Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hitchcock successful in debut as Blues blank Hawks

Halak earns 17th career shutout, special
teams were key to victory in coach's debut

ST. LOUIS -- If Ken Hitchcock is the worst player for the Blues on any given night, this hockey team will be just fine.

Hitchcock, who made his Blues coaching debut on Tuesday night, was his usual smiling, joking mood after the Blues blanked the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0, making Hitchcock the first Blues coach to win in his debut since Mike Keenan won on Jan. 20, 1995.

Hitchcock, 59, was extremely pleased with the Blues' effort and skill set after only practicing one time and having a 20-minute morning skate with them.

(Getty Images)
The Blues' Vladimir Sobotka (17) tries to fend off Chicago's Marian Hossa
Tuesday night. Sobotka scored a goal in the Blues' 3-0 win.

But he was pretty hard on himself.

"I think far and away the worst player was me," Hitchcock joked. "I'm going to have to get a little bit further up to speed because it was a playoff atmosphere with a playoff style of game. Not a lot of room out there and a lot of determinations by both sides.

"When Scotty Nichol (upper-body injury) went out, I was down to 11 forwards. I was lost. I need to get up to speed a little quicker. It won't take me very long, but for me, this isn't like walking into a regular season game. This was not a regular season game, this was a playoff game. I walked into a playoff game and it was quick. I was up to speed for a little while, but when it really got going, I need to improve."

The Blues (7-7) fixed three areas that had been ailing them in this early part of the season: the 30th-ranked power play converted, the 27th-ranked penalty kill was perfect going 4-for-4 and Jaroslav Halak continues to climb out of that hole he buried himself in early, by stopping all 29 shots faced and earning his 17th career shutout.

"Their team played good, too," Hitchcock said of Chicago (8-4-3). "Our goalie was the difference. I've coached in a lot worse top-end playoff games than this one, I'll tell you that."

The Blues got goals from Vladimir Sobotka, his first goal in 19 games, Chris Stewart, his first goal in 11 games, and T.J. Oshie, who has three goals in three games after only tallying one in the first 11. Kevin Shattenkirk and Barret Jackman each had two assists and the Blues made a smooth transition -- at least for one game -- into the Hitchcock era.

"I think we just kept it simple," Jackman said. "We were very direct in a lot of our plays. We got to the tops of circles, we were shooting on net. A lot got blocked tonight by their D-men, but the direction was there and we had guys going hard and getting the pucks back.

"(Halak) played great. I thought he moved well side to side. There's no scrambling in front of him and he calmed things down."

Hitchcock wanted to emphasize the Blues' ability to control the puck -- particularly in the offensive end of the ice -- get a good transition game going and not playing a dump and chase style in the offensive zone.

Mission accomplished on all three points.

"Better. Smarter plays in the offensive zone. We didn't force a lot," Hitchcock said. "I thought that we were smart. The biggest thing was that we played to our strength today. We played a deep game, which we needed to play against this team, and I thought we really played to our strength today. ... To buy in this quick, it's a really good start.

"It was a playoff game. That's what it felt like. I think both teams went at each other about as hard as you can go. Chicago's a heck of a hockey club obviously, and they played with a lot of passion right to the end. We did the same. We battled hard. We did a lot of the things in one day that we needed to do."

When asked if Hitchcock allowed the players to play and let him sit back and observe for a first game, David Backes joked, "I think he's just telling you guys that. ... He's a little bit more strict than he's leading on, but the result being what it is today and we can smile all over the locker room. Good win for us tonight and that's the kind of effort we need every single night."

And when the Blues needed their back line to step up, Halak was up to the challenge. He's stopped 79 of the last 85 shots he's seen and lowered his goals-against average down to 2.91 to go with a climbing save percentage of .879.

"I was seeing the puck well," Halak said. "Guys did their jobs, especially on the PK helping me out and clearing the rebounds and boxing the guys out.

"Obviously it feels great. Any win you can get, it was more special tonight with the ceremony and especially the win and shutout. It was a great night and a great win for us. ... When the coaching change happened, we just needed to look in the mirror and ask yourself if that was the best you had. If you look at the guys, everybody did their best. Hopefully, we can start again where we left off."

Sobotka got the Blues on the board, taking Shattenkirk's nifty backhand feed that slotted Sobotka in tight on Hawks netminder Corey Crawford. Crawford made the initial stop but Sobotka kept jammed at the rebound and knocked it in 8 minutes 15 seconds into the game.
(Getty Images)
Chris Stewart congratulates Jaroslav Halak (left) after the Blues' goalie
earned his 17th career shutout in a 3-0 win over Chicago Tuesday night.

The power play, which came in 3-for-40, got a boost when Stewart, who last scored Oct. 13 at Dallas, redirected a puck past Crawford from the high slot after taking Oshie's feed 1:23 into the second period. By going 1-for-2, the Blues jumped all the way up to 28th (9.5 percent). Ironically, the Hawks now have the league's worst power play at 8.8 percent.

Oshie put the game out of reach by beating Crawford from the left circle with 6:06 to play after getting a stretch pass from Shattenkirk.

"I'm really happy for the players, I'm really happy for Jaroslav and the way he played and competed," Hitchcock said. "He gave us a chance, especially in the third period. And I thought specialty teams-wise, we did a really good job. To be able to grasp a couple concepts this quickly on the power play is a real good sign, and our penalty kill just battled like crazy."

The Blues' PK unit, which has now killed off eight in a row, thwarted the Blackhawks on all four tries, including three in the second period.

"Guys were backtracking hard and really skating well," Jackman said. "It made for a lot of good transitions and quick plays towards their end of the ice."

Added Backes, "Guys were buying in all over the ice making plays. Jaro was outstanding and bailed us out with a few chances. We really needed him at critical times in the game."

The Hawks came at the Blues in waves there for a stretch in the third period, but Halak was up to the task.

I wasn’t happy with our game," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "The first period, not a lot happened there. No pace to our game. Scoring first would have been important and we didn’t generate. We couldn’t make a pass. Our puck possession and puck movement was terrible."

Hitchcock sensed his team was on its heels in the third but the Blues managed to get out of any sort of troubles they had.

"We had really good flashes of playing really fast defensively, but then I thought we tired," Hitchcock said. "It is hard to play this way and win. You have to have a physical, mental conditioning to play this way. I thought in the third period, we had some guys that it was tough to play this way, but this is the way we're going to play to win hockey games. This is the way Chicago plays, this is the way Detroit plays, and we're going to have to get the mental and physical conditioning up there. For about 45 minutes, we did a really good job. But when we came off, they came at us in waves."

NOTES: The Blues put on a touching ceremony before the game, honoring fallen former players Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev, who were killed in the fatal plane crash in Russia in early September, a crash that was carrying the KHL's Yaroslavl Lokomotiv.

A bevy of former teammates and coaches were on hand to honor those that lost their lives, those that touched people in many ways.

Those included Al MacInnis, Quenneville, Hawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Hawks assistant general manager Marc Bergevin, Jeff Brown, Reed Low, Kelly Chase, Geoff Courtnall, Brett Hull, Curtis Joseph, Blues assistant coach Scott Mellanby, Bobby Plager, Jamie Rivers, Mark Roof, Terry Roof, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Twist, Terry Yake, Scott Young, Rick Zombo, Jackman, Hawks' wingers Jamal Mayers and Marian Hossa as well as Halak.

Korolev's wide Vera and daughters -- both born in St. Louis -- Kristina and Anastasia were on hand. Demitra's wife Maja and children Lucas (born in St. Louis) and Zara could not attend. But Maja did send a letter to be read.

"I come here with a very heavy heart," Hull said. "... (Korolev) had a great work ethic and a smile that can light up a room."

Added Tkachuk, "Some guys I'll never forget. ... Pavol Demitra was one of those guys. He played with a purpose and he played with joy."

... The Blues were without defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Defensemen Taylor Chorney and Nikita Nikitin were healthy scratches, as was winger Chris Porter. David Perron and Andy McDonald (concussions) continue to be on injured reserve, as is B.J. Crombeen (fractured shoulder).

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