It took the maximum number of games and every second of the finale but the Blues finally found a way to hurdle the obstacle that has sent them home early in each of the last three postseasons. They conquered the first round.
Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock led his team to a 4-3 quarterfinal victory over the last year’s champion Chicago Blackhawks and his message following the celebration was concise.
“To all the naysayers, take a day off,” said Hitchcock. “We are going to celebrate and they can bash us in a few days.”
It took all the Blues could muster to down the Blackhawks in seven games and now they turn their focus to winning three more series and 12 more games. But there was a noticeable sense of relief in the team’s locker room. The series was earned and the players knew it.
Captain David Backes held court with the media for over 20 minutes while owner Tom Stillman handed out hugs with a huge smile on his face.
“It’s a great feeling in this room right now,” said Backes.
The Blues weren’t instilling confidence after a brutal Game 6 loss, but found a way to get ahead late in Game 7 and shut the door. In past years, that was an unlikely scenario, especially against one of the tougher first-round matchups.
“We had a different feeling coming in,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “You had to. It was a different year.
“You knew it was going to be tough and if you could beat them, it’s an extra boost of confidence.”
The Blues were up 3-1 in the series and Chicago battled back. It was a matchup fit for a conference final; it might have gone down as one of the best Stanley Cup Finals ever. Instead, it is merely a feather in the Blues’ cap.
“It was our third time with an opportunity to put them away,” said Backes. “Obviously a sense of relief. You have the nerves and you know what is at stake. We did a lot of good things, made a lot of hard plays that needed to be made so we could get to this moment and have these positive interviews after round one, the way we set out to have.”
There was an advantage to playing Chicago and now that the Blackhawks have been tamed and the page has been turned on the first round, there’s a new level of information that the Blues possess, a secret weapon that could be vital.
“I don’t know if it is a milestone but it’s a hump where we have knowledge now of what it takes and we have to use it,” said Hitchcock. “Bottom line.
“We have an opportunity in front of us. Everyone in that room knows it’s going to get harder. It’s the emotional knowledge of how deep you have to dig. We found that in this series and I want us to use it now. It’s easy to talk about, it’s easy to discuss but it’s hard unless you go through it. This time we pushed through and it’s a good sign.”
And the Blues will need to utilize any experience gained from the first round almost instantly as they move from the Blackhawks to the Central Division and Western Conference Champion Stars.
“Just how deep you have to go emotionally,” Hitchcock said when asked what the Blues learned from the win over Chicago. “You have to go so deep to where it is just uncomfortable. It’s easy to talk about and difficult to do. There is a reason teams win and it’s not skill. It’s this ability to go into really tough areas and succeed and even at times feel comfortable. It’s this inner-confidence you have that you can make the other team crack.
“Whatever happens moving forward, happens. We are going to play a hell of a hockey club. But we have knowledge now that we can use and we need that. We’ve got it now so we can use it.”
The second-round series will start later this week in Dallas. With the Stars holding home-ice advantage, the Blues will be tested early. After altering the redundancy and dethroning the league champions, the Blues enter the uncharted territory with a new level of confidence.
“You can write this as much as you want now that we turned that page on the first round,” said Backes. “Now we have to concentrate and have you write another positive, optimistic story on the second round. We will just keep those churning out.”
Blues players were asked several times leading up to Game 7 and even after the series if it felt like deja-vu. The answer? An overwhelming no. The team that has preached a changed locker room demeanor to anyone who would listen, proved it Monday night.
“I think all year and every game in the playoffs with how we have played and how this success has grown,” said Backes. “It’s built our belief system and our game and sticking with it. It just keeps rolling. We have built on some great efforts and some great jobs of guys buying in and doing the right things all over the ice.”
The Blues aren’t satisfied, though. They’re hungry for more even after a nice early-round meal.
“In the end, it’s one round and we are down to eight teams left,” said Backes. “One of them is going to be the Stanley Cup Champion. It’s a good feeling and we had to put a lot in to beat a heck of a team tonight. Again, we only get credit for one round of victory and we have to start over from scratch against Dallas.
“We don’t get to carry anything over into next round. We have built our belief system, we know how we have to play to be successful. Now we have to instill that into a fresh series that starts 0-0. We are going to enjoy this tonight and then move on.”
Anything can happen, but it’s hard to see any future adversity surprise the Blues. They dealt with their fair share over the past two weeks and they’re confident that they can and will overcome anything because their identity is not ordinary.
“Maybe people will start talking about what a unique team we have,” said Hitchcock. “We have a unique team. We have a team that is a team in every sense of the word. This is the most together group of athletes I have ever coached. Who knows what happens but we are very much a team.”
But besides the drive to hoist the Cup, the players simply aren’t ready to cave in, no matter what the following rounds bring. Because this year is different.
“Everyone keeps talking about what happened in the past,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “For us, we are focusing on what happened this year and not what happened. It’s what we did tonight, knowing that no matter what happens, we know we put our best effort forward.”
“We are not ready to stop playing right now,” said forward Troy Brouwer. “We are not ready to stop playing for our fans and for our city.”