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Pietrangelo perfect fit for Blues system

St. Louis defenseman, 26, plays calm, collected game even as playoff pressure mounts

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock paused to find the right way to frame his answer. He knew what he wanted to say, or at least convey, but he wasn't sure exactly the correct way to put it, the way that wouldn't accidentally denigrate the player who has been his best defenseman in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Hitchcock was discussing the calm of Alex Pietrangelo, the way the defenseman seems so sure and so steady, even as his minutes and his responsibilities continue to mount.

"[Pietrangelo] is always a good player," Hitchcock said. "How can I say this in a positive way? Petro is always a good player when the stakes are the highest. He's always been a good player. When the games mean the most, he has this ability when everything is on the line, he's calm.

"Sometimes during the regular season, he's all over the map. He has this great ability when things are on the line and things are the most intense, he plays a very calm, collected game, which is a good sign for us."

This makes him, in many ways, a product of his environment. This is the way the Blues are. They do not have the flash of their opponent in the Western Conference Second Round, the Dallas Stars. They do not have the sparkle and the shine. They have, instead, Pietrangelo.

"I think that's the system that we were brought up in," Pietrangelo said. "I'm sure if we wanted to be a little bit more flashy, we could. But we know playing simple, playing the right way, is going to give us the most success.

Video: Blues look ahead to Game 3 at home

"There's a lot of guys in this room that are pretty quiet in the way they play. Obviously, [Vladimir Tarasenko] is one exception, where he's a special case. But that simple, calm way of playing just seems to give us the most success."

Said St. Louis captain David Backes, "It's a culture and it's a mentality that's not built overnight and it's not destroyed overnight and it's something that we've had here for a while. When we stay the course and we have a steady pace to our game and we believe in the system that we have and we go execute."

It's what Pietrangelo has done, through the playoffs, as he has earned more and more ice time and accolades, though he still doesn't get the credit of some of the bigger defensive names in the NHL.

He, though, is still playing, unlike many of them.

"I think I know the responsibility is on me," Pietrangelo said of how he approaches the postseason. "[Alexander Steen] feels the same way, [Backes] feels the same way. The responsibility is on us as leaders, shift in, shift out, that what we do is going to impact the rest of the lineup.

"I feel that way that I can control the back end. I've got to make sure I lead by example."

Video: Hitchcock talks after practice on May 2

It is evident on the ice, as the Blues are being tested, as the Blackhawks and Stars have threatened.

Pietrangelo has been there, steady, forceful, poised.

He is one of three Blues who have led St. Louis for years, with Backes and Steen. But Pietrangelo is younger than each, by a significant six years. He is 26 and yet seems to have grown up with the others, alongside them, molding himself and the Blues into what they are today.

Of course, the settled version of Pietrangelo has been a work in progress.

So how has he gotten here?

"Through lots of channeling," Backes said. "His attention deficit disorder -- he is go, go, go. Guys sometimes wish he had a muzzle on him at times, but he's always active, he's always looking for the next thing to do and channeling that onto the ice is something that ... I think [associate coach Brad Shaw] gets annoyed by him sometimes on the bench. Sometimes, he just puts him back out there.

"He just does good stuff all the time when he's on the ice. When that's focused in the right direction, he's a heck of a player and he's a big reason why we're still playing right now."

It's that extra jump, that extra step, as Blues forward Robby Fabbri put it. They take that and build off it -- something they have lots of opportunity to do with the minutes that Pietrangelo is playing. In the Game 2, which made it 10:58 into overtime, Pietrangelo played 35:37, second this postseason to the 39:49 of ice time he got in a double-overtime game against Chicago.

And, yes, as he said, "Some games, it feels like a lot."

But Pietrangelo wants the minutes, and the Blues want him to play those minutes, especially with the way he's been playing in the postseason. He wants the pressure. He wants to play the way he has grown to play, the way he has been molded by these Blues.

He has proven St. Louis was right in selecting him with the fourth pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, fitting him into a system that seemed to fit him equally well, alongside players who mirror him in ways crucial to the Blues as they are and want to be.

"You never know," Pietrangelo said, reflecting on whether his development would have been the same had another team taken him. "It's like [when] they sent me back two years to junior, which is probably one of the hardest things I've gone through. People ask you, do you think it was the right decision? I sit there and I look back now: How do you argue with it?

"I look at the place that I'm at now, and as upset as I was and as frustrated as I was, I had to trust that what they were doing was the right decision. I guess they were right."

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