Blues continue NHL revival in Europe
STOCKHOLM -- Not long before the St. Louis Blues headed for Stockholm, coach Andy Murray detailed how the trip was going to go -- when they were leaving, when the players would be expected to sleep en route so they wouldn't be too adversely affected by the international flight, and so on.
Quietly, the players joked about how even sleep time was built into Murray's detailed schedule and, sure enough, the next time he came onto the ice for practice, he found all his players feigning sleep at center ice.
What can you learn about the evolution of a team from a laugh shared between a coach and his players? Maybe nothing. But maybe it's one of those moments that speaks to pieces' falling into place and a team that is fully aware of its own identity -- an identity the Blues like very much.
"It's no more just wait and see how we do. It's expectations, we're looking to win, we're looking to go far," Brad Boyes, the Blues' leading scorer last season with 33 goals, said Tuesday before the Blues boarded a train for an exhibition game against Swedish Elite League team Linkoping. "We proved last year we can get into the playoffs. Obviously you never want to look back, you want to keep going forward. Obviously that's our goal to go out and win it all."
Whether the franchise's first Cup is in the offing or not, it is a testament to one of the league's great renaissances that such a thought can even be conjured up. Murray recalled his first home game as coach in December 2006.
"We were playing the Chicago Blackhawks, who were an archrival. I mean, it was in front of family and friends only, there was about 6,000 people," Murray said. "We're a tough ticket now."
John Davidson recalled that same season, his first as team president.
"That first year we had four sellouts, one of them was free food night, one of them was Brett Hull's [jersey] retirement night, and last year we had 31. It's been a lot of just trying to make right decisions," Davidson told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "There's a lot of love for that team and there was a lot of discontent when we got there, which I didn't realize. I didn't know that."
Despite a series of injuries to key personnel, including star forward Paul Kariya, Andy McDonald, Erik Johnson and T.J. Oshie, the Blues roared through the second half of the regular season and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the lockout.
"Last year was amazing. It just felt it was the city's team," said netminder Chris Mason, who supplanted Manny Legace as the Blues' starting goalie last season and will be the team's go-to guy in 2009-10. "Everybody was so excited. Even when we were losing, we had the fans there because I think they saw the team and what the direction the team was going in."
With the regular season set to begin here with back-to-back games against Central Division rival Detroit, the Blues are at a crossroads. They have reconnected with a fan base that had grown disenfranchised with the team and its meandering. Now they have to guard against sliding to the back of the pack in the best division in hockey.
"We know we have a lot to prove," Mason said. "I think we're aware of the fact we're not going to go sneak up on teams anymore. Teams are going to know T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund; it's going to be tougher on them.
"I think it's going to be tougher for us this year and I think we have the mentality that we have to establish our game again. We can't just rely on how we played five months ago. That doesn't count for anything this year."
There are many signals the Blues are anything but a team taking things for granted. First, they are relatively healthy. Defenseman Eric Brewer remains sidelined, but veteran Darryl Sydor was recently signed and the rest of the incumbents are healthy, including former No. 1 overall draft pick Erik Johnson. Secondly, this is a team that established a work ethic in the face of injuries, remained in play throughout last season and presumably will remain in place when the puck drops this season.
"Last year, we didn't get a lot of points in the first half, but boy we played hard," Murray said. "Because we played that way, we were rewarded in the second half. If we'd gone through the motions in the first half, we wouldn't have been ready for it in the second."
Finally, this is a team that still remembers the bad as well as the good. The Blues were swept by Vancouver in the first round, and that sudden end to their remarkable season is a vivid reminder of just how much work is yet to be done.
"I really felt our team, as a team, when we actually made the playoffs, it was kind of anticlimactic for us," Mason said. "I thought the first three games against Vancouver, I don't think we were really playing the way we played during the regular season."
By the fourth game, when the Blues began to get their sea legs under them, it was too late. They lost in overtime and began a long summer of anticipating the next step. Davidson said he's been encouraged by the number of players -- both from the NHL club and the team's AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen -- who spent time working out in St. Louis during the summer.
"Guys like Carlo Colaiacovo made a commitment, moved out of Toronto and moved right to St. Louis, spent the whole summer there training. To me that shows the commitment and I think they believe in the organization," Davidson said. "There's been bumps, but for the most part, it's been rewarding. Now, we're in a position where we've got a lot of second-year kids. We're going to see how they go, but it's been a good summer."
As for the expectations -- something that hasn't been part of the dynamic in St. Louis for a long time -- Davidson has no problems with pressure to succeed.
"It's good, though. We've earned that. That's the best way of looking at it," he said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.