The best team in the NHL had a date with destiny last Saturday
night, but the only date that seemed to interest South Florida
was the one Panthers hero Pavel Bure and tennis vixen Anna
Kournikova were planning to set for getting hitched. You could
hear about it on the radio. You could read about it in the
newspapers. You could even see references to it spelled
out--A-N-N-A--on the backs of four shirtless fans in the
National Car Rental Center during a break in the second period
of the Florida-St. Louis Blues game. That was a visual clue that
something old, something new, something borrowed and something
blue was taking precedence over the really something Blues.
Too bad. After St. Louis center Michal Handzus forced overtime
with 2:16 left in the third period, the game ended in a 1-1
draw, breaking the Blues' NHL-record-tying streak of 10
consecutive road victories. This season St. Louis has turned the
other 27 teams into bridesmaids, but not even its league-high 91
points through Sunday had inspired much talk of the Blues'
honeymooning with the Stanley Cup. If St. Louis defenseman Al
MacInnis didn't occasionally make news by snapping goaltenders'
appendages with his hellish slap shot--he has sidelined Chris
Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings and Jocelyn Thibault of the
Chicago Blackhawks this season with a broken hand and a
fractured finger, respectively--the colorless Blues would go
about their business absolutely unnoticed.
Winning on the road is still difficult in the NHL, though
stealing two points in an opposing rink has been downgraded from
a felony to a misdemeanor in the past decade. The arena-building
boom has left the NHL with swank but sterile venues that possess
none of the unique touches formerly found at such claustrophobic
barns as Boston Garden and the Aud in Buffalo, or at Chicago
Stadium with its seemingly square corners and raucous crowds.
"You'd come into some of those old places, and for the first 10
minutes you'd see a full-court press, and you'd hardly know
there was a puck out there," the 36-year-old MacInnis says.
"Their defensemen would be pinching, their forwards would be
pressing, and you'd just want to survive. Nobody's intimidated
anymore. The buildings are pretty much the same, and the fans
seem farther away. Winning on the road is a lot easier."
For St. Louis, anyway. The Blues, who through Sunday were one of
two teams four or more games over .500 away from home and one of
just six with a winning road record, outscored opponents 39-15
and outshot them by almost six shots per game during the streak.
In those 10 games they trailed only once going into the third
period--they scored four last-period goals on Feb. 21 to
overtake the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 4-2--and played one overtime
match, defeating the Calgary Flames 5-4 on Feb. 1 on a goal by
leading scorer Pavol Demitra. The coholders of the record, the
1983-84 Buffalo Sabres, didn't have the benefit of a wide-open,
goal-friendly, four-on-four overtime session to extend their
streak. Even setting records is easier now.
"This streak seemed to sneak up on us," St. Louis coach Joel
Quenneville says. "You know, the All-Star break was in the
middle of it, and although we were doing a lot of traveling,
there were eight home games [mixed in]. We didn't know about the
streak until we broke our team record of six. At first you think
that 10 in a row isn't a lot for a record. Then you realize it's
a quarter of your road schedule. That's pretty good."
The Blues' success is predicated on their ability to play the
same game, virtually every night, at home and away. St. Louis
stresses puck control and puck pursuit. Its system demands that
defensemen move the puck quickly and surely, and puts pressure
on a tenacious, though hardly physical, group of forwards to dog
the puck. The Blues are less explosive, despite ranking fourth
in the league in scoring, than methodical. Fifteen players
scored goals during the streak. Nine players, including three
defensemen, had game-winners. Rookie center Marty Reasoner, who
was called up from the Worcester Icecats of the American Hockey
League when St. Louis's most accomplished scorer, center Pierre
Turgeon, tore ligaments in his right thumb three games into the
streak, had a team-high six goals during the run.
MacInnis missed four games in the streak with a Blue Cross hat
trick: a collapsed lung, back spasms and a cracked rib. Losing
the defending Norris Trophy winner would usually be a
debilitating blow, but the Blues, who through Sunday were
21-5-3-0 since Dec. 30, are blessed with his probable successor.
At 25, Chris Pronger has not only established himself as the
NHL's best defenseman, but he also might be its most valuable
player. He led the league in plus-minus rating (+40), averaged a
league-high 30:24 per game and was third among defensemen in
"He plays 30 minutes a game, but I swear he could play 60," says
defenseman Marc Bergevin, Pronger's penalty-killing partner.
"We'll come to the bench after a minute, minute-and-a-half
shift, and I'll be puffing, and he'll take a drink of water,
look around and be ready to go again."
Pronger has learned to husband his energy, joining the rush only
when he sees an opening and using his King Kong-like reach to
strip the puck from a forward who has somehow slithered past
him. "Of course, he makes mistakes," Bergevin says. "About every
10 games he'll do something wrong."
If Pronger already was showing signs of being an elite player
last season, the understated Blues were also demonstrating a
knack for dominating on the road, going 14-4-1 in away games in
the second half. Against the Dallas Stars in the second round of
the playoffs they were done in by the shaky goaltending of Grant
Fuhr, so general manager Larry Pleau shored up that weakness by
trading with Dallas for Roman Turek. Like another goalie from
the Czech Republic, Dominik Hasek, Turek had played behind Ed
Belfour and, with St. Louis, would finally get a chance to be a
No. 1 netminder, at age 29. After a rocky start in which he
distinguished himself from Hasek by coughing up soft goals,
Turek has been splendid, though, on occasion, bored. "We had
this game in Chicago [a 3-0 victory on Jan. 21 that began the
streak] in which we only gave up 11 shots," says Turek, who was
in goal for every match during the streak except the
record-tying 10th, a 5-2 win against the Atlanta Thrashers last
Thursday. "Sometimes it's not easy to stay in the net and wait
for a shot from the red line."
When suppressing the urge to lie down on the job--St. Louis had
allowed an NHL-low 1,440 shots, 96 fewer than the Philadelphia
Flyers, through Sunday--Turek is primarily a stand-up goalie,
unusual for someone his size (6'3" and 215 pounds). He handles
the puck adroitly and calmly, thereby providing a complement to
a defense that hardly needs help.
The Blues shrugged off last Saturday's bittersweet tie with
Florida, knowing it cost them a sliver of immortality but
satisfied that they had inched further ahead of the Red Wings,
who trailed St. Louis by five points in the Central Division.
The Blues' best game during the streak was a 4-1 trashing of
Detroit at Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 8, a match that featured St.
Louis rookie left wing Tyson Nash, who stirs the pot more often
than Wolfgang Puck, laughing at Steve Yzerman after the
frustrated Wings captain cuffed him on the head twice. Nash, who
led the NHL in penalties with 51, has a thousand-watt smile, and
Detroit wondered if anyone was home when he offered the opinion
after the game that Yzerman, his boyhood idol, must have been
punching with pillows on his hands. The impertinence drew a
private rebuke from his Blues teammates and may have contributed
to a 2-0 thumping from the Wings in St. Louis two nights later.
"We still have our bad games," Quenneville says. "It's just that
we haven't had too many. We'd like to finish first overall and
certainly Number 1 in our conference, but if we don't, I don't
want our guys to think they've failed. So a lot of people don't
pay much attention to us. Look, Colorado has won a Cup and has
all that talent. Detroit's won two Cups. Dallas has a Cup and
two Presidents' Trophies [as the top team in the regular
season]. All we've done is lose to the eventual Cup winner in
the playoffs three years in a row. If the recognition is going
to come, it'll have to come in the postseason."
Whether Bure and Kournikova will be married by then is anyone's
Then you realize it's a quarter of your road schedule."