St. Louis Finishes Third As Players Set Personal Records

A team effort all year found the Spartans finishing third in the conference, setting up a first round meeting with the dangerous Cougars.
by Sean Gallagher | May 14, 2010, 8:50 PM ET
The St. Louis Spartans have known for some time that they would be in the playoffs for the second straight season and have known for at least a week that they'd be playing the Stockholm Cougars, much to their chagrin. "When you finish third in the conference, you're hoping you line up against a patsy in the first round - a team that barely made the playoffs," said GM Sean Gallagher, "What do you know? Classic Spartans luck, we catch the Cougars, a team that can score, play defense and has veteran leadership. Awesome." Echoing the GM's thoughts, team captain Mike Richards said, "At least we'll be tested early. If we can get past those guys we will be battle-ready for the next round. If we get to the next round." While the Cougars pose a formidable threat, the Spartans are no slouch of a team themselves, employing a total team concept to put together a 53-win, 327-goals scored season, including an impressive 31-7-3 home record. Along the way, many Spartans compiled career-high season totals as well as career milestones. In fact, no fewer than eight regular Spartans met or surpased previous season-high numbers statistically. As a team, the Spartans spread around their offense, with six players scoring 30 or more goals, another three had 21 to 29 goals and one more had 19. With three players scoring 83-plus points, two in the 70's and five more over the 50-point mark, the Spartans boast a deep offense. Leading the way for the team were Evgeni Malkin (89 points), Mike Richards (85) and Andy McDonald (83). For McDonald, the total marked his career-best, while his 32 goals was the second-best of his five-plus season SICHL career. Richards, in his first season in St. Louis after signing a lucrative RFA contract this summer, not only lead the way as team captain, but notched career-highs in goals (34), assists (51), points (you do the math), plus-minus (plus-23), powerplay goals (11), game-winners (8) and hits (195). "It's fair to say that we're pretty happy with our off-season acquisitions of McDonald and Richards," said Gallagher. As for Evgeni Malkin, it speaks volumes about a player when a 31-goal, 89-point season can be considered a disappointment, but for No. 71, this year was a step back - his first pro season where he failed to reach 100 points. Not only were his goals and assists not career highs, he missed the first game of his SICHL career. That said, neither the team nor his coach seemed too disappointed in the Russian. "I drafted his first overall when I was a GM," said coach Martin Levesque, "If a down year is 89 points, then I feel like maybe that was a good draft choice." The third member of the Spartans top line with Malkin and Richards, Phil Kessel, played his first full season in the SICHL and made quite an impact, scoring 33 goals and adding 45 assists. He was one of four Spartans to score in the double digits on the powerplay and he finished with just four penalty minutes, clearly putting him in the running for the league's most gentlemanly player award. Speaking of first-year players, T.J. Oshie, the lesser-known player acquired in the deal that brough Evgeni Malkin to town, also made a big impact for his team. The high-tempo Oshie scored 21 goals and added 35 assists to finish seventh among St. Louis forwards. More impressively, the rookie showed his two-way prowess, compiling a plus-40 while playing on the team's checking line. The checking line was also made up of long-time Spartans R. J. Umberger and Nikolai Zherdev, both of whom who also has career years. Zherdev reached career-high totals of 35 goals (team lead), and plus-43 (team-high and one off the franchise record of 44 set by Tony Amonte in 2001). His 75 points were tied for fifth on the team and signal a continued improvement on his career. Late-season reports that Zherdev might leave St. Louis this year to play in the KICHL were summarily dismissed by team management. Umberger increased his season totals for the fourth straight year, finishing with 62 and a career-high 29 goals. His plus-41 was also a career high. Robert Lang, a mid-season acquisition from Winnipeg, anchored a second line that had been floundering until he arrived. Lang scored 18 times and tallied 43 points in 47 games in the blue and gold, bringing his season totals to 31 goals and 71 points, his third-best totals in his 12 year SICHL career. Lang's arrival not only sparked his own season, but it also lit a fire under McDonald. It was not able, however, to jumpstart the season of longtime Spartan nathan Horton, who took a big step back in his career development, scoring just 23 goals and 53 points, his worst totals in three years. Finishing tenth on the team in scoring was embarrassing for the big winger and it put him on his GM's so-called "watch list," a place usually reserved for non-drafted underperfoming players. As for the team's defenders, the Spartans got offense from multiple blueliners for the first time in years. Mid-season acquisition Rob Blake sparked the first-line offense as he gave the team eight goals and 30 assists in 44 games, pushing his season totals to 19 and 75, the latter tying his career-best (75 in 2002) in his 12 SICHL seasons. Trailing Blake were Carlo Colaiacovo (5 goals, 40 points, plus-17, all career highs), Paul Ranger (13 goals, 39 points, plus-12, the first and last of which are career highs) and rookie Roman Polak, whose four goals, 33 points and plus-37 were as surprising as they were promising for the Spartans franchise. In goal, Evgeni Nabokov may not have had the most impressive statistics of his career, but his 71 games played and 46 wins were both among his career highs and he also played in his 600th career SICHL game and earned his 300th career SICHL win (307-222-54-3). Nabokov was joined in net late in the season by fellow Russian and former Spartan(Buccaneer/Cardinal) Nikolai Khabibulin. The two have spilt duties down the stretch and it remains to be seen who will take to the net in Game One of the playoffs, but either way, the Spartans feel confident. "We know we're playing a good team in Stockholm," said Gallagher, "But we're a pretty good team, too. We've spread the action around among all three of our top lines and we have two guys that can go between the pipes and give us good games. I'm really looking forward to these playoffs." Game One against Stockholm will be this weekend at the St. Louis Arena. Tickets are no longer available.

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