Belief in Hitchcock Propels Blues
Sunday, 04.22.2012 / 5:32 PM / St Louis Blues - Features
ST. LOUIS -- When Ken Hitchcock was brought in to right the ship for the Blues in early November, what impressed the 60-year-old was that the team immediately embraced what he was preaching.
Often, it takes time for players to adjust to a new message.
But the Blues, who eliminated the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals with a win Saturday night, continue to receive Hitchcock's message well. The Blues always seemed a step ahead of the playoff-hardened Sharks, entering uncharted waters by winning the franchise's first playoff series since 2002.
"We have a buy-in going right now," Hitchcock said after Saturday night's 3-1 victory in Game 5. "We've had a buy-in going since the day the coach arrived. I don't know why. I have no idea why, to be honest with you. But the buy-in is right there. And you can see it. You can see the way we play. You can see the way we compete. You can see the way we grabbed it."
The Blues grabbed it in the third period Saturday in come-from-behind fashon.
"We played a great first period [Saturday]," Hitchcock said. "We got frustrated halfway through the second period when we weren't having success. Left the page and then came right back in the third, right back into the buy-in.
"It wasn't a big speech. It was just a common-sense discussion at the end of the second period with the players. This is who we are, this is how we play, and the buy-in went right back in again and away we went. I think we'll be a tough opponent if the buy-in continues at this pace. Win or lose, we'll be a tough opponent."
But before the Blues -- who can only face Phoenix, Nashville or Los Angeles in the Western Conference Semifinals -- turned to their skill guys, they turned to a pair of veteran guys that have been through the playoff wars.
Scott Nichol, who played for the Sharks the last two seasons, threw a puck at the net that Sharks goalie Antti Niemi struggled to handle. Jamie Langenbrunner, who has the most playoff experience on the Blues' roster, crashed the net and popped home the rebound and suddenly the game was tied. Forty-five seconds later, everything the Sharks had done to get the series back to San Jose for a Game 6 Monday night was virtually gone.
"I think that first one was ... it was very exciting," said veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, who is the lone holdover from the last playoff series win in franchise history. "It's the highest I've jumped off the bench in a long time. To get that second one after that, you just try to keep yourself level-headed and continue to go. We knew they were going to come hard."
And so when they went through the traditional handshakes signifying the end of a series, it was a Blues team without any leading scorers or without guys that will dominate the end-of-season awards. Instead, it's a team that just works hard at what it does from top to bottom, and most importantly, has bought in to what is being preached.
"I think the way we have to play to be successful ...look, our top guys [have] 60 points ... the way we have to play as a team makes you rely on each other," Hitchcock said. "We can't do it by ourselves, we can't rely on one guy. Our top scorer is our top checker [David Backes], so it's a different element here. That's why when I say the buy-in is there, the buy-in is because everybody -- not out of fear, but out of everybody having to trust each other so much that we play the right way ... the way we have to play to win. And everybody is on that page and almost afraid to get off.
"I think that relying on each other kept the stress and the pressure away. There was no difference in our locker room today as there was for Game 4. There was looseness. It's a very unique team in that there are no superstars, there's just a bunch of guys that grew up together, that are having fun together and really count on each other."
The players recognize how big of a moment this is for the franchise, but more importantly, that there's more to accomplish.
"It's a big night. I think you heard it in the excitement from the crowd and how loud it got in here, especially as the last few seconds tick down," Backes said. "These fans have been waiting for it for a long time. We've been waiting for it for a long time. It feels good, but we've got to keep that all in perspective.
"It's a great series win against a great team, but [there's] more work to be done."
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