The St. Louis Blues made barging into the third round of the
playoffs last week look as easy as one, two, 2.9. No semifinalist
seemed as thoroughly grounded as the Blues in Stanley Cup
fundamentals: Expert penalty-killing, traffic jams in the crease,
defensive commitment and solid goaltending were all in evidence
as they swept the Dallas Stars. St. Louis had all the basics
down, except counting.
With 2.9 seconds left in the first overtime of Game 3 and a
face-off in the Stars' zone, Blues coach Joel Quenneville pulled
goalie Roman Turek for an extra attacker, hoping to win the draw
and get a final scoring chance. To his surprise Mike Eastwood was
booted out of the circle. To his horror the Stars' Mike Modano
cleanly won the face-off from Jamal Mayers and drew the puck back
to defenseman Richard Matvichuk, who slapped it nearly 200 feet
and missed the deserted St. Louis net by inches with .4 of a
second on the clock. Quenneville's cheeks turned from playoff
pallor to hot pink, roughly the color of the slip general manager
Larry Pleau might have had to consider if the puck had gone in
and dramatically changed the tenor of the series. "I'm on the
bench and didn't see the puck off the draw," Blues defenseman
Chris Pronger said, "and all of a sudden the puck is heading
toward our net and everybody on the bench goes, 'Woooooo.' Can
you imagine if we lose like that?"
There's a fascination with the time-space continuum in St.
Louis, maybe because it has been 15 years since the Blues made
their way through two playoff rounds and maybe because those 2.9
seconds were only a fraction of the 38 minutes and 16 seconds
Pronger wasn't on the ice in a match that ended in the second
overtime. Pronger played 51 minutes, 10 seconds. Placed in the
context of 35 years ago, when teams generally dressed five
defensemen and often used only four, Pronger's playing 57.2% of
a postseason game is hardly unprecedented. In the modern era of
six defensemen and short shifts, that number borders on the
surreal. "I believe he could play a whole regular-season game in
the right situation," Pleau says. "It would have to be the right
night, but, yeah, 60 minutes. Just leave him out there."
Pronger, who was on for all but 30 seconds of a four-minute
Dallas power play in Game 2, had averaged 33:48 minutes per game
in the playoffs, more than three minutes greater than any other
skater. Where he spent his rare idle moments--on the bench, not
in the penalty box--was equally noteworthy. He was whistled for
32 penalty minutes in seven playoff games against the San Jose
Sharks a year ago. Through 10 games and two rounds this spring
he had pared it to 24 minutes, including two on a phantom
interference call early in Game 4 of the series against Dallas.
Pronger still can blow up, but he has added discipline to
toughness and reach and positioning, attributes that could turn
the Norris Trophy into his personal paperweight in the coming
decade. "He's more aware this year of what opponents are trying
to do to frustrate him, to get him off his game," Quenneville
says. "He's learned that other players will do whatever they can
to get him off the ice."
The surest way to keep Pronger off the ice in the regular season
was injuries--left knee surgery and a broken left forearm that
sidelined him for more than two months, beginning in late
January. Pronger missed 30 of 32 matches, a stretch during which
the Blues, the NHL's best team in the first half of the season,
won only eight. Pronger did not return until April 1, when only
four games remained in the regular season, but he instantly
became the 6'6" Maypole that a fragile team could dance around.
"We never really played a lot of games together as a group," says
venerable defenseman Al MacInnis, who was out 23 of the 30 games
Pronger missed because of a corneal abrasion to his left eye.
"There were a lot of injuries down the stretch, and we made some
moves at the trading deadline. We just wanted to continue playing
and blend everything together, hoping that we would get better as
we went along."
Pleau began fiddling with the Blues last summer. His guiding
principle was bringing in players with what he calls "puck
grit"--the ability to win battles for loose pucks, to make plays
in traffic, to get to those hard places where most goals are
scored. His first key acquisition was 6-foot, 190-pound free
agent Dallas Drake, a right wing who might be the NHL's best
hitter among players 6 feet or shorter. In February, Pleau
obtained Scott Mellanby, the former Florida Panthers captain, and
at the trading deadline a month later Pleau shed his reputation
for timidity by making a play for estranged Philadelphia Flyers
center Eric Lindros and then pulling off a blockbuster with the
Phoenix Coyotes for Keith Tkachuk.
The team that played so confidently in the third period with a
one-goal lead before putting Dallas to bed 4-1 last Thursday
included 10 players who weren't on the team that San Jose had
bullied out of the playoffs a year earlier. Cory Stillman,
another deadline acquisition, ended Pronger's half marathon in
Game 3 with a 35-foot blast past Ed Belfour. Tkachuk scored the
winner in Game 4, camping in the crease and backhanding a rebound
into the net.
The toughness has spread like a contagion this spring. In St.
Louis's only pivotal playoff moment that hadn't involved an empty
net in overtime, Pierre Turgeon, never the NHL's poster child for
unbridled determination, spit out three teeth after getting hit
with a puck and returned to the ice one shift later to set up
Drake's goal late in the third period that tied Game 5 against
the Sharks. Turgeon, who through two rounds ranked sixth in
playoff scoring with 12 points, had enough reasons to look back
(he knew Pleau had offered to trade him for Lindros) and to peek
ahead (as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, he'll undoubtedly
sign a contract that will pay him $7 million a year). However, no
matter what occurs in the Western Conference finals, Turgeon
finally put his mouth where his money is.
"Last year we didn't go through any adversity, came into the
playoffs, lost a couple of games and didn't know how to handle
it," Pronger says. "We had to go through the maturation process
of losing before we could start winning."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO BALANCING ACT Drake, a free-agent signee last summer, is tough not only in the corners but also in front of the net.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO DYNAMIC DUO A playoff bust last spring, Turek held Jamie Langenbrunner and the Stars to 1.50 goals per game, while a mature Pronger (right) stayed out of the penalty box
"We had to go through the maturation process of losing before we
could start winning."