I don’t believe Ken Hitchcock was trying to patronize the opposition following the Blues’ 6-1 win when he said Dallas was “the future of the NHL.”
I just don’t believe that, period.
Said Hitchcock: “They’re the future of the NHL. That’s where they are. They missed one of their two best players [Tyler Seguin]. They’re where the game is going.”
Nope. Not buying it, and neither are the hockey gods.
It’s true, the Stars would have been in better position to win with Seguin, who was a key piece of their 109-point regular season.
But Seguin or no Seguin, the Blues exposed the Stars’ two biggest weaknesses in this series.
For starters, teams don’t win Stanley Cups with a two-goalie system. Dallas general manager Jim Nill’s strategy to split roughly $10 million in salary between Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi worked in the regular season, but good goaltending only flies if you play elite defense in front of it.
Which leads us to the Stars’ other problem: Their faulty defensive structure withered too much throughout the course of their seven-game series against the Blues.
Time after time they failed to move David Backes and Troy Brouwer from in front of the net and the Blues capitalized.
Thus, even if Lehtonen used the same witch magic in Game 7 that he used on the Blues in Game 6, eventually that dam was going to break.
Want to know the biggest reasons why this Blues team is different than in years past? And why they have a legitimate shot at reaching the Stanley Cup Finals following postseason after postseason of misery?
Because Brian Elliott is playing at another level, and because it’s easier to get into Harvard right now than crack Hitch’s defensive structure (when the Blues don’t abandon it, that is).
Observers seemingly get offended when I ask them what’s different about Elliott this season than in years past. “You know he was an All-Star last year,” they ask, with a hint of condescension in their voice.
Yes, I know. I also know that his instincts, quickness, and focus this season are off the charts. He’s also rarely caught out of position and he’s seemingly zeroed in on the puck a full second before it’s released off the shooter’s blade.
Elliott has been fantastic. He’s transformed from a goaltender that has benefited from Hitch’s defensive system into a consistent wall that would hold up right now in any environment.
The Blues have a reliable goaltender and sound defensive structure. They also employ an offense that boasts a combination of natural playmaking ability (Vladimir Tarasenko, Robby Fabbri and Jaden Schwartz) and gritty performers that don’t mind diving into the dirty areas to put themselves into position to score (Brouwer, David Backes and Paul Stastny).
Granted, this team isn’t always firing on all cylinders, as Game 6 against Chicago and Games 4 and 6 against Dallas proved.
But all the right elements are there for a team capable of reaching heights that no other Blues squad under Hitchcock could imagine.
The same cannot be said for a Dallas team that went as far as its current construction would take it. The Stars rode their offense to home ice in the playoffs, and what a tremendous offense they had during the regular season.
But the future of the NHL? I don’t believe that, not for a second.
Playoff football is about quarterback play and defense. Postseason baseball is about pitching and defense.
And the NHL playoffs have always been about resiliency, grit, and goal prevention.
Thankfully for St. Louis fans, the Blues have displayed those three traits more times than not over the past month. If they continue to play to their capabilities, we’ll still be talking about this squad in June, too.