Wednesday, April 27, 2016


Hitch vs. Lindy Part Four; Ott relishes facing former mates; 
Quenneville's message to Blues; getting better play; Stars respect Blues

ST. LOUIS -- When they first butted heads in 1999, the stage was the pinnacle for Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff.

Hitchcock and Ruff, veterans of 37 seasons of NHL coaching experience combined with 1,459 combined regular season victories (Hitchcock with 757, Ruff with 702), have lived through virtually everything in the NHL. Ruff was a player of 12 years for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers. 

Hitchcock got the best of Ruff when Hitchcock's Stars beat Ruff's Sabres in six games of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. But then in 2006, when Hitchcock was coaching the Philadelphia Flyers and Ruff still with the Sabres, tempers flared in postgame comments both made in light of the Sabres' 8-2 thrashing of the Flyers on April 24 in the first round.

Hitchcock, who dropped an expletive as he left the podium that night directed towards Ruff, was playfully asked Wednesday ahead of their first postseason head-to-head meeting since Ruff's Sabres dispatched Hitchcock's Flyers in six games 10 years ago, offered his own playful dab.

"No, I said enough in two Olympics, that's enough, too much," Hitchcock joked.

Apparently, both said plenty to one another at the Winter Olympics; first in Vancouver in 2010 and 2014 in Sochi, Russia (Hitchcock also was an assistant in 2002 in Salt Lake City). They were roommates as assistant coaches under head coach Mike Babcock.

"Both of us were together in the Olympics. We're born and raised maybe 50 miles from each other," Hitchcock said. "I'm from the big city of Edmonton and he's from Warburg (Alberta). There's some common ground there, too. When you're in that type of closed quarters for that long a period, you get to know people. 

"We had a rough start with the Stanley Cup Final there and smoothed it over. We became good friends through two Olympic games being roommates with a guy for two and a half weeks, you get to know a lot about a guy."

Ruff remembers the time quite well only because of the closed quarters the two had to share in Russia

"We were in the same room but this far apart for two weeks, like a doorman," Ruff said. "It was like being in a bathroom. She was tight.

"I look at what they’ve done. When you beat the champs, that’s been a heck of an accomplishment, and they’ve had a tough ride when it comes to first-round playoff series. And to get it done in Game 7 where I think there was a lot of pressure for them to get it done, I think they did a heck of a job. Facing Ken is a challenge. He’s a good coach. Matchups are going to be tough, details are going to be tough. There’s a reason he’s coached so long."

And 10 years later, they face one another again for the right to advance to the Western Conference Final. Game 1 is Friday at 7 p.m. (NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM), and what a coincidence it is that Ruff is on the bench that Hitchcock occupied once.

"Yeah, it’s a full about-face," Ruff said. "I like where our team is at, I like where our team has got to and I’m sure he’s sitting in the same place. It’s not about him or I, it’s about how the teams are going to play. We’ve been through enough wars that for me my focus is all about how our guys are going to play and I got to make sure our guys are ready to play."

Both coaches have evolved, both have grown, and both have adapted and become wiser to today's game and today's player.

"For me, Lindy's always been more of a risk-taker," Hitchcock said. "His teams in Buffalo, they played with a high level of risk. They were really almost hybrid teams. And then obviously you learn over time to coach through balance. That's why he's had success in Dallas. He's got the team playing through significant balance. I think we've both learned from each other. We had a lot of dialogue and a lot of debate under a lot of very stressful pressure situations. I thought both of us leaned on each other pretty hard to help Team Canada through stuff.

"I don't look at the opposite coach. You get to this situation, it's business. You're trying to help your team. You rely on a lot of information through regular season, tendencies, matchups and things like that. It becomes very personal to be honest with you. It's all about us and our team and our city. That's all that matters to me. This is another important time for us. We've taken a step and we want to continue to take steps. The focus for me right now is nothing but Blues and what can I do to help these players help to get to another level."

* Ott returns -- For Blues forward Steve Ott, the second round is a bit of a homecoming.

Ott, a first-round pick of the Stars in 2000 (25th overall), was revered during his playing days with Dallas, where he spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career. But as the antagonist of the opposition as the 33-year-old's career has evolved, he will likely be Public Enemy No. 1 when he enters American Airlines Center.

"It's exciting," said Ott, who has an assist in five games in the seven-game series against the Chicago Blackhawks. "Obviously I've played with a lot of those guys that are still on that team and to have an opportunity to play against them in the playoffs is something that I'm really looking forward to, but with the team that we have going there, it's a really exciting time."

So with former teammates (Jamie Benn, Vernon Fiddler, Jordie Benn, Alex Goligoski and Kari Lehtonen) on the other side, there is added incentive.

"I would say (so), to say the least," said Ott, who had 85 goals and 135 assists with the Stars. "I have friends over there, it's no hidden message but there's no friends when that playoff series starts and I would expect the same thing from them. You go out there and you battle hard and you definitely want to have the upper hand.

"When you have friends over there or guys you've played with for a long time, there's nothing better than trying to beat them and battle hard against them and challenge them. It's like if you have a brother, you never want to let down your guard."

Not only Ott and Hitchcock return to their former stomping grounds, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was part of the Stars organization, first joining them in 1991 and being named GM of the Stars in 2002, replacing Bob Gainey before being fired in 2007. 

Also, Blues executive vice president Brett Hull scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 against the Buffalo Sabres that brought Dallas its only Stanley Cup. 

* High endorsement -- Hitchcock said that at the conclusion of the Blues' series win against the Blackhawks, he got a special ringing endorsement from Hawks coach Joel Quenneville.

The message: win the Stanley Cup.

"Yeah, that's what he said," Hitchcock said. "'Go try and win it. You've earned the right. When you beat a champion out, you've earned the right to try and go for it.' I'm sure it's probably the same thing that was said to Lindy. 

"We're down to eight teams after tonight. Nothing but tough games. I think all of us recognize that the intensity and the emotion of the games is going to go nothing but up. I think it's our responsibility to get our team up to the level that we have to compete at. We obviously expounded a lot of energy in the last series. We've got to get our energy back to get going again."

* Improved play -- The Blues had some terrific outputs from a number of individuals in their series win against the Blackhawks. 

But there were also some that will need to bring a more improved game against the Stars.

Last season in six playoff games, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk had 12 points to lead the Blues. This season in seven games, Shattenkirk has a goal and four points and is a minus-2. 

But Shattenkirk had three goals and five points in five games against the Stars in the regular season and has 21 points (17 assists) in 22 career games against the Stars, the most against any other opponent.

One would expect him to have a prominent role in the upcoming series.

"When you have stress and pressure, it becomes a big burden, and once the stress is over, now you're just dealing with the pressure of winning hockey games," Hitchcock said. "I think every player, every coach can deal with that no problem. You're dealing with it, and it's just hockey. And that's where we're at right now, it's just hockey, it's two really good teams going at each other, two teams that have had great seasons. Unfortunately we play in the Central Division. That's the way it is. We've got a really tough opponent, even probably tougher than the one we just knocked off. That's pretty significant. We're going to have to be even better than we were against Chicago if we expect to win and quite frankly I think we've got more in us too. I think just the pressure of playing is going to be a lifted burden on three or four guys here and I think you're going to see guys that maybe struggled with some of the burden of last series emerge as good players for us this series because they're just going to be able to play hockey."

Hitchcock wouldn't give specific names.

"Yeah I'm thinking of some guys and I sure as hell aren't going to tell you," he said. "But I think there's some guys that had a tough time with that stress and pressure. They felt responsible and now it's all gone. We can just coach and play."

* High praise -- Dallas, which lost four of five games with the Blues this season although two were in overtime and another in a shootout, has much respect for the Blues.

The Stars, who defeated the Minnesota Wild in six games in the opening round, 

"They’re a big, physical team that kind of clogs up the slot, can kind of play good lockdown defense," Stars center Jason Spezza said of the Blues. "They don’t give you much, they try to keep you to the outside. They’re probably similar to how Minnesota played by really getting five guys tight, but just a better version. They’re a team we have a lot of respect for and had close games with all year."

However, Stars right wing Patrick Sharp said not to read too much into regular season matchups.

"I don’t put too much stock in the regular season matchups because the playoff is a whole different animal, but playing against the Blues for a long time now, not surprised at the season that they’re having, they’re getting better every year, a tough team to play against, extremely tough in their building, tough to score, tough to get to the net, so we’ve got our work cut out for us," Sharp said. "But we’re excited where we are, we’re excited to move on in Round Two and can’t wait to get playing."

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