He best team in the NHL had a date with destiny last Saturday night, but the only date that seemed to interest South Florida was the one Panthers hero Pavel Bure and tennis vixen Anna Kournikova were planning to set for getting hitched. You could hear about it on the radio. You could read about it in the newspapers. You could even see references to it spelled out—A-N-N-A—on the backs of four shirtless fans in the National Car Rental Center during a break in the second period of the Florida- St. Louis Blues game. That was a visual clue that something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue was taking precedence over the really something Blues.
Too bad. After St. Louis center Michal Handzus forced overtime with 2:16 left in the third period, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, breaking the Blues' NHL-record-tying streak of 10 consecutive road victories. This season St. Louis has turned the other 27 teams into bridesmaids, but not even its league-high 91 points through Sunday had inspired much talk of the Blues' honeymooning with the Stanley Cup. If St. Louis defenseman Al MacInnis didn't occasionally make news by snapping goaltenders' appendages with his hellish slap shot—he has sidelined Chris Osgood of the Detroit Red Wings and Jocelyn Thibault of the Chicago Blackhawks this season with a broken hand and a fractured finger, respectively—the colorless Blues would go about their business absolutely unnoticed.
Winning on the road is still difficult in the NHL, though stealing two points in an opposing rink has been downgraded from a felony to a misdemeanor in the past decade. The arena-building boom has left the NHL with swank but sterile venues that possess none of the unique touches formerly found at such claustrophobic barns as Boston Garden and the Aud in Buffalo, or at Chicago Stadium with its seemingly square corners and raucous crowds. "You'd come into some of those old places, and for the first 10 minutes you'd see a full-court press, and you'd hardly know there was a puck out there," the 36-year-old MacInnis says. "Their defensemen would be pinching, their forwards would be pressing, and you'd just want to survive. Nobody's intimidated anymore. The buildings are pretty much the same, and the fans seem farther away. Winning on the road is a lot easier."
For St. Louis, anyway. The Blues, who through Sunday were one of two teams four or more games over .500 away from home and one of just six with a winning road record, outscored opponents 39-15 and outshot them by almost six shots per game during the streak. In those 10 games they trailed only once going into the third period—they scored four last-period goals on Feb. 21 to overtake the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 4-2—and played one overtime match, defeating the Calgary Flames 5-4 on Feb. 1 on a goal by leading scorer Pavol Demitra. The coholders of the record, the 1983-84 Buffalo Sabres, didn't have the benefit of a wide-open, goal-friendly, four-on-four overtime session to extend their streak. Even setting records is easier now.
"This streak seemed to sneak up on us," St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville says. "You know, the All-Star break was in the middle of it, and although we were doing a lot of traveling, there were eight home games [mixed in]. We didn't know about the streak until we broke our team record of six. At first you think that 10 in a row isn't a lot for a record. Then you realize it's a quarter of your road schedule. That's pretty good."
The Blues' success is predicated on their ability to play the same game, virtually every night, at home and away. St. Louis stresses puck control and puck pursuit. Its system demands that defensemen move the puck quickly and surely, and puts pressure on a tenacious, though hardly physical, group of forwards to dog the puck. The Blues are less explosive, despite ranking fourth in the league in scoring, than methodical. Fifteen players scored goals during the streak. Nine players, including three defensemen, had game-winners. Rookie center Marty Reasoner, who was called up from the Worcester Icecats of the American Hockey League when St. Louis's most accomplished scorer, center Pierre Turgeon, tore ligaments in his right thumb three games into the streak, had a team-high six goals during the run.
MacInnis missed four games in the streak with a Blue Cross hat trick: a collapsed lung, back spasms and a cracked rib. Losing the defending Norris Trophy winner would usually be a debilitating blow, but the Blues, who through Sunday were 21-5-3-0 since Dec. 30, are blessed with his probable successor. At 25, Chris Pronger has not only established himself as the NHL's best defenseman, but he also might be its most valuable player. He led the league in plus-minus rating (+40), averaged a league-high 30:24 per game and was third among defensemen in scoring.
"He plays 30 minutes a game, but I swear he could play 60," says defenseman Marc Bergevin, Pronger's penalty-killing partner. "Well come to the bench after a minute, minute-and-a-half shift, and I'll be puffing, and he'll take a drink of water, look around and be ready to go again."
Pronger has learned to husband his energy, joining the rush only when he sees an opening and using his King Kong-like reach to strip the puck from a forward who has somehow slithered past him. "Of course, he makes mistakes," Bergevin says. "About every 10 games he'll do something wrong."
If Pronger already was showing signs of being an elite player last season, the understated Blues were also demonstrating a knack for dominating on the road, going 14-4-1 in away games in the second half. Against the Dallas Stars in the second round of the playoffs they were done in by the shaky goaltending of Grant Fuhr, so general manager Larry Pleau shored up that weakness by trading with Dallas for Roman Turek. Like another goalie from the Czech Republic, Dominik Hasek, Turek had played behind Ed Belfour and, with St. Louis, would finally get a chance to be a No. 1 netminder, at age 29. After a rocky start in which he distinguished himself from Hasek by coughing up soft goals, Turek has been splendid, though, on occasion, bored. "We had this game in Chicago [a 3-0 victory on Jan. 21 that began the streak] in which we only gave up 11 shots," says Turek, who was in goal for every match during the streak except the record-tying 10th, a 5-2 win against the Atlanta Thrashers last Thursday. "Sometimes it's not easy to stay in the net and wait for a shot from the red line."