The series of injuries that could have derailed the St. Louis Blues this season instead brought the team together and helped lead to a remarkable 107-point season.
Nearly every one of the team’s top players was injured at one time or another to the point where Tuesday’s practice before the playoff opener on Wednesday marked the first time all season the Blues were able to put a full, healthy squad on the ice at one time.
Among the players who have missed significant time with injuries include Jaden Schwartz (38 games), Patrik Berglund (39 games), Paul Stastny (16 games), Alexander Steen (15 games), Kevin Shattenkirk (10 games), defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (nine games) and goalie Jake Allen (20 games).
“I think adversity could have broke us, but it’s created a spirit that’s here,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Wednesday before his team took on the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. “I think all of us are really excited to see how we do.
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“We probably couldn’t have drawn a tougher opponent, but the feeling in the locker room and with the coaching staff is we’ve just overcome so much this year this is another obstacle. We’ve battled back from some pretty adverse situations and it’s created a bond in that dressing room. It’s created a bond between the coaches and players that’s pretty strong, so we want to test it out.”
Adversity makes or breaks you in this business. It could have broke us and it didn’t, we went the other way and we’re here standing today playing with 100-whatever points because it didn’t break us.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock
The Blackhawks, who are trying for their fourth Stanley Cup title in seven seasons, obviously present a huge test.
“Adversity makes or breaks you in this business,” Hitchcock said. “It could have broke us and it didn’t, we went the other way and we’re here standing today playing with 100-whatever points because it didn’t break us. It brought us together and there’s other teams that are watching and doing exit interviews, and they broke.
“We didn’t, we went the other way so there’s a bond that you create in your locker room because of it. You have no choice. I don’t want to say it’s out of the coach’s control, but there’s a lot of things that happen in that locker room that are out of our control and you either rally together or you don’t. We went the right way.”
Game 2 in the best-of-seven series is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Scottrade Center.
Physical grind of the playoffs
When watching an NHL playoff series, pay close attention to the constant pounding the defensemen take while being hammered by opposing forwards.
It can take its toll over a seven-game series and could be an effective plan for the Blues against the Blackhawks. During the regular season, the Blues fourth line of Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Reaves and Scottie Upshall were particularly effective with their mix of size, speed and physical play.
Not only is it the physical banging, but also a potential disruption of the transition game.
“Obviously it wears (defensemen) down, but from our standpoint I think that’s what we do well,” Shattenkirk said. “When our forwards are playing aggressive and tracking defensemen, playing with that physical mentality, I think it drives our game. That’s what we like to see out of them (and) that’s how we’re built.
“We have a big group of forwards and they’re a tough group to play against when they keep banging you and hanging onto the puck, causing you to play strong one-on-one hockey.”
Chicago wont be quite as physical as other Western Conference teams, but Shattenkirk said players like ‘Hawks forwards Andrew Ladd and Dale Weise bang more than enough to keep the defense’s attention.
Shattenkirk said the punishment doled out by Los Angeles Kings forwards during two recent playoff series was far more severe.
“I remember those L.A. series and I don’t think you could get hit any harder and more frequently than in those games — and I’m sure (Chicago’s) D-men will tell you the same thing when they played them,” Shattenkirk said. “They’ve added some guys like Andrew Ladd and Dale Weise who finish checks, they’re hard-nosed guys and they’re smart physically. They know when to hit you and when there’s an opportunity to leave a hit and to get in the right position defensively.
“That’s what we have to work through. When you do get hit, you just have to push through it, try to skate through it and make sure that you’re not letting it affect you.”
Blues-Blackhawks playoff rivalry
Game 1 on Wednesday marked the 12th playoff matchup between the Blues and Blackhawks and first since the ‘Hawks swept the final four games of a six-game series in 2014. The Blues have won four of the previous five home playoff games against the Blackhawks, including a memorable triple-overtime victory on Alexander Steen’s goal in Game 1 of the 2014 matchup.
Chicago has won eight of the previous 11 playoff series.
We know the tendencies and they’re our biggest rival, so I think they bring the best out of us. I think it’s kind of the same thing for them. That just breeds great hockey and tight hockey.
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk on the Blackhawks
“It’s just a great rivalry,” Shattenkirk said. “It’s two teams who play against each other quite a bit. We know the tendencies and they’re our biggest rival, so I think they bring the best out of us. I think it’s kind of the same thing for them. That just breeds great hockey and tight hockey.”
Shattenkirk said the Blues must be mindful of the Blackhawks’ ability to come from behind in games and in a playoff series. Finishing off shifts, periods and games will be at a premium.
“There’s no secret magical game plan for either team to use, that’s going to bring you through the series or win the series in four games,” he said. “They’re a team that has a resiliency we’ve seen in the last few years. At any given time in the series, they can just wake up and it’s something we have to be careful of because they have a lot of weapons out there.
“If one line isn’t playing well, another line could be playing great.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams winning Game 1 of a best-of-seven NHL playoff series have won the series 68.6 percent of the time (437-200).
The Blues buck that trend, winning two of three Game 1’s in overtime the past three seasons and being eliminated in the first round all three times.
The Blues will head into Game 1 with a fully healthy lineup for the first time all season. That’s a fact not lost on Berglund, the team’s first injury casualty in late August who didn’t make his 2015-16 debut until Jan. 2 because of a shoulder injury.
“Finally we can go out there with a healthy team and see what we can do,” Berglund said. “That was really weird to see actually, to see everybody out there (on Tuesday). It was a really good practice, everybody was smiling and have a good time.”
Blackhawks’ Ladd makes it back
The status of Blackhawks forward Andrew Ladd for Game 1 was uncertain after he returned to Chicago to be with his with pregnant wife, but he was able to return to St. Louis in time for the game.
“He just went back to Chicago to be with his wife in the delivery room, so he’ll be a game-time decision,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told reporters earlier in the day before the game.
Ladd played on a line with Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
The Blackhawks played without defenseman Duncan Keith, sitting out the final game of a six-game suspension.