Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
The 2003-04 NHL season was a special one for the St. Louis Blues. It marked the 25th consecutive year the team qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Of course, it was the last time they would participate in post season play until five years later in 2009. It was also the fourth time in a row the Blues finished second in the Central Division, after finishing first in 2000. A very good hockey team during the regular season could not pass muster in the playoffs, only advancing to the Conference Finals once (in 2001) since 1986.
Only division rival Detroit had more points than a decent Blues team at the conclusion of the regular season in 2004. Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk, Scott Mellanby and Pavol Demitra spearheaded the offense, while defensemen Chris Pronger, Christian Backman and Bryce Salvador led the defense. Chris Osgood manned the net, backed up by Reinhard Divis and Brent Johnson. Veteran Al MacInnis only played three games, though, due to vision problems that happened during an October, 2003, contest against Nashville, the same eye previously injured by a high stick in 2001. MacInnis missed the remainder of the 2003-04 season and when the 2004-05 season was cancelled due to a lockout, the likable HOF defenseman announced his retirement in September, 2005.
2003-04 began with an inauspicious loss in overtime in Phoenix, yet the Blues went on to win six of the remaining eight games in October. This was remarkable since only two of the nine games in October were at home. By New Year's Day, the Blues had amassed an excellent record of 21-9-5, including a superior 12-3-3 on home ice. And then the wheels fell off. The Blues went 4-9-4 in January, only winning three games at home. February was no better. The Blues only won four of ten games, fell to ninth place in the Western Conference and were in danger of missing the playoffs. So, coach Joel Quenneville was dismissed on February 24, two days after an overtime loss at Chicago.
Defenseman Chris Pronger told Jim Suhr of the Associated Press that "Somebody's got to take the heat when the team's not playing very well, and it's pretty tough to fire a whole team. Obviously, the coach is the easiest guy to let go, but at the same time, we as players have not played very well. At times we seemed lackadaisical out there and not really put our best foot forward. For Joel to take the heat for that is kind of sad."
Coach Q was replaced by assistant Mike Kitchen, who would later join Quenneville on the coaching staff of the Blackhawks in July, 2010. They would go on to win two Stanley Cup championships together in 2013 and 2015. Coach K guided the Blues to seventh place in the final standings of 2004, tied with Nashville and only two points ahead of 9th place Edmonton. St. Louis would go on to lose to San Jose in five games of the opening round of post season play that year.
The 2005-06 season was a total disaster as Coach Kitchen's boys finished 25 games under .500, the worst in franchise history. The Blues stumbled out of the 2006-07 gate with a 7-17-4 record and on December 11, 2006, after a seven game losing streak, Kitchen was sacked and replaced with Andy Murray. In an interview with the Associated Press and reported by ESPN, team President John Davidson said, "We realize we're a team that's got a long way to go. We just felt we needed to take a step like this to move forward. We just want more, that's all. We need a more concerted effort."
Sound familiar? It never hurts to repeat the old aphorism that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It will be more than fascinating to see how our boys in blue respond to playing the visiting Dallas Stars tonight. Dallas is currently the best team in the NHL, the first to reach 21 victories and 44 points in only 28 games. Previously, the Blues have wet the bed this month at home, playing down to, and losing to, weaker teams such as Philadelphia, Toronto and Florida. So, how will they respond to playing a superior team like the Stars? Can the Blues contain the high scoring Jamie Benn (19 goals and 39 points) and center Tyler Seguin (15 goals and 39 points)? Can they stop defenseman John Klingberg (25 assists) from setting that dynamic duo up?? More importantly, can the Blues score against an average Dallas defense (ranked 15th out of 30 NHL teams in goals against per game) that has allowed 75 goals (only three more than the Blues)??? (Statistics do not include Dallas' home game last night against Philadelphia.)
With such a good hockey team, it is not surprising to see attendance at the American Airlines Center in downtown Dallas increase to over 18, 000 at 98% capacity, an increase of almost 800 per game this season. Last season, attendance rose an NHL-leading 18%. And the value of the Stars' franchise is up to $450 million, ranked 13th in the league by Forbes. Owner Tom Gaglardi and his group paid $240 million for the team in 2011. The debt to value ratio is a manageable, but not great, 33%. Even more impressive, though, is the absence of promotions and discounts the Stars traditionally relied on in the past to boost attendance in Dallas.
Everybody loves a winner, eh?