- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2001

DENVER It certainly didn't feel like it last April, but the San Jose Sharks did the St. Louis Blues a big favor by shocking them in the first round of the playoffs.
The Blues cruised to their best regular season ever, winning the President's Trophy as the NHL's top team with 114 points. But the smooth ride concealed some problems. The Sharks showed the Blues that they couldn't win on skill alone. St. Louis had to become more physical and less finesse-oriented if it wanted to match its regular season success in the playoffs.
"You probably learn more when you lose than when you win," said general manager Larry Pleau, whose Blues are down 2-0 in the Western Conference finals against Colorado with Game 3 at home tonight. "That loss to San Jose made us better in the long run. We took a look at our team and decided we had to get grittier in the puck area. When there were pucks available, we had to be able to come up with more of them. We wanted to change the personality of our team."
So Pleau signed free agents Dallas Drake and Sean Hill last summer, dealt for forwards Scott Mellanby and Cory Stillman this winter and acquired All-Star left wing Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline. Rookies Daniel Corso, Alex Khavanov, Bryce Salvador and Reid Simpson were promoted, and veteran defenseman Alexei Gusarov was imported. Add 1999 All-Star right wing Pavol Demitra, who missed last year's playoffs with a concussion, and that's 11 of 21 Blues this postseason who weren't on the ice during the loss to the Sharks.
"Dallas, Sean and Keith have been playing for a long time, and they give us a lot of leadership," Blues right wing Jamal Mayers said. "They take the body and make other guys accountable. Maybe we lacked that a little bit last year."
The first six changes were paying off nicely; St. Louis was a blistering 25-5-4 on New Year's Day. But with Chris Pronger, last year's Hart Trophy (MVP) and Norris Trophy (top defenseman) winner, and 1999 Norris winner Al MacInnis both out with injuries, the Blues limped to a 7-8-6-2 record from Jan. 29 to March 17. Pronger returned for two games before being hurt again. So it wasn't until the final four games that Pronger, MacInnis, Demitra (who missed all but five games from January through March) and Tkachuk were in the lineup together. The Blues' 310 man-games lost to injury were their most in 15 years, but they still wound up with 103 points, fourth-most in team history.
"We were kind of like a work in progress when the playoffs started," Blues coach Joel Quenneville said.
"We didn't know how things were going to go together," Pleau said. "But that stretch when we had so many injuries did help other players [among them Khavanov, Salvador, Corso and center Marty Reasoner] gain confidence from playing bigger roles than they normally would. That has helped us because if you're going to win in the playoffs, you can't have the same heroes game after game."
That was never more true than Game 5 of the first-round rematch against San Jose, the team St. Louis dearly wanted to beat. Trailing 2-1 late in the third period, the host Blues were facing the prospect of having to win Game 6 on the road to stay alive. But Drake tied the game, and Salvador, who scored two goals all season, won it in overtime. Goalie Roman Turek, one of the goats of last year's loss to the Sharks, stopped 30 of 31 shots in Game 6 to close out the series.
"Getting through the first round, especially against San Jose, really helped Roman and our whole team," Quenneville said.
Turek then limited his former team to six goals in a surprising second-round sweep of two-time defending Western Conference champion Dallas. That put St. Louis in the conference finals for the first time since 1986. Not that the Blues are satisfied about being this close to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970.
"We feel like we belong here, but we have to prove it," Pleau said.
"I think the Blues learned a lot from that loss to San Jose," Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake said. "Getting Tkachuk and Stillman at the deadline was huge, and Gusarov has played well with Pronger. They've gotten better, and they understand more how to win."
But that's looking like it won't be enough to beat Colorado.


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