Blues refuse to quit in home stretch
For the longest time, we merely assumed the coroner had applied the toe tag to their season. The obituaries had been written. Floral arrangements delivered.
Yet, here are the St. Louis Blues. In the homestretch. Back from the dead. Like Dracula, or vinyl, or Mickey Rourke's career.
"A lot of the 'experts' picked us for last place, if I do remember correctly," coach Andy Murray said wryly.
And, oddly enough, they are, at least in the context of the Central Division. But the Blues, against all odds, are also very much alive in the chaotic jostling for the final two spots in the Western Conference.
As of Monday morning, six teams found themselves nestled precariously within three points of each other for those critical bottom-end playoff berths -- the Predators, Oilers, Ducks, Stars, Wild and ...
But ... how?
It defies logic. Their best player and leading scorer, Brad Boyes, is a close-to-comical, Winnipeg-in-January-like minus-20. Their cornerstone defenseman for the future, 20-year-old Erik Johnson, tore knee ligaments in the summer attempting to stop his golf cart, jamming his right foot between the accelerator and brake, and hasn't played a game all season (honest, you can't make this stuff up).
Paul Kariya's bad hip has turned him into a mere rumor. Captain Eric Brewer is out indefinitely with a herniated disk, further depleting the defensive corps. Andy McDonald, under-the-radar T.J. Oshie and defenseman Jay McKee, among others, have also missed significant time.
The call-ups and sent-downs on Blues' game notes is a comprehensive list. They've lost a staggering 423 man games to injury or illness, and they put their No. 1 goalie of a year ago on waivers at the beginning of February.
So how, through all the turmoil and upheaval and nightmare 3-11-0 December, are they doing it?
"It's certainly been ... an experience," said team president John Davidson. "The good thing is that people are talking hockey again in St. Louis. Our crowds are up. We've battled hard, refused to give up, and fans appreciate that.
"No matter what happens, I believe we'd done ourselves a lot of good."
So there's unquestionably an endearing quality, an admiringly plucky persistence, to these Blues. Hey, we're all suckers for a good down-and-out tale of redemptive resurrection.
"I wouldn't call it a 'resurrection' exactly," Murray said. "At least, not yet. We've got a ways to go and teams to leapfrog."
Still, the Blues are simply refusing to go away. A perfect example? Their last start. Down 2-1 midway after two periods against the Calgary Flames, in a hellish place for interlopers, being outshot 24-8, against a team that had not squandered a 40-minute lead in regulation (20-0-3) all season, St. Louis rallied on goals 51 seconds apart by McDonald and Jay McClement to register only their second win at the Pengrowth Saddledome since 2004.
Flames coach Mike Keenan doled out the superlatives in his postgame media conference.
"The most telling stat tonight, and it's a compliment of the effort of all the players on St. Louis' side, is that they had 24 blocked shots to our six," Keenan said. "It's pretty telling about their effort and their desperation to win a game."
Since the halfway point of the season, St. Louis has spliced together one of hockey's best records, 17-8-6. The Blues have shown far more consistency, losing back-to-back games only twice since the New Year.
Much of the resurgence is due to the elevation of Chris Mason into the role of undisputed No. 1 between the posts. When a decision was finally made to put last season's starter, Manny Legace, on waivers (and subsequently ditch him in Peoria when no one came a-claimin'), the group has settled down.
"He's given us the big save when we've needed it," said goaltending coach Rick Wamsley. "He hasn't been spectacular every night, but he's been solid. Having him be so dependable has just stabilized things. It's helped, too, that we've given up on average around two fewer scoring chances a night in the second half of the season. But those things tend to go hand in hand."
Mason is, at least for now, the guy every team needs to believe in. He's 15-6-5 in his past 26 games with a 1.99 goals-against average. Tuesday night, at home against Los Angeles, will be his 29th start in a row.
No one doubts he'll max that consecutive-games streak to 38 by the time April 11 rolls around. St. Louis will go only as far as Mason can take them.
"From day one, this team has worked extremely hard," said Murray. "That's been our trademark. But early in the year, we weren't getting the saves to allow us to put points on the board."
Now, they're getting those saves.
But can the Blues get enough points to crack the elite eight? That's a tough proposition, considering six of their last 10 games are on the road. They certainly aren't the betting favorite.
"It's important, for sure, in terms of perception," said Davidson. "With the economy the way it is, reaching the playoffs would be a great jumping-off point for season tickets next year.
"But no matter what happens, you cannot deviate from your plan. I haven't been in this job long, but I have been around the league since 1973. And I know there's no such thing as a quick fix. It simply does not exist.
"You can go down to the Mercedes dealership and buy the most expensive car, loaded with all the toys, and you look great driving it around town, but pretty soon you've got to start making payments on that car," Davidson added. "You can put the biggest house in the nicest neighborhood, but before you know it, there's a mortgage to be met and those taxes are off the charts. Could we have traded Erik Johnson for three players, and might they have helped us get in? Maybe. But there's no way that was going to happen.
"And despite all the injuries, even though we've got a tough schedule from here to the end, it's still there for us."
Yes, it is. Somehow.
"We're a pretty resilient group," said Mason. "Our whole season is on the line. Our whole year. We've overcome a lot of adversity to put ourselves in this position.
"We're not going to go away easily now."
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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