By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock's clone made an appearance at Scottrade Center Saturday morning.
No, there's no twin brother for the veteran Blues coach, but judging by the physique and coaching mannerisms to a certain degree, one could say New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a lot like Hitchcock in many ways.
Ryan is in town and will be a spectator for tonight's Central Division matchup between a matchup of the NHL's top team (the Blues) and the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets.
Ryan is in town visiting older brother Jim, who lives in St. Louis, and nephew James and was on hand for the morning skate Saturday.
"We're now in James' element and older brother Jim's element," Ryan said afterwards. "It was kind of neat. A sport is a sport and you're watching this team ... this is what I want for our football team to where everybody buys in. They have one all-star player and it's the backup goalie. That's incredible, and here they are having the best record in hockey.
"When you look at it, I think, 'Man, you coach this team like a football team.' And that's true. He spent a lot of time around football coaches as well. This is my first opportunity to really be around a great hockey coach, and clearly that's what he is."
When Hitchcock was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers, he would often spend time with friend Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles' practices and absorbed a lot of teaching tools from those experiences.
"I've learned from football," Hitchcock said. "I've learned about the sense of timing, I've learned about preparation, I've learned about details from it. I spent that year with the Eagles and I learned a lot. I learned what we thought was attention to detail wasn't even close to what they do. I've learned about the discipline, I learned about how they coach people up hard and get people to respond that way.
"They're at a level above us. I knew (Ryan) was a big hockey fan. He lived with his mom in Toronto there for a long time. I knew he was a big hockey fan there. He talked about it a lot. He appreciates our sport and I think he likes our team and likes the way we play. Any time other people from other sports can be around your team, I think it energizes everybody in the building because it's nice to see other sports respect our sport. It was nice to see all the Cards hanging around here. It was good for us. It's good to see a guy like Rex and his family hang around."
New York Giants fan and New York native Kevin Shattenkirk jokingly said it would have been nice to look over and see Giants coach Tom Coughlin but appreciated the talk with Ryan.
"Coach Ryan is a very nice guy," Shattenkirk said. "I went up and chatted with him about the New York area and talking about when he played goalie when he was younger. He knows the game a little bit. He was just telling us to get to the playoffs and do what we do best.
"We had just a quick conversation, but he seemed like he was like a kid on the bench watching us play. He said he could feel how close our team was and how great our team chemistry seems. It's nice to get it from a guy like that."
Ryan, whose Jets missed the playoffs this past season after back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship game, said hockey and football are a lot alike from a personnel standpoint.
"I have some kind of control when I'm on a field. I feel a little out of place here," Ryan joked. "The skill level of these guys is incredible.
"The odds of playing in the National Hockey League or the NFL, you have better odds of winning the lottery. That's how special these guys are. That's kind of neat watching them."
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With both teams at the opposite ends of the NHL standings, there's a sense that the top team can tend to have a bit of a letdown facing a team, on paper, hasn't had things together. But for the Blues, who will have a home-and-home series with the Blue Jackets this weekend, don't have that mindset ... especially when the Blues are trying to maintain their stay atop the NHL standings.
"The fortunate thing for us is we always know we get a battle when we play the Blue Jackets," Shattenkirk said. "There's a little bit of a rivalry factor there, especially with it being a divisional opponent. It keeps us on our toes.
"We know how good this team can be, how good Columbus can really play when they're at their best. There's a lot of threats on the team, so we can't sit back. All these points mean just as much for us. It's going to be important."
Hitchcock appreciates the attitude his team takes on a night in, night out basis.
"There's a sense of discipline here, but there's also attention to detail," Hitchcock said. "We don't let a pregame skate off the hook, we don't let a practice off the hook, we stop it. Everything is scripted. If we got the players to respond to that, I think that's what football is."
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The Blues will bring in a 28-4-4 home record against a team that's 9-20-4 away from the home confines of Nationwide Arena. The 28 wins matches the top spot in the NHL with Detroit and Hitchcock said the fan appreciation is an element that can't be overlooked.
"This is a crowd that's in their seats at 6:45," he said. "The game's at 7:08. This is a crowd that's in the seats at 6:45. This isn't a 7:15 crowd. I think that part really helps us. You come in and the place is full before the drop of the puck, I think that energizes any team, and I've seen that. It's not a lot different.
"It's the same in San Jose, it's the same in Detroit. They're in their seats.That helps the players a lot. It'a a blue-collar team with a blue-collar crowd. Everybody comes and wants to see the start and they want to come see the crowd get dropped. They're here early. I think our players feed off that energy. It's very relevant."
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It's a homecoming of sorts for Blue Jackets goalie Curtis Sanford, who will get the start tonight for Columbus against the Blues.
Sanford, 32, got his NHL career started here in St. Louis, playing in parts of three seasons (2002-03 and 2005-07) that were certainly lean years for the St. Louis franchise.
He was 5-1-0 in eight games in 2002-03 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in limited duty for a Blues team that was 41-24-11-6 and used seven goalies that season.
But from 2005-07, Sanford was part of some tough teams that labored through some tough moments and the records certainly reflected them.
However, Sanford was 21-25-10 in those two seasons and did his part to keep the ship afloat for the Blues to get to where they are now.
"That's a hard thing for franchises to accept that sometimes you have to go through lean years to really cherish the good times when they do come," Sanford said. "You take a look at teams around the league, a lot of teams have had to do it and build from within and they've done that. They've done an extremely good job.
"It's been a while (since his time in St. Louis), but I'm just trying to enjoy this experience again and make the most of it. You just never know when it's going to end, so you make the most of it."
Sanford, who is 10-15-4 with a 2.61 GAA and .912 save percentage with Columbus this season, is making the most of an opportunity after some tough and mentally draining years laboring behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and then having to shuffle around playing in the AHL.
"I didn't play a lot when I went to Vancouver," said Sanford, who played with current Blues Barret Jackman, David Backes and Roman Polak here in St. Louis. "Obviously Roberto played a ton there, so starts were hard to come by. Then I had to go down to the minors for a couple years in Hamilton with the Montreal organization.
"It's been a tough go, but just basically I've tried to stay on top of my game, not get too down on myself and just look at the positives in life.
"I've tried to make the most of the opportunity. I didn't know what the start of the year was going to bring. I just wanted to make sure that I was prepared to play at this level when I was called upon. That's basically the way I've looked at it. It's been a tough year, but on a personal level, I've enjoyed the experience and play as well as I can."
Sanford, who has one boy here in St. Louis, now is the proud father of three sons and calls it, "a crazy household."
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The Blue Jackets are currently riding a four-game winning streak, their longest winning streak since winning five in a row in November of 2010. For a team that has has to endure the turmoil of a horrendous start to the season, all the trade rumors of captain Rick Nash and dealing Jeff Carter to Los Angeles for a package that included defenseman Jack Johnson, it's been a pleasant change of pace for interim coach Todd Richards.
"Having won four games in a row with the teams that we've beat, how we've won the games, there's a confident group in the room," Richards said. "We respect our opponents, a lot of respect for the St. Louis team coming in. This will be a great challenge, but I think the guys are feeling good about themselves and are ready for that challenge."
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Tonight's probable Blues lineup:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Chris Porter-Jason Arnott-Chris Stewart
B.J. Crombeen-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Ian Cole-Roman Polak
Brian Elliott gets only his second start in 10 days and third in 18; Jaroslav Halak, who has accumulated the bulk of the starts recently, will get a day off and be the backup.
D Kent Huskins (bruised hand), D Kris Russell (concussion), RW Jamie Langenbrunner (broken foot), RW Matt D'Agostini (concussion) and LW Alex Steen (concussion) are on injured reserve. C T.J. Hensick will once again be a healthy scratch.
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Tonight's probable Blue Jackets lineup:
RJ Umberger-Derick Brassard-Rick Nash
Vinny Prospal-Mark Letestu-Cam Atkinson
Colton Gillies-Darryl Boyce-Maksim Mayorov
Ryan Russell-Ryan Johansen-Dane Byers
Jack Johnson-James Wisniewski
Aaron Johnson-Nikita Nikitin
John Moore-Brett Lebda
Curtis Sanford will get the start in goal tonight; Allen York, recalled from the minors Friday to replace the injured Steve Mason (hand), will be the backup.
The Blue Jackets are without D Fedor Tyutin (hand), C Derek MacKenzie (concussion), LW Kristian Huselius (lower body), D Radek Martinek (concussion), D Marc Methot (jaw) and RW Jared Boll (foot). All are on injured reserve. RW Derek Dorsett (upper-body) is day-to-day and Mason (hand) will not play in either game this weekend.