ST. LOUIS It was during a four-day span last summer that the St. Louis Blues first envisioned their season playing out like this.
It began July 2, when the club signed defenseman Kent Huskins. Then came the signing of veteran winger Scott Nichol on July 5. The next afternoon, the Blues then announced one-year deals with Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.
In barely 96 hours, the Blues went from a young and inexperienced group to a team that featured three Stanley Cup Champions and a fourth who had played in the Conference Finals the past two seasons.
Most hockey observers had no problems with the signings at the time. The low-risk, high-reward moves brought much needed veteran leadership to a team that hasnt won a playoff game since 2004.
Some said the signings would have been better had it been 2001 and not 2011. And they were probably right. But for a group looking to take that next step towards winning the franchises first Stanley Cup, nearly everyone said adding the veteran quartet couldnt hurt.
Now nearly nine months later, the Blues host the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals Thursday night at Scottrade Center.
And while the additions were key factors in the Blues earning the No. 2 seed in the west and reaching this point, they hope now is the time the moves really begin to pay off.
Playoffs are for veteran players, said coach Ken Hitchcock. Thats where you expect them to shine.
Thats why Arnott and Langenbrunner were brought here. They have the experience of what its like going deep. They know what it feels like, they know what it looks like and this time of year is exactly why they were brought in to come and help us.
Hitchcock joined the Blues midseason after Davis Payne was fired following a slow start, but he knows both Arnott and Langenbrunner extremely well. In fact, the two veterans and coach have been linked closely throughout their careers.
Langenbrunner was a member of the 1999 Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars, which were coached by Hitchcock. The Stars again reached the finals the next year, but lost when Arnott scored the game-winning goal in double-overtime of Game 6 for the New Jersey Devils.
Barely two years later, the two players were traded for each other as part of a three-player deal. And Langenbrunner immediately led the Devils to the Stanley Cup title in his first full year with New Jersey in 2003, leading the league with 11 goals and 18 points in the playoffs.
Arnott was traded back to New Jersey in 2010, where he teamed with Langenbrunner for most of the 2010-2011 season before being dealt to Washington late in the season.
With both hitting the free agent market at the same time and not ready to retire, the veterans looked for a team they thought had a chance to help them win another Stanley Cup. And as it turned out, they both decided separately that team was the Blues.
It was the way I envisioned it, Langenbrunner said. You evaluate teams and try to figure out what fits best for you and this is what I saw, a team that was improving and on the cusp of getting to the playoffs,. This is what we play for. We want this opportunity. Its a long battle but Im excited to be there.
Langenbrunner served as the captain for New Jersey the past five seasons. He also was the captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 2010, which ended up winning the Silver Medal.
The two-time Stanley Cup winner has 12 game-winning goals in the playoffs, more than Hall of Famers such as Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey and Cam Neely. Showing the ability to come through when the pressure is highest, Langenbrunner has scored four game-ending goals in the playoffs in overtime.
The 36-year-old Langenbrunner will be making his 14th appearance in the playoffs while the 37-year-old Arnott, a two-time All-star, will be making his 13th trip to the playoffs with his sixth different team.
Nichol, 37, will be making his sixth playoff appearance for his third team. He reached the Western Conference Finals in each of the past two seasons with the San Jose Sharks.
And dont forget about Huskins, who won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. The 32-year-old signed with the Blues as a free agent just days before the other three did, but was limited to just 25 games in the regular season because of injuries.
For a team looking to win their first playoff series since 2002, the experience the added veterans bring cant be overstated. For general manager Doug Armstrong, its worked out just as he planned last summer.
We were brought in here because weve been through this, Langenbrunner said. Theres a lot of guys getting their first playoff game and were fortunate to have been through it a few times so I think the biggest thing is to bring a little bit of a calming influence.
It is the playoffs, but its the same game. It gets ramped up and all that, but it seems to be the teams that crack first. Teams arent going to get better. Its teams that can make the other teams crack and I think for us its just staying focused and doing the same things that we do well.
Having a coach who has made nine trips to the playoffs and won a Stanley Cup doesnt hurt either. And the Blues figure to lean heavily on the coaching of Hitchcock and the veteran presence of Arnott, Langenbrunner, Nichol and Huskins for what they hope is a lengthy playoff run.
But come Thursday, the entire Blues lineup will have playoff experience under their belt. Even if its just a little.
You get though that first shift and youre a playoff veteran, Langenbrunner said.
The Blues have high hopes as they prepare to face the Sharks Thursday night. And in large part, its because of a few days last summer.