[This article appeared in Thursday's Game Time paper.]
At the start of the season I wrote that I was going to take a measured approach to the Blues' year. My attempt was to not get too high during the good times nor too low during the low times. Celebrate the big wins, of course, but try not to read too much into them. Same idea on bad losses: you can't win them all, so when the Blues screwed up and had a bad game I wasn't going to read too much into that. Teams have bad games sometimes.
I figured this reasonable response would be on par with how the season would go. I expected them to make the playoffs somewhere in the lower half of the top eight and that they would be in a position to have a good, learning experience kind of year and playoff run. A building block season for a team still growing, I figured.
All of our expectations have changed since November. It has gotten easier for all of us, and even for the semi-fans in town, to get carried away with this team. They beat the teams they are supposed to beat and they compete with the best teams in the league, winning outright or losing in decidedly close matches. They've leapt to the top of the standings and made people like idiot Wings fans have to eat their words when their, "Your team will fade down the stretch and the Wings will only get better." How's that current 1-4-2 stretch feel, Detoilet?
But I have managed to still stay pretty even keel about the team, even as I get used to their new winning ways. I imagine a lot of you are staying pretty calm, too. As a Blues fan of any length of time, we've seen this before. If you've been a fan for more than a couple years (or months, or days) then you've gotten out in front of yourself when the team has had success before.
How many of you were fans of the team when you got to say, "We're just four wins away from a Stanley Cup? It could happen!" Three years in a row you watched your new team get to the Finals only to be swept by the dominant teams of the time in Boston and Montreal. I'd guess that you guys are cautiously optimistic at this point.
How many of you were feverish about the possibilities after witnessing the Monday Night Miracle here in St. Louis, only to painfully realize that the Note had nothing left in the tank as they lost Game 7 of the conference finals just two days later? My bet is that most of you are looking at a long playoff road as full of danger, not an easy cruise.
I was a fan back when the Blues were coasting along on their way to the President's Trophy. Best team in the league that year. Confident swagger on the team and among us fans. I spent a lot of down time at work looking ahead in the regular season schedule and plotting out the ‘easy' wins the Blues had in front of them. Lots of time with scratch paper and projecting possible playoff brackets and the Blues' road to the Stanley Cup.
If you're like me, you spent a couple days after that first round Game 7 avoiding hockey talk. I was unfortunate enough to have a transplanted Sharks fan in my office at the time. He showed up by my desk, wordlessly doing that shark-chomping arm movement they all do. Seeing it in my peripheral vision, and without even looking at him, I explained that he'd "better get out of my area."
So I'm not exactly looking too far ahead at the schedule and pre-planning the Blues wins this year. I know who they play on Saturday and that's it. The seven game road trip is a mystery at this point. I don't know where they are going and I don't care yet. It doesn't matter. I can't get too far out in front of myself, just like the team can't. They need two points tonight and two more on Saturday.
The seven game road trip should be another good test for the team, but if it's not as successful as the last one was, I won't get too worried about it. Can't get too low if they lose a couple games on the road this time through - that's what happens on the road.
Coach Hitchcock is spending a lot of time managing his assets. He's making sure they don't get too burned out or spend too much time thinking about what kind of season they are having. He has done a masterful job of keeping them focused on the task at hand, winning the game in front of them. I think the fans are doing a similarly masterful job of doing the same thing. Sure we allow ourselves to look forward to paying for playoff tickets. We allow ourselves to consider some games "must wins" not because of how important they are but because our team is so much better than the opponent.
We've learned our lessons the hard way with this team. It's great to be excited and cocky and confident about the team. It's ok to assume they'll be a playoff team and have the potential to be one of the top two seeds. But beyond that, you'll have a hard time getting a lot of us to overstep our lessons learned in earlier campaigns. And that's probably the smart, safe thing to do at this point.
-Sean "I feel good about our chances in the playoffs" Gallagher