It is interesting how little the St. Louis Blues seem to be figuring into Stanley Cup prognostications, despite a 45-22-9 record that is tied for top in the Western Conference.
Whether it's a case of Blues fatigue or just plain mistrust, it is clear the past three seasons' first-round knockouts have left a stain on the reputation of a team that has had an absolutely wonderful season by all accounts.
Whatever the case, they're not the chosen ones, media-wise, entering this postseason.
Maybe that's fair. That's how it is. They don't get the benefit of the doubt until they prove it when it matters.
"It's fine by us," Blues captain David Backes said over the phone Monday. "We've been on the other side of that coin, where we've been picked and disappointed. Now, maybe we get to play that underdog role, lower expectations, just come in and, whoever we play, just get our game out there.
"If we're concerned or worried about [what] the writers are saying, no offense, we've got our minds in the wrong place."
The Blues are rolling with the playoffs around the corner. They have won 10 of their past 12 games, including a 4-0 shutout win Saturday at the NHL-leading Washington Capitals.
Defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson remain out, however, and there's no indication of when exactly either will be back. That's par for the course for a Blues team that hasn't been completely healthy this season. They have survived injuries to the likes of Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz and Patrik Berglund, as well as goalies Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Many teams would have had their seasons derailed by that kind of injury list.
Because of all the injuries, when I asked a rival Western Conference general manager to share his insight on the Blues, he said it was hard to give a clear picture.
"I don't know anyone that has 'truly seen them,' since they have been a team that has endured so many injuries to top-end players and yet have found themselves where they are at the moment," the GM said. "They have been tested at virtually every position and have come out on top. Sure, they may have disappointed in the past, but if they can get healthy, they could be very dangerous. They probably relish the fact that everyone is not talking about them."
If goaltending has done the Blues in at times in past playoffs, it has absolutely saved their season this year. Elliott and Allen have formed one of the NHL's top goalie tandems, with the two combining to post shutouts in their last four games.
"The goalies have been out of this world," Backes said. "We've done a decent job in front of them, but they're making all the stops that they should be making and stealing a couple that they have really no business making. When you've got that kind of support and protection behind you, it frees you up to make a few more plays in front of them. And we're starting to see a few pucks in the net on the offensive side of things because of that."
Both goalies are feeding off each other. Head coach Ken Hitchcock hasn't named a playoff starter yet, but it's clear he trusts either option, no matter what.
"They've been really consistent all year round," Backes said. "These guys right now are solid as a rock and calm and confident and working their butts off. That competition between them is healthy. It's not like they're tearing each other down. They're supportive of each other and the other guy's success. They're buying into the team-first attitude too. You just love seeing that throughout the whole group."
Backes, meanwhile, long the face of this franchise, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. One wonders whether his future is tied to whether the team finally gets over the playoff hump. I would argue many within the Blues organization are probably in the same camp that way; this is a big year.
"I mean, it has the potential for that," Backes said when I proposed that theory. "I'm not making excuses or trying to put any light on our lack of getting out of the first round the last three years, but we've played darn good teams. We've had some adversity. We haven't got the job done, and that's on us.
"The potential is there for 'Let's blow this up' and not be satisfied with any of the hard work that's being done or the success that we've had. But I don't know that's an extremely rational thought from just how difficult the whole league is, really, with the cap and the parity from top to bottom. But the Central Division and what we've been able to accomplish five years in a row in the playoffs, yes, we want to make that next step.
"Maybe if we don't get out of the first round, [we'll have] big changes. We need to focus on our task at hand. Somebody is going to have to make that decision once the chips have all settled and we figure out what's happened. We're hoping the situation is that we're going to have a big party and a parade, and everyone can wrap arms around each other, and everyone gets to stay put."
That's especially true in a year when so few people picked this team.