Sunday, December 4, 2011

Blues learning they won't be taken lightly anymore

Coach hopes team learns lesson from Saturday's loss to Chicago

ST. LOUIS -- After going through a wave of first encounters with opponents following the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, the Blues passed through the majority of those tests with flying colors.

The Blues elevated themselves from 14th in the Western Conference to as high as fourth in a stretch of games in which the team went 8-1-3 in Hitchcock's first 12 games.

But the veteran 59-year-old coach cautioned earlier this past week against getting too high, that the Blues are about to hit a rash of opponents for the second time.

Hitchcock's debut with the Blues came on Nov. 8 against Saturday's opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Blues passed their initial test with an impressive 3-0 win.

But the Blues were seeing the Blackhawks for the second time, and it's evident by their recent surge that teams will be taking Hitchcock's team seriously.

The Blackhawks taught the Blues a hard lesson, winning 5-2 here in David Perron's return to the home team's lineup.

And Hitchcock has a clear warning for his team moving forward.

"(Chicago) forced us to be light on the puck, and you know what, the team that's coming in Tuesday (Detroit), this is their second go-around," he said. "We gave it to them pretty good (2-1 here on Nov. 15). They're coming the same way. We'll have to be ready for that. They're not going to give us any shifts off either.

"That's what championship teams, teams that know how to win ... these are great lessons for us moving forward. If we want to be a great playoff team and we want to be thought of as a top team, we're going to have to compete in these type of games every night."

The Blackhawks, considered one of the favorites in the Western Conference, executed in what Hitchcock called "the little areas" of the game. Winning the special teams battle was pretty evident by going 2-for-3 on the power play and shutting down the Blues' PP on all four attempts.

But what Hitchcock really means is the Hawks won the battles most don't look for on paper.

"I thought one team dug in a little bit deeper collectively than we were in the areas that you win hockey games ... heavy sticks, heavy competitiveness, playing the right way right from 60 minutes," Hitchcock said. "We got down a goal and we started to try to make plays past the goal.

"You look at the little things that go on, when you go and look at the stats, you're going to look at shots blocked and shots missed. We've got almost 30 shots on goal but we've got another 40 in that area. Those are the little things that mean the difference between winning games like this and losing them. They did the little things better than we did."

Maybe the Hawks took the Blues lightly the first time around when the team was 6-7. They certainly didn't do so Saturday night.

"(The Blues) are a tough team to play against … (with) that disciplined grinding style of hockey," said Hawks winning goalie Ray Emery. "Our big players really stepped up and played that tough, gritty game. That’s a big character game for us."

It's the type of character game the Blues will have to match going forward. They hope the lesson learned is that they won't be sneaking up on anybody anymore.

"Our surprising teams with our depth and the way we play is over," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Teams have obviously seen over the last 10 or 12 games how we play.

"We know that we're a good hard-working team. I think it's time for us to stick to that game plan and not expect to have it easy."
(Getty Images)
The Blues and Roman Polak (left) learned that Patrick Sharp (10) and the
Chicago Blackhawks won't take this team lightly.

Added goalie Brian Elliott, who allowed more than two goals in a game for the first time in his 12 starts this season: "Teams know that we're a good team. They're not going to take us lighty and coming into this barn, they know it's going to be a battle. That's the way we want to play. They come prepared and bring their A-game."

Hitchcock and the Blues are disappointed with the end result Saturday, but maybe the bigger picture is something worth more here.

"This is the message," Hitchcock said. "This is what all the top teams in the West give you. You're going to see the same game from Detroit, from San Jose, from Vancouver, from all those teams. This is the level they play at. That's what wins.

"We're going to have to learn quick. I think we can, but this was a great lesson if we learn from it and start paying attention to the little things because these teams teach you a lot when you play them."

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