Blues are blazing a new trail

Apr 9 2012 - 11:31pm

ST. LOUIS -- It's the NHL postseason, where overtimes and beards can grow long (though most Blues seem dubious about the potential for T.J. Oshie's facial hair) and injuries are guarded as if they were nuclear launch codes.

"From now on," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock declared Monday, "unless someone is dead, they're day-to-day."

It's also an unfamiliar place for many of the members of the St. Louis Blues. While only a few players -- Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, most notably -- have never been in the postseason at all, for a lot of players the totality of their postseason experience is the largely forgettable four-game sweep of the Blues by the Canucks in 2009. Two Blues, Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, have more playoff games between them (252) than the rest of the team combined (220). Of the 26 players the Blues will take into the postseason, 17 have never been past the first round.

So as the Blues took the ice at St. Louis Mills on Monday for their first day of postseason practice, with Game 1 of their series against the Sharks set for on Thursday, they faced both a continuation of things that had gone before and a fresh start.

"It's Day One of the second season," captain David Backes said, "where the slates are clean."

"We've had 82 dress rehearsals to get our game in order," said center Scott Nichol, who as a member of the Sharks last season has become a font of information in the dressing room. "Our power play, our penalty kill, our five-on-five, the best advice you can get is: don't change. We've got a great piece of the puzzle. Everybody's got a job to do here. If you're going to step outside the box and try to do more, it's not going to work. Playoffs are about teams."

"For me, playoffs are for veteran players," Hitchcock said. "That's where you expect them to shine."

Even Barret Jackman, who broke in with the Blues in 2002, back when the team was going to the playoffs every year, has appeared in only 12 playoff games.

"A little bit of experience helps," said Nichol, who got to the Western Conference final with the Sharks the past two seasons, "but we've got so much youthful enthusiasm, it's exciting. These guys haven't been in this situation. We've got some young legs that are ready to go. They're a bunch of thoroughbreds ready to go through the gates."

"The biggest thing we can be is a calming influence," said Langenbrunner, who won Stanley Cups with Dallas in 1999 and New Jersey in 2003. "It is the playoffs, but it is the same game. It's the team that can make the other team crack. For us, it's just staying with that focus. Guys have done a pretty good job of staying on an even keel all year. Some guys might get antsy, and we'll give them a little pat on the back to calm them down. I don't think it will be that big of an adjustment. Once you get through that first shift, you're a playoff veteran."

Shattenkirk said he'll be happy to be playing a lot of minutes because it will give him less time on the bench to think about things he may have done wrong and that he will be using the veterans for guidance. He said he could feel a change Monday as the Blues went through a 45-minute session. "There's definitely a seriousness to the meetings," he said. "Everyone's coming to the rink with more of a focus, everyone is ready to go as soon as they step on the ice."

Hitchcock, who said he wasn't going to make a decision on who would start in goal until Thursday, has been preaching to his team about keeping cool in the days leading up to Game 1, to not start worrying about the game until they step on the ice.

"Don't believe in cranking up the emotion," he said. "The event itself is going to take care of it. There's a reason we're 4-0 against (San Jose). We're 4-0 because we played better than they did and we have to find a way to keep that streak."

Hitchcock has playoff experience. He won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and took teams to the conference finals twice.

"Bottom line, this is why I coach," he said. "I think I'm good at this time of year. I think I can get the guys focused, and I can keep them focused. This is what I'm good at."

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