Sunday, April 22, 2012

Buy-in has Blues advancing in postseason

Team has embraced Hitchcock's philosophy
since Day One, awaits second round opponent

ST. LOUIS -- When Ken Hitchcock was brought in to help right the ship for the Blues in early November, what impressed the 60-year-old was that the team immediately embraced what he was offering and preaching.

On many instances, it takes time for players to adjust to a new message.

But the Blues, who eliminated the San Jose Sharks in five games, continue to receive the message well.

The Sharks, a team many predicted before the season as a Stanley Cup contender, were humbled in a series that was as close as the scores indicated.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Patrik Berglund (right) watches as David Perron's goal gets
past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi. It gave the Blues a 2-1 lead and they won
3-1, winning the best-of-seven series in five games.

The Blues always seemed a step ahead and good enough, and they now enter 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, as they were faced with a 1-0 deficit against a veteran-laden team that's been here before and knows the pressures and nuances of playoff hockey.

It doesn't seem to faze a team with a lineup laced with players that have never been through this rugged portion of the season before.

"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 will face either Phoenix, Nashville or Los Angeles in the Western Conference Semifinals, turned to their skill guys to hold off the potent skill guys the Sharks would throw on the ice trying to desperately save their season, they turned to a pair of guys that have been through the wars. They've been through the battles of playoff hockey.

Scott Nichol, who played for the Sharks the last two seasons, throws a simple puck at the net. Sharks goalie Antti Niemi can't corral it, and Jamie Langenbrunner, with the most experience on the Blues' roster as far as playoff experience is concerned, crashes the net and pops home a rebound.

The game was tied, the decibal level in the building quickly rose through the roof and the Blues were feeling it. 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. It evaporated in an instant as David Perron used his hockey stick to deflect a puck into the net from Alex Pietrangelo but in essence, drove a dagger through the Sharks' hearts.

"I think that first one was ... it was very exciting," said veteran defenseman Barret Jackman, who is the lone holdover from the last franchise playoff series win. "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, without any guys that will dominate the end-of-season awards. It's a team that just works hard at what they do from top to bottom, and most importantly, have bought in to what is being preached.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Kris Russell (4) celebrates with teammates on Jamie
Langenbrunner's game-tying goal in the third period Saturday night.

"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. Some of the kidding that goes on, you and I would go to jail over. Comments that are made, we'd be written up on CNN or whatever. But they get along with it. And they love it and they go after each other in a fun way. But they really need each other and they really rely on each other. 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, 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 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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