Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak is congratulated by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo… (Dilip Vishwanat / Getty…)
And the first NHL team to clinch a playoff spot was …
Not the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Or the defending West champion Vancouver Canucks. Not the Pittsburgh Penguins, either. Preseason favorites San Jose and Washington are still scrambling and could miss the festivities altogether.
The first team to punch its postseason ticket was the St. Louis Blues, and if you predicted that you should buy a lottery ticket and pack your bags for the exotic destination of your choice.
The low-budget Blues, who had reached the playoffs once in six seasons after the lockout — who have the league's top goaltending tandem in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak but whose top scorer, T.J. Oshie, ranked 67th in the league through Sunday's games — lead the NHL with 100 points and are assured of competing for the Stanley Cup.
Imagine that. General Manager Doug Armstrong didn't.
"At the start of the season we liked the makeup of the team, but we were at the point where we weren't sure how they were going to respond. There was really no safety net," Armstrong said in a telephone interview before the team flew to California to face the Ducks on Wednesday and the Kings on Thursday.
"These guys had been through the maturation of the first three or four years of their careers and now it was time for them to take hold of this organization and move forward."
Their first steps were a 6-7 start that led Armstrong to fire coach Davis Payne and hire Ken Hitchcock, who had won the Cup with Dallas in 1999. The switch was early enough for Hitchcock to restructure the Blues' penalty-killing, which ranks seventh, and install a strong, defense-oriented system the team has embraced.
Grabbing Hitchcock before rivals could hire him as a midseason replacement was a bonus for the Blues, the first of eight NHL teams to fire their coach this season.
"We had put a lot of emphasis on having a successful season, an organization trying to take that next step into respectability and credibility. Unfortunately, we were a younger team, which was difficult for a young coach," Armstrong said. "I think Davis Payne is going to be an excellent coach, but the mixture of a young team and a young coach wasn't working at that time. We wanted to see what these players could do with an experienced coach, and then enters Ken Hitchcock with 1,000 games' experience. And not only experience, winning experience. A Stanley Cup, Olympics, World Cup, world championships.
"He had the resume to grab the players' attention immediately, and to the players' credit they were ready to take that next step and they were looking for someone with that experience to guide them. It's been a real good marriage of the players wanting to learn and Ken having the knowledge to give to them."
The Blues are physical and their defense is mobile, led by Alex Pietrangelo (plus-17) and budding star Kevin Shattenkirk (plus-23). Their offense is modest but balanced. "We're more the sum of all the parts than any one individual, which I think plays into our hands," Armstrong said. "I hope we're a tough team to defend against because you're not quite sure who the head of the snake is."
The Blues' foundation rests on Elliott, who leads the NHL with a goals-against average of 1.62 and save percentage of .937, and Halak, second in goals-against average (1.85) and fourth in save percentage (.929). Unlike the lopsided division of minutes on most teams, the split between Elliott (33 appearances) and Halak (42) is close.
"When we started training camp, it was Jaro's job and there was a real strong competition for the backup between Elliott and Ben Bishop," Armstrong said. "Jaro didn't have a great September and training camp, so we went with the experienced guy, and to Brian Elliott's credit he's taken full advantage of that opportunity. What we did learn is that Jaro is very successful with a strong partner and strong competition. I look at how he performed with Carey Price [in Montreal].
"Having two good goaltenders both still in their 20s, both on two-year contracts, I think our goaltending, which may have been an area of concern for the organization for the last decade, is now an area of strength."
Although the Blues have come a long way, Armstrong said making the playoffs is only the first item on their checklist. Next: the Central Division title and perhaps the conference and overall point championships.
"I don't think complacency is something we're concerned about, partly because we've stayed very level as we've been through this," he said. "We haven't tried to pat ourselves on the back for what we've accomplished because our goals are internal, but they're lofty. To reach our ultimate goals we have to move past some of these fence posts. We're just starting to move past some of those fence posts, but our ultimate goal is still a long ways away."