- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

ST. LOUIS They lead the NHL with 99 points. Their 1.99 goals-against average, if maintained for the final 11 games, will be the league's lowest in 44 years. If they win their last five away from home (all against also-rans), they will break the NHL record for road victories.

And yet few people are calling the St. Louis Blues the Stanley Cup favorites.

Why?

Well, for one thing, St. Louis' main Western Conference rivals, Dallas, Detroit and Colorado, have won the past four Stanley Cups and are positioned for runs at another title.

Second, the Blues are almost unknown despite the presence of defending Norris Trophy winner Al MacInnis and his possible successor as the NHL's top defenseman, Chris Pronger, on the blue line.

And then there's history. While St. Louis has been eliminated by the eventual champion each of the past three springs, a loss is a loss. The Blues have made the playoffs a team-sports record 21 straight years, but the closest they have come to a title is a seven-game loss to Calgary in the 1986 Campbell Conference finals.

No wonder the Blues call the Show Me State home.

"You evaluate your season mostly on what happens in the playoffs," said St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville, who won a ring in 1996 as the Avalanche's top assistant. "But I don't think there's added pressure because of this organization's history. There are a number of teams in our conference who feel they have what it takes, but things have to go right in order for any team to win."

Plenty has gone right for the Blues, who are 41-0-0 when scoring three goals, 31-0-2 when leading after two periods and 5-0-9 in overtime.

After using five goalies last season, including over-the-hill Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr and former Washington wunderkind Jim Carey, St. Louis traded its second-round pick in last June's draft to Dallas for Roman Turek. The 29-year-old Czech had been fine in 49 games as Ed Belfour's backup the past two years. Now Turek is following in the skate strides of Buffalo superstar Dominik Hasek, who spent two years as Belfour's understudy in Chicago.

"We didn't know if Roman could be a No. 1 goalie, but he has been as good as you can ask," Quenneville said about Turek, who is 38-13-8 and leads the league with eight shutouts and a 1.95 GAA. "He started off slow, but as he became more comfortable with his teammates and with playing [almost] every game, you could see his confidence growing. He's big [6-foot-3, 215 pounds]. He anticipates well. He's patient. He doesn't overplay situations and make a lot of needless movement. He relies on his positioning. And he handles the puck very well."

Positioning and puck handling have vaulted the 25-year-old Pronger, the second choice overall in the 1993 draft, to the ranks of the elite. Pronger tops the NHL with a plus-44 defensive rating, and his 51 points are third among defensemen. Quenneville said Pronger has the best anticipation he has ever seen and wasn't joking when he said the 6-6, 220-pound Dryden, Ontario, native could play the entire game if necessary (skating 35 of 60 minutes is considered extraordinary).

"It's nice to hear people mention my name for the Norris, but I'm not so sure I'm even the No. 1 defenseman on our club," said Pronger, in his third year as the Blues' captain. "Al and I are 1-A and 1-B, I guess. He has been a great guy to learn from."

The Blues believe they learned from the absence of star center Pierre Turgeon for nearly the past two months with a thumb injury he's due back this week and from their playoff experiences of 1999.

"Turge was having a great year [58 points in 46 games], and hopefully he'll pick up where he left off," Quenneville said. "But it was good how well we played when he was out. We found out about guys [All-Star right wing Pavol Demitra and Slovak linemates Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko have 67 points in the past 22 games]."

As for the playoffs, the Blues are well aware only two of the past 10 teams to win the President's Trophy as the regular-season champions (Dallas and the 1994 New York Rangers) also have won the Cup.

"We really gained a lot of confidence from coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat a really good Phoenix team in the first round last year," said right wing Scott Young, a champion with Pittsburgh in 1991 and Colorado in 1996. "Then we gave Dallas a hell of a fight."

Pronger hasn't forgotten the six-game loss to the Stars, who went on to beat the Avalanche and the Sabres to win their first Cup.

"We came to camp with a little bit of a bitter taste," Pronger said. "We thought we were as good if not better than Dallas."

Come next month, the Blues should have the chance to prove it.

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