Blues have thrived under Hitchcock, but questions remain to be answered

Dec 3 2011 - 8:28pm

ST. LOUIS -- When Ken Hitchcock took over as the Blues' coach last month, immediate success didn't seem far-fetched because that's what coaching changes do -- they give teams jolts.

When the Blues went 4-1 in their first five games under Hitchcock, the helping factor was that they played all of those games at home -- wait until they go on the road.

Now 8-1-2 under Hitchcock entering Friday night's game against the Avalanche, with road victories over Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals, the Blues are less concerned about proving their recent surge is a temporary spike and more engrossed in taking it to another level.

Players believe this isn't a streak -- it's who they are. Their 81.8 winning percentage since Hitchcock took over on Nov. 8 is the second-best mark in the league, bumping them to sixth in the Western Conference from 14th.

"We've taken steps to go above (a jolt) ... that's winning games after winning games, not having that letdown," Blues forward Jamie Langenbrunner said. "Maybe we don't play our best game, but we get away with it and then have that push within to get back on top of our game.

"I think that's going to be the telling sign for us, how we can keep pushing through it. We're going to have some bumps. It's not going to go as well as it has right now, but we're learning how we need to play and as long as we continue to do that, we're going to push up the standings."

Hitchcock said Thursday that the Blues are about to find out how legitimate they are. Of the 11 opponents the club has faced under him, the Blues haven't played any of them twice. After Friday night's game in Colorado, however, the Blues next play host to Chicago and Detroit, teams they've already beaten since the coaching change.

"We're going to get a push," Hitchcock said. "You can surprise a team, but we're now playing a second wave. When we start playing the Chicago's and Detroit's again, now we'll have a look. They'll be ready for us. They won't be surprised by our game."

Trouble spots

The Blues have warts. They are ranked 30th in the NHL on the power play (8.8 percent) and 21st in goals per game (2.46). In the 11 games under Hitchcock, the Blues are four for 40 with the man advantage and only four times have they scored more than two goals in a game.

But the club is covering those warts with strong five-on-five play, outscoring opponents 21-7 at even-strength; a solid defensive effort, allowing the fewest shots per game (25.6); a penalty-killing unit that has an 88.1-percent success rate under Hitchcock; and perhaps the best goaltending tandem in the league in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, who have allowed a microscopic 1.18 goals per game since the coaching change.

"It was a jolt initially, but 'Hitch' has done a really good job of keeping everybody responsible," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We've all had that responsibility of playing against top lines and really being a part of the team. We don't hesitate when somebody is on the ice and that gets everybody into the game and shows very few holes in our armor."

Aside from the Blues' top line of David Backes, Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie, several of those holes can be found in the offensive game. But Hitchcock says "it'll come" and here's why he believes that: 25 days after he put the whistle around his neck, Hitchcock finally introduced a few of his offensive concepts in Thursday's practice.

"Today was the first time where we spent 20 minutes on a series of drills that had the same structure, the same kind of offensive planning," Hitchcock said. "In order to do these things offensively, you have to put yourself in a position defensively to do it. I don't think we're scoring at the level that we hope to get to, but we're winning because we're not giving up very much. We're making the other team defend more than they want. But some of the things that allow you to score, we're starting to put in place now."

In the Blues' current four-game winning streak, they've won three games by one goal.

"Yeah, we need to score some more goals, but I'm not sure it's from a lack of opportunity," Langenbrunner said. "The opportunity is there, we're just missing some of them. (Backes') line is obviously clicking pretty high right now and that's great. It's been enough, but we know that our line and (Patrik Berglund's) line is going to have to add a few more. We're all telling each other ... keep pushing and they'll go in."

Although the power play is sputtering, Backes did come through with a game-winning goal on the man-advantage in Sunday's 2-1 win over Columbus. Then Tuesday, after the Blues had chances on the power play against Washington, the team returned to even strength and D'Agostini netted the game-winner in a 2-1 victory over the Capitals.

"It hasn't been terrible lately," Oshie said. "The one thing, it's generating momentum. Maybe we're not scoring on it, but we're scoring a couple of shifts after. We're getting momentum from it that leads up to that next goal."

PERRON ABOUT TO RETURN?

The Blues' offense and the power play could be getting a lift soon.

David Perron, who has been sidelined for 14 months while recovering from post-concussion syndrome, could return to the lineup as soon as this weekend.

He practiced with the second-team power-play unit Thursday and did not make the trip to Colorado for the Blues' game on Friday night, signaling he might be preparing for a good night's rest and a return Saturday when the Blues host Chicago.

"I've been going hard over the last week and a half," Perron said. "I think that it's been going pretty good."

The decision to play will be Perron's. Teammates sense it's coming soon.

"Everyone has been waiting and I think it's time," Oshie said. "We're ready for that 'Perron spark' ... it's going to be a special day when he comes back."

In the meantime, the Blues will continue to rely on their defense and goaltending. Elliott leads the NHL with a 1.31 goals-against average and a .951 save-percentage.

Halak's improved play has allowed the team to climb atop the NHL in goals-against average (2.00).

"Our goalies have played well, but they've also been the product of not many scoring chances against," Hitchcock said. "When you're giving up under 15 scoring chances a game, you give yourself a chance to win."

It's how they upended Pittsburgh 3-2 in overtime recently, holding Crosby to only two shots on goal. The Blues are one of only two teams to keep Crosby scoreless in the six games since his return from a concussion. The Blues followed that outing in Pittsburgh with a 2-1 victory in Washington. Ovechkin had an assist early in the game, but ended the night with only one shot on goal.

The Capitals were supposed to be the team receiving the jolt after the hiring of new coach Dale Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau. But it was the Blues who played energized, and heading into Hitchcock's 12th game on the job, that still appears to be the case.

"It shows what a team game we've been playing," Jackman said. "Sid the Kid' is back and he scored four points the game before. We knew it was going to be tough, but we just continued to play our game and not get caught up in who we were playing against. We don't get caught up in the stories."

Right now, there's only one story that matters to the Blues -- and it's them.

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