDT | Updated 06/24/2015 10:59 EDT
The past few years have taught the St. Louis Blues what not to do in playoff hockey. Don't lose a bunch of games in a row to end the regular season and don't let up with a two-game series lead.

"It's tough to win," defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We learned that."

Tough lessons are plentiful for the Blues after three straight early playoff exits. And while the core of Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Alex Steen, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester remain, Ken Hitchcock considers this a very different team than he has had in St. Louis before.

"We do more off the rush than we've ever done, we get more chances off attack, we have more ability to quick-strike, but we don't play on the grind that the team has done before," Hitchcock said last month in Toronto. "We're a team that to win we've got to be on our toes all the time, whereas the three years before we could play on our heels and still accomplish good things."

These Blues may be playing on a different note with the additions of centres Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera, but they still have the same playoff demons to overcome. Felled by difficult matchups — the Los Angeles Kings twice and the Chicago Blackhawks — the Blues have another brutal opening series against Devan Dubnyk and the Minnesota Wild beginning Thursday night.

"If you want to win the Stanley Cup, you've got to accept hard matchups," longtime defenceman Barret Jackman said. "It's not going to be easy, but you've got to be able to have those little in-game adjustments and game-to-game adjustments that make you hard to play against.

"We just can't have any excuses this year. We need wins."

Wins come from consistency and depth, the latter being the Blues' biggest strength. Down the middle they boast Lehtera, Stastny, Backes and Marcel Goc and on defence go seven deep with Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, Bouwmeester, Jackman, Carl Gunnarsson and trade-deadline acquisitions Zbynek Michalek and Robert Bortuzzo.

Hitchcock said "the visual on us is we're a big team." Maybe the deepest team in the Stanley Cup playoffs, too.

"You've got a lot of depth, more so than ever," Pietrangelo said. "When you have Backes, Lehtera, Goc and Stastny as your centres, you're set up for some pretty good lines. ... We may never have an opportunity to play on a team like this again, so we'll try to make the best of it."

The 2011-12, 2013 and 2013-14 Blues were pretty talented, too, but couldn't get the job done. Ryan Miller bombed as a trade-deadline pickup last year, and the club's biggest question mark remains in goal, where Jake Allen and Brian Elliott could ultimately both see action.

Outside the crease, the Blues still like to forecheck hard but have some more top-end talent to create offence.

"We added a bunch of skill in the summer, but we still have that (hard) element to our game," Steen said. "It's the same game plan, pretty much, we just have a little bit more skill, more finish."

Having entered the league in 1967, the Blues are the oldest franchise not to have won the Stanley Cup. With changes likely if they fail, this could be their last and best shot together.

"We certainly believe in the guys we got," winger Jaden Schwartz said. "Lots to prove yet, but we believe in what we can do and it's just a matter of putting it all together."

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