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Friday, October 2, 2009
Big stage, big boost for Blues

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

STOCKHOLM -- The St. Louis Blues haven't been afforded many stages on which to strut their stuff in recent years.

They missed the playoffs the first three seasons after the lockout, at one point finishing dead last in the NHL, and saw fans disappear in droves.

Even though they surged into the playoffs last season, the Blues were swept by Vancouver and began this NHL season wondering just how they were going to follow up last year's surprise finish.

And to be honest, things didn't look all that promising as they began this NHL season in Stockholm, falling behind against the Stanley Cup finalist Detroit Red Wings 3-1 before the midpoint of Friday's season opener.

"They're just good, and we were very nervous," team president John Davidson said after the Blues mounted a stirring comeback, scoring three unanswered goals to defeat the Red Wings 4-3 in the first of back-to-back games in Sweden.

"We just sort of quietly go about our business and we don't quit, and that basically is what happened here tonight," Davidson said. "But we were really nervous. That's one of the main reasons why we wanted to come over here and do this thing. Because it's a stage, and when you have a stage, you get used to being on the stage, and it's something that our young people need."

The former NHL netminder and longtime broadcaster's comments reminded us of a similar comment made by Chicago coach Joel Quenneville last season during the lead-up to the Winter Classic outdoor game at Wrigley Field on Jan. 1.

Quenneville explained how playing in a different environment, with more attention than normal, is part of the learning curve for a young team; it helps prepare a team for even bigger things.

The Blackhawks, of course, went on to reach their first Western Conference finals since 1995 and are considered by many to be a top Stanley Cup contender this season.

The Blues might not be quite in that category yet, but nights like Friday suggest the possibilities are great for the resilient Blues.

"This is something they can put in their wallet and say, OK, there is some more experience back there," Davidson said. "It's important to have that as a team. We've got guys that come in and they've been in the Olympics and they've been in all kinds of scenarios, but not as a team. But our team has to go through it, so this is good for us."

The night started out as more of a trip down memory lane as longtime Detroit Grind Liners Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper combined for a goal and two assists to give the Red Wings a 2-1 first-period lead.

When Detroit winger Ville Leino flew down the right side with time running out on a four-minute minor for high sticking assessed to Alex Steen and wired a shot over netminder Chris Mason's glove, the thousands of Detroit fans in attendance at the Ericsson Globe Arena could smell victory from the Swede-laden Wings.

For the first half of the second period, it appeared as though the two teams were playing two separate games, one in which the Red Wings played with the puck and the Blues simply chased them around.

"It's called getting schooled," St. Louis coach Andy Murray said.

With the Wings up 3-1, it appeared to be just a matter of time before they would blow the game open. Were it not for the heroics of Mason, who stopped Daniel Cleary's backhand in close shortly after the Leino goal, it might have been so.

But it wasn't. And with 7:29 left in the second period, veteran Paul Kariya scored the first of his two goals to make it 3-2 after snapping a long wrist shot through traffic with the Blues on the power play.

Fourth-liner B.J. Crombeen added the tying goal a little more than two minutes later. Then it was Kariya's breakaway goal with 2:24 left in the second period that turned out to be the winner. In the space of 5:05, the Blues erased a 3-1 deficit, then they held the Red Wings to just nine shots in the third period.

"We should have got the fourth goal, obviously," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "We had them bent real good. We had a few shifts in their zone. I thought Mason did a good job. You've got to give them credit for battling hard."

If the Blues were nervous to begin with, they seemed to lose that nervousness when they started to play what Davidson calls a "heavy" game. (It was that physical style of play that marked their dramatic ascension from 15th to sixth in the Western Conference in the second half of last season.) T.J. Oshie, among others, seemed to find his comfort zone once he started employing his body.

One of the things that concerned Murray in the preseason was the fact his team relied so heavily on the power play and penalty kill last season. On Friday night, the Blues scored three of four at even strength, and two of those were delivered by the team's fourth line, or, as Murray likes to call it, his "stopper unit." Jay McClement had an especially helpful night with a goal and two assists.

Not that the team didn't need its penalty-killing unit, which was ranked third in the NHL last season. The Blues killed off 1:36 of a two-man advantage late in the first period that was another defining moment of the night. Then, they fought through 3:50 of the four-minute minor to Steen. They also killed off a delay-of-game penalty in the third period assessed to Oshie, although the Wings didn't really threaten during that man advantage.

"Did we score on the power play? Yeah, we got one, and it was on a line rush," Babcock said. "They made a couple of decent saves and blocked shots, but we could have won the game on the power play. The bottom line is, you have to score on that 5-on-3, and I didn't think we got much done in the first half of that 5-on-3."

The Blues were outshot 25-15 through the first two periods, and although he wasn't as busy in the third period, Mason did provide the highlight of the night as he robbed Johan Franzen on a short-handed 2-on-1 rush after Pavel Datsyuk turned defenseman Erik Johnson inside out. Franzen, a veritable goal-scoring machine, was shown on the video scoreboard cursing his luck when Mason managed to get his catching mitt on Franzen's hard shot.

Later, Mason suggested that the victory reflects the team's character but that St. Louis also needs to keep some perspective.

"It was extremely important, I thought. We probably got off to probably one of the worst starts that I can remember," Mason said. "Just the whole situation here, playing a late game and nervous; a lot of guys have missed a lot of time and were coming back and the regular season starts. But for us to come back on a team like Detroit -- they don't give away too many leads.

"It is gratifying, but we have to realize it's only one game," he added. "Can't be happy for too long."

On Saturday night, the Blues will try to make it two in a row on a stage that all of a sudden seems to suit them quite well.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.