NHL Notebook

St. Louis Blues are back in the high life again

The Globe and Mail

St. Louis Blues' center Andy McDonald (R) celebrates his goal with teammate Carlo Colaiacovo during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Young (Jim Young/Reuters)

It has been 12 years ago now since the St. Louis Blues won their one-and-only President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season – and that season ultimately ended in major disappointment when they were one-and-done in the playoffs, losing in the opening round to the upstart San Jose Sharks. The Sharks were like that once upon a time – not a perennial Stanley Cup contender, but a team that regularly picked off more highly celebrated regular-season teams.

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Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock is a historian – specialty: U.S. civil war – but he also knows how regular-season achievements don’t always translate into playoff success. (In the 25 years since the NHL introduced the President’s Trophy, the regular-season champs went on to win the Stanley Cup seven times, most recently in 2007-08, by the Detroit Red Wings).

Thanks to largely to parity, it has happened only once in the past eight seasons. Even after Thursday night’s 2-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Blues look as if they’re in the driver’s seat to claim the regular-season title and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be no mean feat considering they started the year an undistinguished 6-7. Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne at that juncture and presided over a turnaround that sees him as one of multiple legitimate coach-of-the-year candidates alongside Ottawa’s Paul MacLean, Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, Florida’s Kevin Dineen and New York’s John Tortorella.

The man who hired Hitchcock was Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong, who had a history with him dating back to their years together with the Dallas Stars. So there were no surprises when Hitchcock came aboard. Armstrong knew exactly what he was getting, an organized, demanding coach, who was not afraid to learn and adapt and exploit whatever the NHL rule book of the time will allow a coach to exploit.

St. Louis is the No. 1 defensive team in the league, and spreads its scoring out over three lines, with David Backes nominally leading the way, but with David Perron and Andy McDonald (sadly, injured again vs. the Hurricanes) essentially their best natural scoring talent.

In an era punctuated by far too much gushing hyperbole, Armstrong makes an interesting and honest assessment of his team’s recent successes, as playoffs approach.

“I think Ken’s done a great job,” said Armstrong, “but it’s almost now where it’s grown bigger than the real story and the real story is the players and the work they’ve put in. The real story to me is how they take his game plan and execute it.

“You can be a great coach, but if your players don’t execute the plan, it’s not going to matter.”

No, coaching only gets you so far. In the end, you need motivated players to succeed, and you also need players with high hockey IQs that can absorb the coaching lessons and put them into practice. St. Louis is relentless at both ends of the ice. Hitchcock gives his players the green light to go to the attack when they have control the puck, figuring the era of three-on-twos is dead, so the only way to get an odd-man rush anymore is to make it a four-on-three. Ultimately, that requires defencemen with mobility and puck-handling skills, but with enough sense to know when to go up - and when to stay back. And on those occasions when they make the wrong initial read, to have the skill level to get back in the play. It’s all tied together, and it requires five players thinking as a unit on the ice.

“They work so well together,” said Armstrong, of his team. “The neutral zone, it’s like seaweed.”

Yikes, a good analogy, but also a grim way of looking at how they play the game. Hitchcock was working as an advisor in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization, where he’d led the team to the one-and-only playoff appearance in franchise history, when Armstrong made the decision to bring him in. Armstrong did so, he says, after lengthy conversations with the team’s veteran core last summer convinced him they could handle a coach with a reputation for being tough on, and occasionally unpopular with, the players.

“When I talked to some of our veteran players - Alex Steen, Barrett Jackman, David Backes - there was a genuine feeling that they were tired of losing,” said Armstrong. “They wanted the group to go the next level. We basically made a commitment to them last summer: ‘We’ll do our best in the summer; you prepare to do your best in the winter.’”

The Blues signed a quartet of players in the off-season – Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins, Scott Nichol – none of whom were attracting a great deal of attention on the free-agent market. The total overall cost was less than what the Buffalo Sabres committed to Ville Leino.

“When we brought in those four veteran players, that was a sign to that veteran group that we were no longer trying to build from within; and that we were no longer going through that process,” said Armstrong. “When we got off not to the start we wanted, I felt that bringing in an experienced coach with 1,000 games would give them the final push – and send a message that we expect to win now, we are demanding that we win now and that we will be held accountable to win now.”

THIS AND THAT: What do five consecutive victories get you in the Western Conference playoff race? If you’re the Calgary Flames, not much more than the chance to make the final three-plus weeks of the season count for something. Right now, it’s good for 10th place in the conference standings as of Friday morning, heading into a date with the spoiler wannabes, the Edmonton Oilers. Technically, the San Jose Sharks – 2-1 shootout winners over the Nashville Predators – hold down ninth spot, because they have a game in hand. Calgary’s recent surge can be attributed to a lot of different factors, beginning with the fact that team captain Jarome Iginla is digging March madness again – and back to scoring one goal per game, the way he did in the stretch drive last year too. But don’t overlook Alex Tanguay’s contributions – 24 points in his last 20 games, a plus-15 rating over that period, the key shorthanded goal to knock the life out of the visiting Phoenix Coyotes Thursday night, a team that had been a thorn in their side seemingly forever … Sidney Crosby’s return to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ line-up got all the attention Thursday night, but the Sharks hope that Martin Havlat’s presence in their line-up for the first time in more than two months helps solidify their scoring as well. Havlat, the ex-Sen, ex-Hawk, ex-Wild winger who came over in the Dany Heatley trade, played against Nashville Thursday for the first time since tearing a hamstring, jumping over the boards, and mostly, he was on a line with Patrick Marleau and Ryan Clowe. Marleau has played much of the season as a winger on centre Joe Thornton’s line, but he was back in the middle last night. Logan Couture, meanwhile, moved up to the top line playing alongside Thornton and Joe Pavelski on a mix-and-match night where coach Todd McLellan was trying to see how chemistry on a couple of different units might evolve … Crosby was a plus-three in the Penguins’ win over the New York Rangers, but defenceman Kris Letang, who was also back for the game, was a sparkling plus-five. Must be a tribute to his skill and athleticism, but Letang has been in and out of the Pittsburgh line-up a couple of times this season, and whenever he returns, he doesn’t look as if he’s missed a minute of playing time. Only the truly talented can make the transition from sick bay to the ice look that easy … One of the Predators’ most important trade-deadline acqusitions was centre Paul Gaustad (from the Buffalo Sabres), who cost them a first-round draft choice. Gaustad left Thursday’s game vs. the Sharks with what looked like a broken or sprained right wrist. Officially, of course, it is an upper body injury … On Wednesday, the Dallas Stars began a quirky scheduling stretch in which they play six of eight games against Canadian-based NHL teams, noteworthy only because the Stars were a sparkling 9-0-1 in their first 10 games against Canadian-based NHL teams this season until they got crushed by the Winnipeg Jets, with back-up Richard Backman in goal. Playing Backman in Winnipeg, home to the legendary Randy Bachman (OK, slightly different spelling) probably seemed like an inspired decision, but the Jets rattled in five goals in just over 36 minutes and won going away. But it was the first turkey in a while for the Stars, who’d previously won six games in a row and are still holding off the Coyotes for top spot in the Pacific … How’s this for a standings anomaly? Four of the top six teams in the Western Conference (St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville and the Chicago Blackhawks) are hail from the Central Division. Four of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference standings (NY Rangers, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils) all hail from the Atlantic Division. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the No. 5 team from those respective divisions, the Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders, are currently 15th in their respective conferences … The Flyers’ Ilya Bryzgalov saw his shutout streak extend to a franchise record 249 minutes and 43 seconds until the Islanders potted two in the third period Thursday night in a game Philadelphia won 3-2. Bryzgalov’s reaction? Priceless. ““If you thought they weren't going to score another goal on me,” deadpanned the madcap goaltender, “you were mistaken.”

AND FINALLY: There isn’t panic in the Motor City exactly, but with the news that team captain Nicklas Lidstrom has gone home to have his injured ankle (diagnosed as a deep bone bruise re-evaluated), there has to be concern at the very least. The Red Wings were wiped out in both Los Angeles and Anaheim on the first two games of a short California road trip that wraps up Saturday in San Jose. The good news is centre Pavel Datsyuk is supposed to return for that game, which should give the slumbering offence a boost. The bad news is that without Lidstrom, the defence looks a little thread-bare.

If this is what life without the future Hall Of Famer is going to look like, it’s no wonder that general manager Ken Holland’s off-season priority will be to coax Lidstrom into playing again next year, which would be his 21st season in the NHL. Lidstrom will miss his ninth consecutive game Saturday, the longest period of time he’s ever been out of the line-up in his remarkable career.

Detroit’s overall experience will make them a post-season threat, no matter who they end up facing in the playoffs, but according to defenceman Brad Stuart, they shouldn’t be this bad, no matter who is hurt.

“Obviously, we’ve got a few guys out of the line-up, but we should be a good enough team to put forth a better effort than we have,” said Stuart, in an interview. “Just because you’re missing a couple of guys is no excuse for starting games the way we have.” Stuart noted that the Red Wings got behind 2-0 early to the Kings and then started all right against the Ducks, but then, “one thing goes wrong and we kinda – I don’t know, collapse a little bit – and that shouldn’t happen to a team like us.

“I have no doubt in my mind that this team will be ready to go when the playoffs start, but at the same time, you want to be feeling good about your game when you go in. You don’t want to have to hope that you can turn it on. You want to be clicking and have that confidence. We’ve got to regroup here the next couple of days and get going.”

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