ST. LOUIS -- Forget what he's done for your St. Louis Blues; Ken Hitchcock is an inspiration to me, personally. It's fantastic to see an old, plump curmudgeon remain at the top of his game. There's hope for me yet. That's why Hitch is my new hero.
OK, let's get serious.
Eleven games doesn't make a season, let alone reverse a curse, but the Blues are a different team with Hitchcock as coach. The team's 8-1-2 revival under the new boss has our town's most loyal but tormented fans frothing anew. We are parched and thirsty. Success has been a long time coming. The champagne can wait; for now pass that big-gulp container of Kool-Aid.
Since Hitchcock took over Nov. 8, the Blues (through Tuesday) had the NHL's second-best winning percentage, had allowed the fewest goals, were No. 1 in save percentage and had outscored the opposition by a ridiculously wide margin (21-7) at even strength.
The Blues, slowly turning into zombies under dismissed coach Davis Payne, have zoomed to near the top of the Western Conference standings. And the best may be yet to come; between Dec. 3 and Feb. 3 the Blues will play 18 of 25 games at Scottrade Center.
Part of this can be attributed to the New Coach Effect. Teams often respond to coaching changes. But usually the freshness fades, and cranked-up players cool down and revert to their annoying, disappointing, coach-killing former selves.
Are we naive to think that this will play out differently with Uncle Hitch in charge? We'll have to wait on that one. But the players' response has been emphatically positive. And it does not seem temporary.
"Everyone's playing in front of a new coach, you're trying to make a good first impression," Blues forward T.J. Oshie told reporters Tuesday after the Blues' 2-1 win at Washington. "Everyone's playing hard, and it seems like we haven't taken our foot off the gas since then."
Of course, we could get fooled again.
The Blues perked up a little when Andy Murray replaced Mike Kitchen. They jumped forward a bit when Payne replaced Murray. It doesn't seem to last. And who knows how Hitchcock will react to the first slump? Will he boil over? We don't know.
Then again, Hitchcock isn't off the factory assembly line. He's a little different. Blues players describe Hitchcock in interesting terms. He seems to be a mixture of fun and fear. The boys say he's a calming influence, but they're clearly afraid of getting on his wrong side.
The Blues probably expected a nag -- you know, an outdated old-timer who was going to windbag endlessly about the good old days when he installed a defensive system to win a Stanley Cup in Dallas. Instead, they're working for a flexible supervisor who is quick to hit 'em with zingers and expects to be ripped in turn.
And what about the style of play? Well, Hitchcock will be 60 years old Dec. 17, but he's definitely coaching an edgy, fast-paced, young man's game. The Blues go at a furious pace. If Hitchock's hockey could be converted into music, it would be speed metal.
That's no exaggeration. In his 11 games as coach, the Blues have taken more shifts (4,776) than any NHL team. They are averaging an astounding 434.2 shifts a game. That's about 21 shifts more per game than the second-highest team (Vancouver) in the category.
Hitchcock is running four lines, rapidly exchanging defensemen, using his entire roster. He's giving every player a piece of ownership. The typical Blues shift consists of a fast burn of energy, a quick rest, and then back onto the ice for another rush of blood to the head.
That's one of the reasons the Blues are covering for their injuries; Hitchcock has developed internal depth by giving so much ice time to so many players. It keeps everyone fit, alert and sharp. Oh, and by the way: Captain David Backes has never been better. He was born to skate for Hitchcock.
Blues opponents are digging in for a marathon; Hitchcock's boys are challenging them to a series of sprints. And the Blues are winning these short-track dashes. Given the irritation of the recent past -- namely the Blues' fluctuation in intensity -- Hitch's hockey aerobics are invigorating.
Hitchcock keeps the pounds off by sticking with his "Crossfit" training regimen. Heck, and now he has the entire team playing Crossfit hockey. Barret Jackman looks 23 again. Other Blues veterans -- including Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott -- are racing around like pups. On the flip side, the young players are taking more responsibility.
Oshie is going berserk on a nightly basis, throwing his body in front of pucks to block shots and making runs to the net to score tough goals. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, 21, looks like he's been playing elite hockey at the NHL level for 10 years. When you can get the old guys to play young and the young guys to play old, then you're on to something.
The Blues must prove they can sustain this first phase of success. They're still straining to score, averaging only 2.45 goals a game since the coaching switch. Goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak are keeping the wolves outside the door; they've combined for a spectacular .952 save percentage since Hitchcock took over.
History tells us it won't hold up. Since save-percentage stats became part of the official record in the 1982-1983 season, the best single-season save percentage is .930, posted last season by the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
The Blues will have to pump up the scoring. And that's entirely possible, given the scarcity (so far) of power-play goals. Improvement on the power play is inevitable. Moreover, the team is still operating without two injured, prominent forwards, David Perron and Andy McDonald. It's reasonable to expect more scoring punch from Chris Stewart and Patrik Berglund, among others.
No, the Blues aren't going to go on 8-1-2 stretches for the rest of the season. That's unrealistic. But If Hitchcock can keep the Blues moving forward, he may reverse a trend. The NHL is a copy-cat circuit. Pittsburgh won a Stanley Cup after turning the team over to a young coach, Dan Bylsma, so a bunch of teams hired newbie, no-name coaches.
Only six NHL head coaches are 55 or older. If the Blues continue to thrive with Hitchock, look for NHL teams to go retro and rely on more experienced leaders. Hitchock is reaffirming the opinion that there's still room behind the bench for a mature and intelligent gentleman who has 607 career NHL victories (including postseason) on his resume.
Skeptics wondered if the modern game had passed ol' Hitchcock by. That's laughable. Having studied and reassessed NHL play during his time away from coaching, Hitchcock came back rested and ready. He's showing the youngsters how it should be done.