Darren Eliot
Tuesday April 14th, 2009

Okay, by now we've all professed our amazement at the Blues' run to the playoffs -- their first postseason appearance in five years. They went 25-9-7 in the second half to secure a berth, and 8-1-1 over their last 10 games down the stretch to not only get into contention, but end up sixth in the Western Conference. This from a team that was in last place as late as mid-February.

That surge is reminiscent of the Washington Capitals' charge to the postseason last year. But the differences in mounting such a stirring push are more intriguing. Whereas the Caps changed coaches by bringing Bruce Boudreau up from the AHL, the Blues stayed the course with Andy Murray. The Capitals brought in veteran centerman Sergei Fedorov via a trade and bolstered their goaltending at the trade deadline by acquiring Cristobal Huet -- moves that worked out exactly as hoped.

By contrast, the Blues kept their veteran leader, Keith Tkachuk, instead of dealing him at the deadline and, yes, they made a goaltending change, but it was in the form of turning to backup Chris Mason. Both players delivered admirably, but the manner in which the organization handled those situations might have had as much to do with the team's success as the on-ice output.

Keeping Tkachuk sent a message of belief -- that management viewed the team's stretch of fine play as real and the playoff race was worth pursuing. That decision galvanized the young Blues and gave them confidence that they were indeed on the right path.

Mason's situation was not as clear-cut in that he played the final 38 games in the aftermath of the Blues sending veteran starter Manny Legace to the minors once he cleared waivers. Again, the organization was decisive in the Legace scenario, but the outcome surely worked out better than anyone could have envisioned. Acquired in the offseason from Nashville -- where he lost his starting job to Dan Ellis -- Mason was beaten in his first five starts with the Blues and sported an ugly 3-13-1 record when Legace was demoted. Yet, Mason was handed the keys to the crease.

Talk about taking advantage of an opportunity. Sure, the organization gets full marks for acting with authority and clarity in dealing with Legace's malingering, but it is Mason who deserves all the credit for performing so consistently well in the second half of the season. That is especially true since there was no evidence that he was the man for the job. Yet, he suited up each and every game in a stunning turnaround that matched his team: 24-8-6 as the default go-to guy. Mason finished tied for ninth in goals-against (2.41) and eleventh in save percentage (.916) in the entire NHL.

Quite a feat for Mason, who turns 33 in a week. His revival is maybe even more amazing than that of the Blues. Of course, the two are intimately intertwined. So too, though, is the Blues' excellence on special teams under coach Murray. They were third best in the league when down a man and eighth overall on the power play. Only the San Jose Sharks and Minnesota Wild finished in the top ten in both specialty categories.

How else do you explain a team that made the playoffs when its leading scorer (Brad Boyes) was minus-20? Or that it is the sixth seed despite having the lowest even-strength scoring differential (minus-14) of any of the western bracket participants? Correspondingly, the Blues' reliance on powerplay production is a whopping 31.5% of their total output.

The answer is that you don't, really. Numbers hardly do the Blues' saga justice. Not when a last place team looks inward while led by a taskmaster coach, a free spirit veteran, an afterthought netminder, and a cast of really promising young players, and comes together.

Details? Forget them. For now, enjoy the Blues' playoff appearance after an improbable run -- the kind of story that makes sports so compelling.

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