Through three straight playoff losses following a first-round win in 2012, the St. Louis Blues have endured more than their share of criticism.
An anxious and nervous fan base that hasn’t witnessed a Blues team in the conference finals since 2001 — and 1986 before that — has built up frustrations that could boil over with a third straight first-round playoff exit.
In each of the last two seasons, the Blues won the first two games of the series at home only to lose four straight and find themselves swept right out of the playoffs.
Will this year be different?
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“We’ve got plenty to prove, there’s no question about it,” said Blues captain David Backes, whose team opens its first-round playoff series Thursday at home against Minnesota. “Everyone’s had fuel added to their fire to win in the postseason after last year’s early exit. We should hit the ground running on Thursday.”
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk hasn’t forgotten the 2-0 playoffs starts in 2013 and 2014, followed by four straight defeats. A new opportunity awaits for the Blues to wipe that slate clean and rewrite the ending.
“Two years in a row we kind of did that to ourselves,” he said. “It’s something that we had to get ingrained in our minds is to finish teams off, to be able to hold a 1-0 lead or 2-0 lead on the road for a couple periods and just play smart hockey. It’s tough, it’s a matter of not straying away from the systems that make us good and when we are down by a goal to just stick with it.
“It’s a matter of just finishing teams off and really not caving or giving into that temptation of playing the wrong way.”
A healthy Blues team gives Backes and his teammates some optimism, as a does a deeper team that now features three talented front-line centers in Backes, Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera and proven goal-scorers like Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz.
“We’ve had shortcoming in the past few years, but we feel we’ve got a deeper team, a more prepared team, a team that’s playing better hockey,” Backes said, “and we’re healthier that we’ve been in the past few years for playoffs. It’s time to put all those things into fruition and show what we can do.”
Backes feels the tough-love lessons have been learned. The pain and frustration felt by a core group that has consistently cleaned out their lockers with plenty of playoff hockey remaining may serve as prime motivation.
“We feel we have a great opportunity to take steps this year and accomplish our ultimate goal,” Backes said. “At the same time there’s 15 other clubs that are saying the same thing. It’s among the 25-26 bodies that are in here to put the product on the ice and win games.
“There’s a lot of lessons that have been learned through playoffs. You’ve got to get there a couple times it seems to learn some hard lessons before you take that next step. Now is our time to take that next step.”
The longest tenured Blue, defenseman Barret Jackmanm first experience playoff hockey with the team in 2002. Now 36, he’s been past the first round only once in his entire NHL career.
“There’s a lot of guys in this room that have been here for a while, the core group,” Jackman said. “We’re putting pressure on ourselves to win, we don’t really feel that outside pressure. Any kind of pressure is in our own heads and our own hearts. We want to have success as a group.”
Jackman was asked if this was “put-up or shut-up time” for the Blues.
“I think we said that last year, too,” Jackman said. “You never know what the future holds, We’ve got to win right now and next year will take care of itself. We have a lot of confidence in the group that we have in the room and what (General Manager Doug Armstrong)’s put together.
We look at this chance right now as the best we’ve had so far.”
The Blues have one of the NHL’s best regular-season records since coach Ken Hitchcock’s arrival in November, 2011 at 175-79-27. Hitchcock has guided the club to two Central Division titles and back-to-back seasons of 111 and 109 points.
But the team’s postseason record under Hitchcock is 8-13 with three consecutive playoff losses, once in the second round.
“I’ve had confidence in all of (the teams),” Hitchcock said. “The reality is that this is a tough conference, a really tough division. The emotion and the accountability, it’s in with the guys. They want to prove (it) to each other, not the rest of the hockey world.
“They don’t care about the rest of the hockey world, they care about themselves. They’ve worked really hard together, a big core of this group. There’s 15-16 guys that have been around for a while. They want to do some damage.”