With their assassin-like proficient victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night, the St. Louis Blues are now the top team in the Western Conference, moving one point and one win ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.
Last night's curb stomping of the Blackhawks felt good, but it didn't feel like an arrival. That crest wasn't the summit. These Blues aren't done climbing yet. Not by a long shot. What this team showed last night is that when it plays as a cohesive unit, they can control the game on every square foot of that ice surface. They keep the puck to the outsides, they counter attack, they kill penalties, they win physical confrontations and they stand up for one another. The goaltender is almost left as a spectator.
The Blues have eclipsed their point total from last season (87) in just 67 games, now with 91 points. After a middling start (6-7-0) cost Davis Payne his job, the Blues have gone 36-11-7 under Ken Hitchcock, who is going to make John Tortorella all grumpy face when he wins the Jack Adams for this turnaround.
Although "turnaround" might not be the right term for what Hitchcock's done here. Coaches usually get fired when a team bottoms out; Payne was turfed because the Blues were an average team, one that seemed destined for the playoff bubble and a first-round exit at the hands of a conference powerhouse.
Enter Hitchcock, and the Blues are that conference powerhouse — just as he indicated they could become.
Before the Blues hired him, Hitchcock had last coached in 2010 with the Columbus Blue Jackets. When that gig ended, Hitchcock's journey back to the bench began. He changed his lifestyle and was healthier away from the rink. He continued tweaking his coaching philosophy from the trap-happy coach of the last decade to someone that better utilized the entire rink. He was able to study up on the Western Conference, understanding these teams as a scout would thanks to the access granted by the Jackets to this "consultant."
"This time away for me was a godsend," he said back in November, during his introductory press conference.
GM Doug Armstrong and Hitchcock both saw the same thing in this roster: potential for great things.
Said Hitchcock: "I like potential. My job is to get the best players here to play their best, and have everyone else follow suit."
The difference for some of these players is palpable. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo is on pace to pass last year's point total as his ice time has increased by well over 2 minutes per game (24:24).
TJ Oshie, who looked so lost at times during his Blues career, leads St. Louis with 47 points. Kevin Shattenkirk — a plus-26! — also has been effective with more ice time (21:23). And although his offensive numbers are down a tick, David Backes has led by example nearly every night.
Then there's the goaltending battery of Brian Elliott (20-8-2, 1.63 GAA) and Jaroslav Halak (22-10-5, 1.89 GAA) who have been the best last-line of defense in the conference.
But the Blues haven't always needed to rely on them, and that's the point. Hitchcock has turned this roster into one of the most formidable teams in the NHL. Not a collection of stars. Not a one-line wonder. Not "two defensemen and then hope for the best"; he's got the roster playing his brand of hockey, and he's utilizing their assets — speed chiefly among them — to make it work.
Hitchcock's mantra, on being a 200-foot team: "Fast and loose offensively ends up in losses. Fast and loose defensively ends up in wins." The Blues might not be a firewagon squad, but they can smother you.
After winning five of six games on a tough road trip, they ran a lay-up drill on their arch-rivals. These days, no NHL team is playing better than the Blues.
"It feels great," [center Andy] McDonald said. "The guys have worked hard all year long. Personally I've only been here for a short while, (due to) the concussion, but the guys have battled hard all year long. It's great, I think it's great for the confidence of the locker room that guys have stuck with it all year long.
"It's been very consistent, despite some injuries. The guys who have played here played through it. It's a real tribute to them. It's a good feeling, but we realize there's some hockey left to play and we certainly want to keep on this roll."
Sometimes, a coach and a team are just a perfect fit. Hitchcock had the trust of management and several key players, and knew enough about this roster to make it sing. The players, meanwhile, needed some sage to inspire them to the next level.
It may not last — Hitch wears out welcomes like most of us wear out toothbrushes — but for now the St. Louis Blues are looking like potential conference champions … and then who knows what happens beyond that.
Well, Hitchcock probably does. Dude's a prophet.
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- Ken Hitchcock