Andy Fales, a local Des Moines sportscaster, is a staunch Cardinals and Blues fan. Last night, in the wake of the Blackhawks' elimination of his favorite team, he launched into a cri du coeur with which I, as a lifelong Cubs fan, could easily identify. In fact, he called the Blues "the Cubs of hockey," citing loyal fans, individual stars, a history of lackluster players becoming stars once they leave the team, and- most poignantly, in this case- strong seasons followed by post-season heartbreaks.
Been there, Andy. Though the Blues have never come within six outs of going to the World Series. The Cubs have, twice in my lifetime.
But the Blues are not the Cubs for other reasons. Take it to the bank: the Blues will win at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years. They are that good. And they have intelligent management that will make sure that whatever tweaks and adjustments have to be made will be made.
The reasons for their losses in the first round the past two years should encourage their fans, rather than the opposite. Dudes and dudesses, if you want to advance in the playoffs, it's probably a good idea not to match up with the defending Stanley Cup champions two years running!
The Blues did- and both times, took the first two games. Then other factors took over. They are not factors which should be discouraging. In fact, quite the opposite.
Had the Blues managed to win the division, their first round opponent would have been the Minnesota Wild. The Blues would have won that series handily. And having won it (and gotten that first round monkey off their backs), they would have gone into the second round with a cockiness and a self-assurance that only winning can give.
Psychology counts a great deal in hockey, and especially in the playoffs. Having faced and survived adversity creates a mental toughness which is absolutely essential. The Blues, having yet to survive such adversity (and they will), are apt to lose focus and panic, as they did in the third period of yesterday's decisive game with the Hawks. The Hawks, on the other hand, have long since grown those mental callouses. They don't panic when adversity befalls them, as they demonstrated time and again in this series (not least when trailing a team which had the home ice advantage two games to none). Instead, they ratcheted their game up a notch, and took care of business.
There is no substitute for learning what hockey people call "what it takes to win." Talent isn't enough. A Stanley Cup champion needs seasoning. It needs to learn to accept even dire straits in stride, and to know that there's something there to draw on when the world seems to be collapsing around your shoulders that is powerful enough to bring you through.
The Blues have all the talent in the world. All they lack is that seasoning. When they win a first-round series (and not playing the defending champs next time would be a step in the right direction), they will find it.
I picked them to win the Cup this year. If they manage to get through the first round, they'll be my picks next year, too. I don't mean to slight my Hawks, but while Corey Crawford is a good goalie, he's not Ryan Miller- a Brian Elliott, or a Jonathan Quick, or a Tuukka Rask (who should win the Vezina this year), or a Semyon Valamov. Crow is not an elite goalie. Just a good one. And his stats (along with those of our team defense) took a nosedive this year. Maybe they can come back; both Crawford and the D have looked like different men in the playoffs (another aspect of their experience and knowledge of what it takes to win in the post-season). But all year (well, maybe with the exception of the last few weeks), the Blues have been a better team.
Ok. Miller is an unrestricted free agent whom the Blues may or may not re-sign- and who will cost them in terms of cap space if they do. But Elliott's not to shabby, either.And while the experts (in fact, practically everybody in baseball) tell us that the Cubs' stacked farm system is on the brink of producing a basically home-grown team that should end the more-than-a-century-long drought of world championships, I'm more confident that the Blues will turn the trick than that the Cubs will.
Here's Dan Rosen's analysis. There is no curse in what he has to say, nothing that should discourage Blues fans about the future. And while Bob Verdi dissents, his theme is more the Hawks' hidden strengths than the Blues' weaknesses.
If the Blues find themselves in a situation next year like the one they found themselves in during the third period yesterday, I don't see them collapsing again.
They will have been there. And having been there is all they lack.