ST. LOUIS — Just two days after clinching an NHL playoff spot for the first time in his 10-year career, St. Louis Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester will be facing the team that have gave him that opportunity.
Bouwmeester, 29, was with the Calgary Flames when he waived his no-trade clause and was dealt to the Blues on April 1 for prospect Mark Cundari, the rights to goalie prospect Reto Berra, a first-round draft pick and a fourth-round pick.
Since Bouwmeester's Blues debut on April 4, the Blues are 9-3. His addition, plus that of another former Flames defenseman, Jordan Leopold, are a big reason the Blues (27-17-2; 56 points) have managed to clinch a playoff spot and still have a shot at home-ice advantage with two games remaining.
Bouwmeester's string of 633 consecutive starts is the longest in the NHL and all of professional sports. But he's also played in 762 games for the Flames, Florida Panthers and the Blues without a single moment of playoff hockey.
"Everyone's in different situations," Bouwmeester said. "I started out with a (Florida) team that was struggling a bit and in Calgary we didn't have the success that we wanted. I've been asked that question a lot, but my approach every year has been kind of a fresh start and that's what's it's been.
"I guess I've just been answering that question too long, I don't really care any more. You never think it's not going to happen."
Bouwmeester has a goal and six points in 12 games with the Blues. Perhaps more importantly, he has become the left defense partner for Alex Pietrangelo while averaging just over 23 1/2 minutes of ice time and utilized in all situations.
"He's been phenomenal for us," Blues captain David Backes said . "His responsibility in the defensive zone, the way he can join the rush and make plays in the offensive zone ... has been phenomenal."
Many of the Blues made their playoff debuts last season. Backes know what Bouwmeester must feel like after 10 years of watching postseason games on TV.
"It's great to see him get in there. He knows as much as anyone that it is not a given every year," Backes said. "It's not a given. We've had too many times in this organization -- in the past seven years since I've been here -- that the regular season is over and we're heading home. Those are not fun meetings to have and watching the playoffs on TV sucks."
Bouwmeester enjoys being looked to for responsibility and leadership on a relatively young Blues team.
"I think they have a good team here, we have a team that's kind of built for that (playoff) kind of hockey," he said. "That's the focus now, it's not just getting in. We want to win.
"It's fun winning, we've had a pretty good stretch here. It's a young group of guys; I kind of feel a little old sometimes but it's been fun. I've enjoyed my time here -- and hopefully I have a long time here."
Backes talked about the Blues' 10-3 stretch that helped them qualify for the playoffs.
"We had a few tough times where we had lessons that we needed to learn, to have everyone buying into the team page and putting the team first rather than looking for points for individuals," Backes said. "When we have that team-first mentality, we're a great team and when we go off on our pages, we're a team that's easily beat.
"I think those lessons have been learned and we've seen the type of hockey we need to play to be successful. The guys in this room are committed to doing that and it's been a good thing for the last month or so."
Hitchcock called this among the most difficult seasons of his coaching career.
"I can tell you that this season was as challenging as any season I've ever coached in ... to manage the peaks and valleys of the season," Hitchcock said. "We've had a number of peaks and valleys and this season has been very challenging on keeping a level head and getting guys through some very tough times.
"I feel like this season had a real opportunity to go south a few times and we gathered it back in and brought it back north again."
Hitchcock told reporters Wednesday that veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, who left Tuesday's game against Colorado after blocking a shot in the second period, won't play Thursday against Calgary. Kris Russell will take Jackman's spot in the lineup.