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Hitchcock set to make Blues' coaching debut

by David Kalan
BLACKHAWKS (8-3-3) at BLUES (6-7-0)


Last 10: Chicago 6-2-2; St. Louis 5-5-0.

Season Series: This is the first meeting of the season between the Midwest rivals. The Blackhawks won four of their six games against the Blues last season, including the most recent matchup, a 4-3 overtime victory at the United Center on April 6, 2011.

Big Story: In-season coaching changes are no rarity in the NHL, and the first domino to fall this season came in St. Louis, where the Blues made the surprising move Sunday of relieving coach Davis Payne of his duties and bringing in Ken Hitchcock to fill the void. With the Blues looking to change the direction of their season quickly, Hitchcock will coach his first game for the team Tuesday when the Blackhawks come to town.
Team Scope:

Blackhawks: As October wound to a close the Blackhawks looked as if the Western Conference might very well be theirs for the taking. Chicago was off to the strong start it missed during its Cup defense last season and won seven of ten to wrap up the month. But after a rough loss to Vancouver on Sunday, the Hawks may be hitting a rough patch. Chicago has now lost two straight and stunningly has just one regulation win since Oct. 20.

In back-to-back losses to Tampa Bay and Vancouver, the Hawks have given up an astonishing 11 goals, which not coincidentally has happened with 2010 Norris Trophy-winner Duncan Keith off the ice. Keith hasn't played since injuring his hand on Oct. 31 and the Hawks could certainly use him after clearly missing him on the blue line against the Canucks. There is a chance he will be back Tuesday and if he is, Chicago will be looking to their franchise defenseman to reverse the losing trend.

Blues: While Sunday's coaching change caught many by surprise, there is no doubting Hitchcock's credentials. In tenures with Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, Hitchcock has made several postseason appearances, won two conference titles and lifted the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999. A quick turnaround with the Blues may not be as easy, though the pieces are there to put a postseason run together. As well, St. Louis is not very far out of the race. Despite being 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, the Blues are just three points out of the top eight as it stands, meaning there is plenty of time to come back into the postseason mix.

The bigger concern for Hitchcock is likely to be how to manage his goaltenders. While he has said Tuesday's starter will be Jaroslav Halak, the man expected to be No. 1 for the Blues since he came over in a trade from Montreal during the 2010 offseason, Halak may be auditioning to keep the role. His starts have become less frequent of late and his 1-6-0 record this year would justify it. Brian Elliott meanwhile has been a revelation so far with his 5-1-0 mark. In addition to that, while Hitchcock's first five games will be at home the opponents will be no cakewalk. Chicago, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida would all be in the postseason if it started today and the lone opponent St. Louis will face that wouldn't, Detroit, hasn't missed the playoffs since Bill Clinton was still a governor in Arkansas.

Who's Hot: As the Blues struggle to generate offense, David Backes appears to be the strongest of the bunch with three points in his last three games. ... Patrick Kane continues to produce, tallying seven points in his last four games.

Injury Report: Keith (left hand) is listed as questionable for Chicago, Kent Huskins (bruised left ankle) is questionable for St. Louis.

Stat Pack: One of Hitchcock's biggest responsibilities may be to get the Blues' offense going. Currently St. Louis ranks a mediocre 20th in goals per game, and big performances have been few and far between. The Blues have scored four goals or more just three times in 13 games this season.

Puck Drop: Despite their recent difficulties, the Blackhawks are still in first place in the Central and sit second overall in the West standings. Given the nature of the annual playoff-race logjam, however, an extended rough stretch could easily send Chicago tumbling. For St. Louis, that stumble has already happened. General Manager Doug Armstrong is banking on Hitchcock's hiring reversing their trend as well. When they two get on the ice Tuesday, something will have to give.

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