As general manager of Canada's world hockey championship entry, Doug Armstrong spent the final days of the NHL regular season poring over several rosters of potential non-playoff teams.
While his job was challenging at times with no fewer than five teams locked in a fierce battle for the seventh and eighth seeds in the Western Conference, Armstrong's belief in the St. Louis Blues never wavered.
"Working with [assistant GMs] Pierre [Gauthier] and Joe [Nieuwendyk] you have to be realistic and St. Louis was in that mix where they were at 10th and 11th place and then they got to eighth and then back to 10," Armstrong, in his first year as the team's vice-president of player personnel, told CBCSports.ca recently.
"We talked about the St. Louis players, like we did the others, but at the end of the day I was very happy to delete those guys from our selection process."
The Blues made a remarkable playoff push, winning nine of their final 10 games to leap over Columbus and Anaheim into the sixth spot.
A league-best 25-9-7 record in the second half assured the Blues of their first post-season appearance in five years and a first-round matchup against the third-seeded Vancouver Canucks, who went 23-7-2 after January.
"You could just sense there was a belief factor growing in that group and it just continued to grow and grow," said Armstrong, who departs for Switzerland on April 20, where the world tournament kicks off four days later.
"At one point we were a lot closer to 15th [in the 15-team West] than we were sixth. But the players kept believing in themselves and [goaltender] Chris Mason got on an unbelievable roll."
Boy, did he ever.
Mason starts 33 straight games
Mason never looked back after taking over from Manny Legace midway through the second period in a Feb. 2 game against Detroit. Legace, a former Red Wing, had given up three goals on just eight shots in the period.
Mason started the next 33 contests, winning 21, and finishing the 82-game schedule with career bests in games (57) and victories (27) while posting a 2.41 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
"I'm not surprised by how well he's played," said Armstrong, who fashioned a 2.38 GAA and .925 save percentage in 40 appearances with Nashville in the 2006-07 campaign. "He flies under the radar screen as far as name recognition but on the ice there's a comfort level, it seems, with the players around him and he's an unbelievable teammate, too.
"He's probably one of the highest quality people I've ever been associated with."
Blues head coach Andy Murray probably isn't far down the list. Armstrong marvelled at his ability to bring together a group of players who didn't know each other last September and faced adversity before the regular season opened in October.
First, defenceman Erik Johnson tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee during a freak accident during a team-sanctioned golf tournament and was ruled out for the season. In December, Blues players learned fellow rearguard Eric Brewer required surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back.
"I don't think the players were surprised about anything after [that injury news] and they just kept focused on what they had and didn't worry about what they didn't have and I think that was the coach's philosophy also," said Armstrong.
"I was extremely impressed watching [Murray] focus in and keep pushing and prodding and getting the most out of these players."
Young trio makes impact
A group of young Blues, including first-round draft picks T.J. Oshie (2005), Patrik Berglund (2006) and David Perron (2007), also overcame injuries to top forwards Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya. McDonald broke his left ankle in mid-November, costing him 36 games, and Kariya has yet to return following double hip surgery in January.
'Sometimes people don't want to be held accountable, but he just keeps his foot to the mat and these players have responded.'—Blues executive Doug Armstrong on coach Andy Murray
Devoid of a superstar, St. Louis relied on a balanced offensive attack as 10 players scored at least 12 goals, including relative unknown forwards B.J. Crombeen, Jay McClement and Brad Winchester. On defence, Roman Polak came out of nowhere to form the top pairing with 2003 NHL rookie of the year Barret Jackman.
Besides the players themselves, general manager Larry Pleau along with director of amateur scouting Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff earned praise from Armstrong for acquiring a bunch of draft picks and turning them into quality prospects.
"Perron, Oshie and Berglund didn't play in the minors," said Armstrong, "so they're going right from the junior, European or college level right to the NHL, which is a huge step. And to have these many players do it, it's a credit to that [scouting] staff."
Pleau, with his team seemingly a long shot to qualify for the post-season, also surprised some at the March 4 trade deadline when he refused to move 37-year-old forward Keith Tkachuk, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency come July 1.
"The players in this organization had worked their way back into a playoff hunt and he respected the work they had done and didn't delete from the group," said Armstrong of Pleau. "Sometimes by doing nothing you're doing a lot. It was almost like he added to our team."
But the bottom line is the players got the job done.
"There's an extremely high accountability factor in our organization with Andy [Murray] at the helm," said Armstrong. "Sometimes people don't want to be held accountable, but he just keeps his foot to the mat and these players have responded.
"I think the players realize that everything Andy does is for the betterment of their career."
A playoff run, no matter how long it lasts, can only help the maturation process.