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Blues' surge has Hitchcock excited for second half

Monday, 01.09.2012 / 12:03 PM / Midseason Report

By Louie Korac - NHL.com Correspondent

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Blues' surge has Hitchcock excited for second half
St. Louis engineered a remarkable first-half turnaround after Ken Hitchcock took over in early November, leaving the veteran coach eager to see what the team can accomplish from here.
The 2011-12 season reaches its mid-point upon the completion of Monday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. But NHL.com is going to take all week to look at the significant stories as the League makes the turn and heads toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We'll look at the races for the League's individual awards, while profiling some of the most surprising players and teams as we look ahead to the final three months of the season.

ST. LOUIS
-- After a resounding victory Saturday night that improved their record to 24-12-5, the St. Louis Blues believe they will be serious players in this year's Western Conference.

In their 44th year of existence, the Blues reached the midpoint with the fifth-best point total in franchise history.

The previous four teams all made the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which bodes well for the current Blues.

Who would have thought they'd be in the position they're in after making a coaching change in early November and playing with a lineup missing some key pieces because of injury?

Ken Hitchcock, who replaced Davis Payne after the Blues labored to a 6-7-0 record on Nov. 6, has gotten the most out of a group he felt just needed a few tweaks in order to play to its strengths.

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But in Saturday's 4-0 handling of a red-hot Colorado Avalanche team that had gone 9-1 in its past 10 games, the Blues let it be known that they have arrived, and Hitchcock is eager to find how just how good they really are.

"Yeah. Excited … really excited," said Hitchcock, whose team is tied with Detroit and Chicago atop the Central Division and has the second most points (53) in the Western Conference behind Vancouver's 55. "You don't want to cross your fingers, but I've seen this lineup for three or four practices.

"When Andy (McDonald's) here and when (Alex Steen) was in, we could really tromp. But we've got to be careful because, who knows. They come back, somebody goes out. But I've seen two or three practices where these guys were in and man, we could really tromp it. If we ever get close to health, it will be really interesting to see what we can do."

The Blues have played much of this season without McDonald, who has been dealing with a concussion suffered in the third game of the season Oct. 13, and now are without Steen, who missed his fifth-straight game Saturday with concussion symptoms. Others to miss extended time because of injury include B.J. Crombeen, Kent Huskins, Carlo Colaiacovo, Vladimir Sobotka and Kris Russell. They did get David Perron back from a concussion in December after missing 13 months.

While they continue to build toward that full, healthy lineup, the Blues won't be content with what they've accomplished so far. There will be stiff challenges lying ahead.

"I still think there's definitely some growth there," said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who has six goals and 22 points in 40 games. "We still have some work to do. … We're a young team and I think these older guys that have come in this year have really helped us to kind of talk through those situations. We're only going upwards from here."

Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol are among the veteran imports that have helped St. Louis survive a roller-coaster ride in the season's first half.

The 2000-01 Blues had 61 points (28-8-4-1) and finished with 103 and a date in the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the Avalanche in five games. The 1980-81 team had 58 points (26-9-6) and finished with 107, the 1999-2000 team had 54 points (25-12-4) and won a Presidents' Trophy with 114 and the 1994-95 team also had 54 points (24-11-6) in the strike-shortened season.

But this brand of Blues hockey is beginning to put its stamp on this season. Many pundits would label the Blues one of the game's surprises at the halfway point, but to the Blues, this is no shock.

"I don't even think like that," Hitchcock said. "I think the thing that I'm happiest about is that the buy-in has started. I don't think the buy-in's finished, but the buy-in has started."

When Hitchcock, 60, took over for someone 20 years younger, it caught not only the players' ears but their eyes, as well. How could it not, when he brought with him a Stanley Cup title and 500-plus wins in his career?

"It's his ability to convince us to pay attention to details, and he really wants us just to play the game right for a full 60 minutes," said goalie Brian Elliott, the surprise of not only the team but the NHL with his 15-5-0 record, 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. "Coming in and having his hockey knowledge, I think we trust in it. I think it shows out there."

Brian Elliott
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 15-5-0
GAA: 1.62 | SVP: 0.940
The Blues have gotten the most of not only Elliott but also Jaroslav Halak, who is 6-0-3 in his past nine starts after an inauspicious 1-6 record out of the gates. Their defensive unit is among the stingiest in the League (allowing a Western Conference-low 89 goals) and the team's 5-on-5 play has been among the best (fourth in goal differential).

The Blues believe they are among the elite teams in the League. The goal is to stay there.

"We had some ups and downs, but right now, we're trying to make that next step to being an elite team," said winger T.J. Oshie, who at 13 goals and 28 points is on pace for career-high numbers. "You see those teams that are at the top every year, they know how to finish teams. They know how to take that next step and elevate their game."

David Backes leads the team with 29 points, but goal scoring is one area where the Blues would like to improve.

They're averaging 2.61 goals per game but in each of their past three games -- all wins -- they've potted four goals. The special teams continues to climb -- they were No. 30 in both categories at one point, but the power play has risen to a season-best No. 22 and the penalty-killing unit is No. 18. The team has the most home wins in the NHL (they are 17-3-2 at Scottrade Center), but could use a boost on its 7-9-3 road mark.

"I'm starting to see players start to elevate their game where, individually, I thought we could go there," Hitchcock said. "I think we have a long ways to go as a team. I think there's more potential here, a lot more. I think maturity … and I said to the players, competitive composure's going to be a challenge against good teams and on the road. We've got to show that if we want to be a top team."

One thing is for certain, though, from this group: In Hitchcock, the Blues believe.

"Under Hitch, we know what we have," Shattenkirk said. "If we stick to it, we'll be fine."

Quote of the Day

He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers