Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Daily Debate: Dynamic duos in St. Louis and Minnesota
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the goalie tandems that are working in St. Louis and Minnesota.
Burnside: Good day, my friend. A night of comebacks in the NHL on Tuesday with Pittsburgh, Nashville, Boston, Minnesota and St. Louis all erasing deficits of one form or another to come away with victories. How about the Blues, though, who now run their record to 3-0-1 under Ken Hitchcock? Their 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings was significant on a number of fronts: First, the Red Wings were red-hot, having won four straight; it looked like they got the offensive monkey off their proverbial back. Yet the Blues held them to 22 shots, all but one stopped by Brian Elliott, as Hitchcock has won with both his goalies since taking over for Davis Payne. The Blues also saw more good work from a much-maligned penalty-killing unit as they held the Red Wings without a power-play goal on six opportunities. The win moved the Blues into a tie with the Red Wings (and about a hundred other teams).
LeBrun: This is the kind of impact you want when you make a coaching change, and it proves Blues GM Doug Armstrong was bang-on with his decision. The Blues have responded to Hitchcock by playing a grittier, more responsible game.
“We’re playing hard,’’ Hitchcock told me this morning. “It’s nice to see. We’re checking like crazy and creating offense because of it. Guys are buying in.’’
I asked Hitchcock how he convinced the Blues players to buy in so quickly. That’s no guaranteed in this day and age, not with the big salaries. It’s taken away a lot of power the coaches used to have on players -- certainly compared to when Hitchcock began his coaching career. But what Hitchcock sold his new players on was a chance to win.
“I’m like a lot of the older coaches -- I know what I know,’’ Hitchcock said. “The quickest way to get better is to play harder and faster defensively. That’s all we talked about with the guys. We had to get our goals against down and hang on to the puck, and the rest will come. We’re not reinventing the wheel. The guys are starting to see that the more we play harder defensively, the more we get scoring chances out of it.’’
Hitchcock feels that first win over Chicago after he took over was huge because it calmed everyone down and also showed the players this might work.
“Ken provides good leadership through his experience and should help our core players develop to their full potential,’’ Armstrong told ESPN.com via email Wednesday morning.
Good times in St. Louis these days, Scotty. Only fly in the ointment is the 11 a.m. ET hearing Blues winger Chris Stewart had with NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan for Stewart's hit from behind on Niklas Kronwall Tuesday night. That’s an area of focus for the NHL this year, so we’ll see if Armstrong faces any additional discipline. Luckily, Kronwall returned in the game, which should help Stewart, but I still think he might get a game or two. Here’s the hit.
Burnside: Well, one thing that makes life easier for any coach -- new, old, tall, short -- is good goaltending. Hitchcock has gotten that from both Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, who was off to a hellacious start to the season. That one-two punch is huge when it comes to piling up points.
Mike Yeo, the rookie coach of the Minnesota Wild, has been the beneficiary of key performances at key moments this season from Josh Harding and Nicklas Backstrom, who seems to have turned a corner and stopped 43 of 45 shots against Columbus on Tuesday. The Wild have won seven of nine; Backstrom has won the last three, while Harding won the previous four. Talked to GM Chuck Fletcher last week, and he said there's no goaltender controversy because both are universally respected and liked in the locker room.
That's usually the way it goes when they're playing lights out. Don't imagine the same is being said in the Blue Jackets' room; they blew a 2-0 lead behind Steve Mason and lost for the 13th time in 17 games.
LeBrun: Yes, to finish your thought on the Blues' goaltending, that’s something Hitchcock also touched on this morning.
“Jaroslav was playing better before the coaching change,’’ Hitchcock said. “The two games Halak has played since I got here, he’s played really, really well. Then Elliott got that shutout and I rewarded that. Both guys have played well. In the four games we’ve played, both guys have held the fort in the first period when we needed them the most. That’s helped us a lot.’’
And as you pointed out, where would the Wild be without their goalie duo this season? The Wild are only 24th in the league in goals per game, thanks in large part to a 25th-ranked power play. But as Lou Lamoriello always told me, it’s not how many goals you score, it’s how many more goals you score than let in. The Wild are a stingy second overall in the NHL, allowing only 2.06 goals per game, and that’s allowed them to have this kind of success.
Burnside: True. The Wild in recent years have relied on special teams to stay afloat, with middling success. This year, the special teams need to improve, but they're receiving timely scoring from guys like Matt Cullen, who leads the team with eight goals and is one of five Wild players with at least four goals. Not fire-wagon hockey to be sure, but the Wild sit atop the Northwest Division and are just two points behind Chicago, which owns the top spot in the Western Conference. Go figure.
LeBrun: Chicago at Vancouver tonight is ESPN.com’s NHL Game of the Week, my friend, and I chatted with the GMs on both teams who spoke passionately about the rivalry between both clubs. More on that in a blog later today. Cheers, Scotty.