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Blues Can Thank Hitchcock for Surge

by Staff Writer / St. Louis Blues
In a season that has seen more teams try to reverse their first-half fortunes by firing their head coaches than seemingly ever before, only the St. Louis Blues and Ken Hitchcock have captured the lightning in a bottle that has eluded everyone else.

Since taking over for Davis Payne on Nov. 6, Hitchcock is a sparkling 13-2-4. Five other teams have parted ways with their coaches at various times, but as of Monday morning, those teams are 9-18-3 under their new coaches.

The Blues were 6-7 and sitting in 14th place in the Western Conference when the decision was made to fire Payne. That's hardly a reason to believe a team is in crisis -- especially when 9 of those 13 games were played away from Scottrade Center -- but the team was allowing 2.69 goals per game. Again, that's hardly a reason to sweat, but there's no one better to hire to improve your defense than Hitchcock.

Only the Boston Bruins have allowed fewer goals this season than the Blues, who are now giving up 2.03 per game. But since Hitchcock took over, the number is so low it's almost as if the Blues are playing a video game on the easiest possible level against their little brother who's more into astronomy than backchecking. In Hitchcock's 19 games, the Blues have allowed 30 goals, just 1.58 per game.

The biggest beneficiary of Hitchcock's arrival has been goaltender Brian Elliott. They'd be etching his name on the Vezina Trophy right now if his League-leading 1.43 goals-against average, .948 save percentage and 4 shutouts were accompanied by a larger body of work. The 26-year-old has made only 15 starts, but is 13-2-0. Elliott, however, was doing pretty well before the coaching switch -- he was 5-1-0 with a 1.72 GAA and .941 save percentage.

Jaroslav Halak, perhaps the biggest reason for the Blues struggling at the outset, has made a monstrous turnaround under Hitchcock.

Halak was 1-6 with a 2.93 GAA and .863 save percentage when Hitchcock took over; since then, he's 5-1-4 with a 1.78 GAA and .926 save percentage while facing 26 or fewer shots in six of those starts.

It helps to have a viable blue line on which to rely, too. The 21-year-old Alex Pietrangelo is quietly emerging as one of the NHL's best young defensemen. His 24:02 of ice time per game is about two more minutes than he was playing last season and ranks him 27th among all blueliners. He has 5 goals, is plus-13 and has taken just three minor penalties all season.

Kevin Shattenkirk, acquired in February in a deal with the Colorado Avalanche, is on his way to a career year. The 22-year-old has 5 goals and 17 points in 31 games after a solid nine-goal, 34-assist rookie campaign split between the Avs and Blues last season. The biggest difference is the always tricky plus-minus category -- in 46 games with the Avs, he was minus-11; in 57 with St. Louis, he's plus-17.

Throw in the steady presences of Barret Jackman, Roman Polak and Kris Russell -- acquired from the Blue Jackets not longer after they allowed Hitchcock to go to St. Louis -- and the Blues have one of the better defense corps in the League.

No team is perfect, and the Blues' flaw this season has been offense. They have only two players -- David Backes and Alexander Steen -- who are on pace to eclipse the 25-goal mark and none who will reach 30 if the trend continues. The lack of goals hasn't hurt the Blues so far under Hitchcock, but it's almost impossible to imagine Elliott and Halak continuing their super-human play throughout the second half of the season. The six goals the Blues scored against the Blue Jackets on Sunday are a step in the right direction.


1 Boston (21-9-1) 1 The Bruins are on pace for a plus-124 goal differential. That would be the best number since the 1995-96 Red Wings were plus-144. Of course, that didn't translate into a Stanley Cup for the Wings.
2 Chicago (21-8-4) 8 The 2.88 goals per game they're allowing are the most since they gave up 3.06 per game in 2006-07. Ray Emery, however, is 6-0-1 in December and has allowed just 12 goals in those seven games.
3 Philadelphia (20-8-3) 4
Without Chris Pronger this season, the Flyers are 12-5-1. To compete with elite teams, however, they'll need to find a way to replace him. Exhibit A is Saturday's dismantling by Boston.
4 Detroit (20-10-1) 6 The Red Wings have won 13 of their 20 games by three goals or more. There might not be a better team in the League when they're "on," as they say. It's just a matter of being "on" all the time.
5 St. Louis (19-9-4) 7 Saturday's 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville is a blueprint for what could bring the Blues down. As great as they've been defensively, their inability to score goals may end up being their downfall.
6 N.Y. Rangers (18-8-4)
Martin Biron has 6 wins. Already, that's the second-most for a Rangers backup goalie since '06-07. Biron had 8 last season. A lighter workload for Henrik Lundqvist can pay dividends in the playoffs.
7 Minnesota (20-8-5) 2
The Wild pessimist will say they dropped three straight last week. The glass-half full person will say they earned points in two of three games while banged up. All that matters is they're just one point shy of the League lead with 45 points.
8 Vancouver (19-11-2) 5
They picked up 7 of 10 points on their five-game Eastern road trip. After running away with the Northwest last year, a showdown at Rogers Arena with the Wild awaits Monday night.
9 Florida (18-9-6) 10 Jose Theodore is posting numbers that compare favorable to his Hart Trophy season of 2001-02. If he keeps it up, the Panthers are a lock for the postseason.
10 Nashville (17-11-4) NR The Preds have won 5 straight and allowed three goals or fewer in 9 of 10. In the one game the defense lapsed, they beat the Canucks 6-5. Things are coming together in Nashville right now.
11 San Jose (17-10-3) 11 The injury-prone Martin Havlat was reportedly needed the aid of a walking stick after he hurt himself falling over the boards Saturday. On the bright side, the Sharks are 2-0-2 in their last four.
12 Pittsburgh (18-11-4) 9 They played so well with injuries last season, but perhaps they are finally taking their toll. They've dropped 5 of 7 playing without a gaggle of their best players, but just smoked the Sabres in Buffalo.
13 New Jersey (18-13-1) NR
The Devils have 7 shorthanded goals through 32 games. They had 3 in 82 last season. Zach Parise, thrust into PK duty because of the absence of Travis Zajac, has 3 SHG this season.
14 Dallas (18-12-1) 12 The Richard Bachman train went off the track against New Jersey on Friday, but if the Stars make the postseason, his unexpected stellar play while Kari Lehtonen out will be a big reason.
15 Winnipeg (15-13-4) NR
The Jets have won 6 of 8. Evander Kane is quietly making the leap in his third season. A 40-goal campaign isn't out of the question for the 20-year-old who is emerging as a top power-forward.
16 Phoenix (16-12-4) 14 The Kyle Turris era ended over the weekend, but Don Maloney was able to get a blue-chip defenseman in David Rundblad from the Senators. He should be able to contribute right away.

Author: Dave Lozo | Staff Writer

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