Physicality Goes Up a Notch in Blues-Sharks Series

Last Thursday, before the Blues and the Sharks played Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, St. Louis general manager Doug Armstrong talked in “The Fast Lane” about the intensity of playoff hockey, and what makes it so great. “The level of competition is as high as it’s going to be, and you get to build that hatred for each other,” he said. “You get that little stick at the end of the first period of Game 1 that you remember in Game 6 and you say, ‘You know what? Time for a little retribution on that one.’ That’s what makes it so great.”

That stick may not have been taken in Game 1, but a vicious charge by T.J. Galiardi that cracked Andy McDonald’s helmet in the second period of Game 2 got things going. In the third period, San Jose’s 6-5, 230-pound Brent Burns blasted the Blues’ 5-9, 180-pound Scott Nichol with a ferocious elbow to the back of Nichol’s head, and it was on.

The series is on, and that hatred that Armstrong talked about is on. At the end of the game in a wild scrum, Roman Polak used his brute strength to neutralize Justin Braun – a scene Blues coach Ken Hitchcock enjoyed immensely. “You found out, don’t open the Roman Polak door,” Hitchcock said. “Don’t ever open that door.”

Hopefully the league’s hierarchy, Gary Bettman and punishment czar Brendan Shanahan, understand that this is what makes playoff hockey great. The reason it’s the best postseason in sports is that we build up that hatred for the opposition. As the Blues visit the Shark Tank, their fans will boo Polak, McDonald and Vladimir Sobotka – in part because of the reaction of San Jose coach Todd McLellan, who accused Sobotka of starting the postgame fight with a sucker punch.

When the series returns to St. Louis, Blues fans will no doubt express their displeasure with Galiardi, Burns and Dominic Moore, who was involved with Sobotka. And if the series goes to six or seven games, the contempt that we’ve built up will continually build, and it’ll build among the players.

We love sports because they elicit our strongest emotions. And I believe that the only sport that has a physical, best-of-seven series brings out the venom in every fan. There’s nothing like it, and I’m loving it.

Other weekend notes:

*I loved hearing Jeff Fisher talk on “Mike and Mike” about Sam Bradford’s potential to be the best quarterback in the NFL. Bradford had a stellar rookie season, and was let down by his coaching and surrounding cast last season. Bradford has the ability to be great if he’s put in a position to succeed, and Fisher seems to understand not only that, but how to put Bradford in that position, too. The future is bright for the Rams, because their head coach and organizational leader gets it.

*Count me among those who really like the new Mizzou football jerseys. I wish the gray patches on the white jerseys were black, but I love the look of the black and yellow jerseys and the new helmets. I don’t generally wear jerseys, and wouldn’t wear one of these, but I like the look. I was a fan of the old ones, too, but with a new beginning for MU in the SEC, there’s no better time than now to make this switch. Is the look a little “Nike-centric?” Of course. But the kids who are being recruited to wear those jerseys, according to Mizzou’s and Nike’s research, like them. And that’s what counts. What do good players think of wearing a Tiger jersey? If they like it, then I like it.

*The Cardinals are 7-3 as they get ready for a visit from the Cincinnati Reds. Every win the Cardinals knock off with Lance Berkman and David Freese on the shelf should be considered a bonus. The good work turned in by Lance Lynn on Saturday and then Jake Westbrook on Sunday is necessary with the big bats out, and the bullpen has been superb in the Cardinals’ three games so far at Busch Stadium.

But the offense has been unexpectedly great, even with the injuries. The fact that Matt Carpenter went 7-for-12 with seven RBIs in Berkman’s stead against the Cubs was huge. My concern coming into the season was the inexperience of the Cardinals’ bench with Carpenter, Tyler Greene, Tony Cruz, Shane Robinson and Erik Komatsu. But each of those five, except for Cruz, has taken advantage of playing time at some point and contributed to the Cardinal offense.

After 10 games, the Cardinals lead the National League in runs (47), batting average (.293), on-base percentage (.350), slugging percentage (.489), OPS (.840), hits, total bases and RBIs. In fact, the only major categories the Cardinals don’t lead are doubles and triples.

It’s one thing for the Redbirds to succeed without Albert Pujols, because they were able to plan for life without him. But to get through the first 10 games with absences from Berkman and Freese and still dominate so many statistics is astounding. I’ll say it again: If this club can maintain a general level of health, it should challenge for the National League pennant like it did last year.