Blues take a hot streak into postseason opener

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Just in time for the playoffs, the St. Louis Blues are hitting their stride.

The regular season was a trial for the team with the second-highest payroll in the NHL, about $55 million. All that high-priced talent turned it on down the stretch, with the Blues going 8-2 in the final 10 games to zoom past the Chicago Blackhawks into the fourth seed in the Western Conference heading into Game 1 Thursday night in St. Louis.

"When you're playing sporadically and not living up to the expectations everybody has for you, including yourself, there's frustration that creeps in," forward Scott Mellanby said after practice Tuesday. "When you get on a roll like we were on the last 10 games, success breeds success and all the cliches you want to use."

The Blues made it to the Western Conference finals last spring before falling to eventual Stanley Cup winner Colorado, and although they didn't qualify for the playoffs until Game 80 of the 82-game schedule their final burst left them with 98 points -- tied for fifth best in franchise history. They like their chances.

"You look around the league, and we've got as good a shot as anybody," said defenseman Chris Pronger, the Blues' captain. "The East is pretty open, and with Detroit kind of struggling right now our side seems like it's open as well.

"We just need to take care of our own business and let everything else unfold."

The finishing kick included two season-ending victories over the Red Wings and left the Blues, who chased the Blackhawks all season, with the upper hand heading into Game 1. The Blackhawks are in the playoffs for the first time in five years.

"We need to not give them any life," Pronger said. "Momentum is on our side right now and we need to keep it, kick them when they're down and not let them get up for any air."

The Blues enter the playoffs healthier than they've been in a long time. Center Doug Weight returned Saturday after missing 21 games with a pelvis injury.

"He withstood some major hits the other day against Detroit and came out of that game in good order," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're optimistic he can make a big contribution."

The Blackhawks limped to the finish, going 2-4-1 their last seven games. But they feel good about their overall performance.

"I think we raised a lot of eyebrows," defenseman Jon Klemm said. "At the start of the year, we weren't supposed to make the playoffs. A lot of people who were counting us out are backpedaling a little bit now."

One big reason for their late struggles: they were without defensemen Alexander Karpovtsev (knee) and Boris Mironov (groin), two of their top four on the back line. Karpovtsev's chance of playing in the opener was about 50-50, Mironov less so. Karpovtsev led the NHL with 191 blocked shots despite missing 17 games.

"I don't know if he wants to start blocking Al's (MacInnis') shots or anything like that, but the biggest thing is clearing guys out in front of the net," coach Brian Sutter said. "He's a big strong guy, one of the few his size in the NHL that can skate."

Unlike the Blues, who are set with Brent Johnson in goal, the Blackhawks also have a bit of a goalie controversy. Sutter has been mum on the topic, just as in the regular season.

Jocelyn Thibault played most of the games the first four months, and Steve Passmore started four of the last six games. Since the Olympic break in February, Thibault is 4-7-2 and Passmore 4-3-2.

"In the first 50 games, Jocelyn and Dominik Hasek were the best goalies in the NHL," Sutter said. "I said we would need the other guy and in the last two weeks we did need him. Obviously we have a tough decision to make."

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