Pronger-less Blues out front at break

Saturday, February 1, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- A wrist injury that might cost captain Chris Pronger the entire season was supposed to shove the Blues to the back of the pack.

Instead, without their best defenseman, they arrived at the All-Star break leading the Central Division and among the NHL's best with 66 points. They lead the Detroit Red Wings, a perennial Stanley Cup contender, by two points, and are fourth-best overall.

"I don't think anybody gave us a whole lot of chance to be in this position," All-Star defenseman Al MacInnis said. "Everybody has stepped up and really done a great job."

One of the NHL's most dangerous lines, manned by Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra and Scott Mellanby, is a big reason for the Blues' 28-15-6-4 record. Tkachuk got his team-leading 20th goal in the Blues' overtime victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday on a set-up from Demitra, who has 53 points. Mellanby has 18 goals, already topping last season's total.

"It's hard to stop with Tkachuk penetrating and backing people off and creating seams and holes that are gaping, and all of a sudden there's a loose puck and Pavol or Mellanby is there," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You've got to put it up there with the top lines."

Just as important has been the emergence of rookie defenseman Barret Jackman, 21, part of the top pairing with 39-year-old Al MacInnis, and the contributions of import center Petr Cajanek and former prospect Eric Boguinecki.

Jackman entered this season with one game of NHL experience, last year's elimination game against the Red Wings in the second round of the playoffs, but has long impressed the team with savvy beyond his years.

"I like how our defense has played," Quenneville said. "Without Chris, that was our greatest concern going into the season, knowing we're going to have some growing pains, there's going to be some mistakes and we'll be exposed some nights.

"That's been a real nice area where we've really been consistent and most nights real solid."

MacInnis said it perhaps helped that the Blues knew better than to hope for an early return of Pronger, a former MVP, who's not expected back until playoff-time -- if then -- as he struggles to regain mobility in his left wrist. Quenneville was forced from the start to distribute Pronger's 30 minutes per game, allowing Bryce Salvador and Christian Laflamme to blossom.

"I think it was a lot easier to know that Chris was going to be gone for a while," MacInnis said. "I think you kind of accept that fact."

Cajanek, 27, was a force as the second-line center with 30 points in 44 games before breaking his leg. The cast came off this week and he's expected back in the lineup in a few more weeks.

The spunky Boguinecki, 27, was the MVP of the American Hockey League at Worcester, Mass., last season and leads the team with a plus-18 rating. He has five game-winning goals and is tied for sixth on the team with 34 points.

Overall, it's been a resilient team. Giving up the first goal is often fatal in the NHL, but the Blues are a league-leading 16-7-3-2 when spotting the opposition the early lead, as they did to the Sabres. And they've outscored their opponents 74-43 in the third period.

"We've been responding all year, and I think it kind of builds confidence when you are behind," forward Doug Weight said. "The team doesn't falter, we play the same game, and hence our third-period success."

The solid overall effort has compensated for the inconsistencies of No. 1 goalie Brent Johnson, who has struggled with mechanics and mind-set at times. He remains perhaps the team's biggest potential playoff weakness.

Still, the Blues know they can't afford to relax a bit in the always tough Western Conference populated by recent Cup winners in Detroit, Dallas and Colorado. Quenneville knows the division lead will be a day-to-day proposition.

"Detroit, they'll be around," he said. "That's going to be a challenge the rest of the season. We're not totally satisfied where we're at and I think we've still got a lot to prove."

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