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Friday, February 15, 2013
Building on win no easy feat for Blues

By Scott Burnside

Scott Burnside is embedded with the St. Louis Blues, traveling on their three-game, five-night road trip to Detroit, Calgary and Vancouver.

CALGARY, Alberta -- The 8 a.m. bus arrives at the St. Louis Blues' downtown hotel, but the coaching staff has already jumped in a cab and is headed to the Saddledome to prepare for the evening's tilt against the Calgary Flames.

After being wedged into a shoebox of an office the previous day, coach Ken Hitchcock and his staff have appropriated an unused dressing room across the hallway at the Saddledome where there is ample space for gear and video equipment and the like.

Trying to build on the team's 4-3 overtime win on Wednesday in Detroit has become a little more taxing for the Blues, though, as head medical trainer Ray Barile joins the coaches in their new digs to update them on injured players.

Captain David Backes will skate with the team during an optional skate to determine if a tender groin will allow him to play. Meanwhile, Alexander Steen is feeling under the weather and did not sleep much. He has been told to stay at the hotel to try to regain his energy.

"I knew something goofy was going to happen," Hitchcock said as he phoned GM Doug Armstrong to update him on the potential roster issues. "It always happens in threes."

Later, Backes will tell reporters it will be a game-time decision as to whether he plays, although Hitchcock is anticipating that, barring a setback, Backes will indeed play.

Hitchcock leaves the coaches' room to chat with goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott about where they are at both physically and mentally.

Halak has been nursing a tender groin as well, while Elliott has struggled mightily this season after sharing the William Jennings Trophy last season with Halak for giving up the fewest goals in the league.

Goaltending coach Corey Hirsch explained to the staff that he's given Elliott videotape to study showing earlier saves and goals. The netminder has gone back to his old pads from a year ago and looked sharp in practice on Thursday when the team arrived in Calgary.

"He looked normal yesterday. He was back tracking, being patient, standing up," Hitchcock said.

Having chatted with his two tenders, Hitchcock reports that Halak will go full in practice that morning and again on Saturday in Vancouver and could be available Sunday night for an important clash with the red-hot Vancouver Canucks.

"I just talked to [Elliott] and I talked to Jaro. At the end of the day, we've got to get both of these guys going," he said.

After practice, Elliott is appreciative of his coach's optimistic words.

It has been a difficult time for the Newmarket, Ontario, native as he sports an ugly .849 save percentage and 3.57 goals-against average.

He is competitive and the players enjoy playing in front of him, so giving way to rookie Jake Allen, who got the win against Detroit and will start Friday night in Calgary, has not been pleasant. But at the same time, Elliott acknowledged that he needed a break.

He said the couple of days of straight practice have helped him regain the calmness that marked his play last season.

Will the break be the catalyst to a return to the kind of play that saw Elliott register nine shutouts last season, second in the league?

"I hope so. I definitely feel better," he said.

Midmorning, Calgary goaltending coach Clint Malarchuk drops by to say hello, embracing Hitchcock with a big hug. Hitchcock was working for a sporting goods store in Edmonton when he first met Malarchuk, who was a promising teenage goaltender. Malarchuk didn't have a lot of money, so he would collect bottles for deposit money to help pay for goalie equipment, and the owners of the store always helped out as well with new gear.

About 10:30 a.m., the players involved in the Blues' penalty-killing units, led by Backes, wander into the new coaches' office and associate coach Brad Shaw leads the presentation and video about a Flames power play that ranks second in the NHL.

He warns the group to be wary of Alex Tanguay's passing ability and defenseman Dennis Wideman's ability to make shot-passes and fake shots.

"They have a much more diverse attack," Shaw explained. "Iginla finds Cammalleri and vice versa on one unit, so be aware of that."

Among the video clips are images of the team's strong work against the Detroit Red Wings on Monday. Shaw points out that 17 times during the Wings' power-play opportunities, the Blues made Detroit go the length of the ice to retrieve pucks.

Hitchcock then takes over showing video from the Detroit game. He explains that the Flames have outplayed opponents in the first period of their past three games.

"They've just come at teams in waves," Hitchcock said. But when a team like Vancouver responded with a vigorous checking game, the Flames weren't as successful, the coach added.

"We have to come out with the mindset we're going to make them defend and play in their end," Hitchcock said.

After showing the players clips of their goals from the Detroit game, Hitchcock said they can't just throw their sticks onto the ice against the Flames that they have to bring the same determination they showed in the second and third periods against Detroit.

"That's a game that team practicing out there can't play," Hitchcock said, gesturing to the rink where the Flames were taking their morning skate.

After meeting with the media, Hitchcock leaves to make a special visit to a special friend, longtime NHL and international coach Wayne Fleming, who has been battling brain cancer for the past two years and underwent surgery in April 2011.

Fleming's health has deteriorated dramatically, and the visit will be difficult, but for Hitchcock, it is an important one to make.

Fleming was part of Hitchcock's coaching staff in Philadelphia, but the two have known each other dating back to the early 1980s when Fleming was part of a powerful group of coaches working in the Canadian university hockey system.

Fleming and Hitchcock were also part of the coaching staff with the Canadian Olympic team in 2002 in Salt Lake City when the Canadians broke a 50-year gold medal drought by beating the Americans in the gold-medal game.

Hitchcock recalls Fleming moving heaven and earth to change the Canadian locker room, somehow getting original green carpeting replaced with Canadian red and moving a washroom that was initially in the middle of the room.

"There were a lot of issues in '02 that Wayne fixed up," Hitchcock said.

The Canadians started that tournament slowly, and there was much angst back home. In an effort to try to insulate the Canadian players from the rising tide of unrest surrounding the team's play, Hitchcock and Fleming would each race in the morning to the local newspaper kiosks outside the Canadian dormitory at the athletes' village and buy up all the English-language papers and then immediately throw them in the trash bin.

"We actually thought we were doing some good," Hitchcock recalled with a laugh.

Over the months, Hitchcock has sent regular text messages that are read to Fleming by his wife, Carolyn. Sometimes when Bob Nicholson, the head of Hockey Canada who is based in Calgary, is visiting the Flemings, he will call Hitchcock, and Nicholson will put the coach on speaker phone so he can communicate directly with Fleming.

"Wayne always had the innate ability to coach players and make them feel good about themselves," Hitchcock said. "He could always read the spirit and energy of the team."

Fleming has always been immensely popular with the international hockey community. At the Olympics, there would always be visitors waiting to talk to Fleming outside the Canadian dorm in Salt Lake City.

"They always wanted to visit with Wayne," Hitchcock said.