Editor's note: A former hockey writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dave Luecking now covers the Blues and NHL hockey for Moundcitysports.com. You can follow his commentary throughout the playoffs on Twitter@moundcitysports.
ST. LOUIS -- At the very least, the St. Louis Blues' six-game losing streak at season's end, as well as numerous injuries to top-fight players, lowered expectations, which had been off the charts.
With the Blues winning a franchise record 52 games, the parade on Market Street seemed to be a fait accompli, with the 'Note expected to join the Cardinals and Rams as holding championship victory parades in downtown St. Louis.
The losses and injuries to David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Patrick Berglund et. al. ended the giddiness and premature celebration. Some pundits -- Mike Milbury, for one -- have predicted a first-round exit for the Blues, and some St. Louis fans were downright morose at the end of the regular season.
This is good, though, because the cart is back behind the horse where it belongs, and the playoffs again are recognized as they should be -- a two-month, knockdown, dragout marathon in which only the strong survives.
It might be the Blues. It might not.
It might be the Chicago Blackhawks, who have been the only team left standing in two of the past four years, including last year when they raised Lord Stanley of Preston's chalice in Beantown.
The Stanley Cup playoffs have been littered over the years with can't-miss teams who run into the ditch on the road to hockey's Promised Land. It could be another team entirely. Who knows? That's why they play the games.
But it is fitting that the Blues and Blackhawks are meeting in the first round. It sticks in the Blues' craw that their biggest rival has won two Cups, and has done so with many ex-Blues on board -- coach Joel Quenneville, assistants Mike Kitchen and Jamie Kompon, center Michal Handzus, and exec Scotty Bowman, who led the Blues to three Stanley Cup Finals (no wins) then raised the Cup 13 times with other teams. Plus, Brandon Bollig, who grew up Blues fan and is the first St. Louisan with his name etched into the silver trophy.
The Blues stand alone among their expansion brethren as the only team that has never brought home Stanley. Toronto won the Cup in 1966-67 before expansion, so the franchise has gone without one for as long as the Blues have existed. But the Maple Leafs have 11 Cups to their credit.
The Blues never have sipped from the chalice, and now the defending champs and their fiercest rival stand in the way. The Blues and Blackhawks have met 10 times in the postseason, with the Blackhawks winning seven times and the Blues winning the last two -- most recently in 2002.
That was the only meeting between the teams after the NHL went to a conference playoff format. Now, with division matchups in vogue again, this series harkens to the old Norris Division days when the Blues and Blackhawks met five times in a six-year span, from 1987-88 through '92-93. The highlights: Jeremy Roenick spitting out his teeth, then scoring a goal and helping lead the Hawks to victory in 1989; and Eddie Belfour going ballistic after Craig Janney scored the OT series winner for the Blues at Wirtz' old barn in 1993.
And now, the teams meet again. As the adage goes: If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. May the best man win.