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Hitchcock has Blues challenging West's elite

by Louie Korac
ST. LOUIS -- A changing of the guard in the coaching ranks after the season has already gotten underway presents its own unique challenges.

The incoming coach not only has to ask how can he change the culture of a team, but in doing that must also look at players individually and wonder what buttons to push in order to set the transformation process in motion.

When Ken Hitchcock stepped into the challenge of reforming the St. Louis Blues, the team was 6-7-0, floundering in 14th place in the Western Conference standings and playing stagnant hockey.

Even after Wednesday night's 3-2 loss in Colorado, the Blues are 13-3-4 under Hitchcock and quickly making the trek up the conference standings, where they currently sit in fourth place, only six points behind Chicago for the No. 1 seed. It's been quite the resurgence.

In the post-lockout era, the Blues (19-10-4) have typically found themselves at the bottom looking up. They've made big pushes before, only to be on the outside looking in when all is said and done -- aside from the 2008-09 season, their only playoff berth in the last six seasons.


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But with Hitchcock now at the helm, there's a different thinking: look ahead and not behind.

"I think what we're doing is we're hungry for more," Hitchcock said. "I don't know if that's even-keel, but we're hungry for more. Our eyes are up.

"We're looking at Detroit (and) Chicago. We want to get closer to them. I think we're looking at advancing rather than looking over our shoulder. We don't know even who's behind us. We're looking ahead."

Many players have reformed their games. Some, like goalie Brian Elliott, have stayed the course. Elliott continues to shine, as he leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.52) and save percentage (.944) and is tied with Jonathan Quick (Kings) and Tim Thomas (Bruins) for first with 4 shutouts. Jaroslav Halak had gone 4-2-4 in 10 starts prior to Sunday's 6-4 come-from-behind win against Columbus, with a 1.64 GAA and .936 save percentage after a poor 1-6-0 beginning that saw him with a 3.53 GAA and .835 save percentage.

The defense has seen a transformation like no other, led by rising young players Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Captain David Backes and Alex Steen continue to lead by example, as do veterans Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott. David Perron has come back after missing 13 months with a concussion and put up 8 points in eight games. But the player that has probably seen the biggest transformation is forward T.J. Oshie, who was a restricted free agent last summer but signed what was essentially a one-year, prove-yourself contract for $2.35 million.

The first-round pick in 2005 (No. 24) didn't exactly have the type of year he wanted in 2010-11 after a pair of promising seasons to begin his career. It all began with a serious ankle injury and culminated with the Blues benching him for two games late in the season for conduct detrimental to the team.

The 24-year-old started this season with 3 goals and 8 points in 13 games under former coach Davis Payne, but somehow things just didn't seem right, and it included a game on Oct. 22 in Philadelphia when Payne benched Oshie for the second period of a 4-2 victory.

Since Hitchcock's arrival, Oshie has 8 goals and 15 points, including seven of those points in the last seven games. He's playing on the top line with Backes and Steen, and thriving in all situations.

Why the sudden resurgence? Perhaps it's a different coaching philosophy, with Hitchcock pushing the necessary buttons and allowing Oshie to play to his strengths.

"I'm not pouting like I was there for a little while at the beginning of the season," said Oshie, who leads the Blues with 23 points. "I don't know exactly what it is. It might be the winning, but I just feel more grown-up.

"I just feel more mature … just ready to come to the rink every day."

Oshie is Hitchcock's type of player: He's fast, relentless on the puck, checks with fervor and glides while transitioning the puck from one zone to the other.

"He plays the right way," Hitchcock said of Oshie. "He uses his speed as a checking tool, and that's what creates all the turnovers and that's where he gets all the scoring chances.

"For me, he was playing weird before because he was waiting for the game to come to him and then trying to play with speed. Now he's going and getting it. He's on top of people, he's harassing people, he's making people make mistakes. He's using his work ethic without the puck in a good way, and that's the change for me. When you play like that … when you have skill and you act like a worker, good things happen all the time, and that's exactly what's happening to him."

Hitchcock said Oshie can be "a dominant two-way player. As long as he can finish the chances he gets and creates the chaos that he creates on the ice, I think he can become a dominant two-way player.

"He's never going to be one of these guys that's going to score 50 goals, but he's a guy that can contribute offensively and really dig in and frustrate good players like he's been able to do the last 10 games or so."

The Blues faced their first bit of adversity under Hitchcock on Sunday night, but used a big third period to thrust forward and gain another victory. The culture change that Hitchcock, who turned 60 on Saturday, has implemented into this locker room has been embraced with open arms.

"A little adversity is never going to hurt anybody," said Pietrangelo, who leads the Blues in ice time at over 24 minutes a game. "I think it's a good situation to learn from for us. It's the first time we've had to go through this. It's only going to lead to better things."

Hitchcock hopes so, and in the meantime he is confident his team will continue to push and put pressure on the conference's big boys.

"I know those guys just keep winning and winning and we've got to play well to keep up because when you go in and start fighting for seven and eight (in the standings), now you're dealing with six, seven teams doing that," Hitchcock said. "That's very uncomfortable. So we want to just keep putting pressure on those guys, make them have to play.

"It's been rarefied air here for 10 years. We just want to chase those guys and see if we can make them a little bit nervous."
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