On this day, Blues made of stern stuff
DETROIT -- Ken Hitchcock and the rest of the St. Louis Blues' coaching staff waited patiently outside the raucous Blues dressing room for rookie netminder Jake Allen to finish his first-ever national television interview after his first NHL victory.
As the netminder entered the room, his teammates gave a rousing cheer.
It was a cheer shot through with relief.
The kind of relief that comes from erasing an early two-goal deficit en route to a 4-3 overtime win and limiting one of the most talented teams in the Western Conference to seven shots through the final two periods and overtime. The kind of relief that comes from arresting an ugly five-game winless streak that had the talented Blues questioning themselves.
Hitchcock stooped to turn off the music to quickly congratulate his team.
"Jake, congratulations," he said.
He praised the team's selfless shot-blocking and noted the strong play of rookies Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored a power play goal to tie the game at 2-2, and Jaden Schwartz, who was the 14th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
"Take care of yourselves. We have a long [frigging] day tomorrow," the coach said.
"Excellent job, boys. Now turn that music back on."
The Blues would grab a late bite to eat, get some sleep and then fly to Calgary, where they will play the Flames on Friday as part of a three-game road trip.
The result on this night was a welcome relief, yet the preparation that went into it was little different than for any other game. Just as the team's preparation for the coming days will not vary much from the routine established by Hitchcock and his staff.
Morning meetingsOn this day, the Blues coaching staff was on board a bus that transported them from their hotel to Joe Louis Arena at 8:30 a.m. Their "office" at the arena is a AAA minor hockey team dressing room next to the team's dressing room. By 9 a.m., there are seven laptops up and running plus a big screen television with video capability. The staff -- associate coach Brad Shaw, who was promoted in July 2012 after being an assistant coach with the Blues since 2006; assistant coach Gary Agnew, Hitchcock's assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets for four seasons; assistant Ray Bennett, who has been a member of the Blues' coaching staff since December 2006; goaltending coach Corey Hirsch, who once played junior hockey for Hitchcock in Kamloops; and video coach Dan Brooks -- are spread out at three long wooden tables.
Each of the coaches is responsible for at least one element of the game plan, so there is quiet chatter as they work on strategies for exiting the defensive zone, penalty kill and power play schemes and decide which video clips they will use to reinforce the message when they meet with the players later in the morning.
"Who's got scoring chances for from the first three games?" Hitchcock asks. "I want to see two or three clips where we got the sticks in the blue paint [the crease]."
At one point, the coaches watch a video of Shaw's son scoring a goal in the British Columbia junior league on a nifty move and there are jokes about whether it should be included in the morning's video sessions with the players.
"I'm going to talk to Russell today just about his mentality, OK, Shawsy, just kind of [stuff] happens. He's got to have a warrior mentality and he's [frigging] good when he's like that," Hitchcock said, referencing Kris Russell, one of the Blues' young defensemen.
After going over faceoff video with Agnew, Hitchcock pulls up a chair next to Bennett, who will present a session on exit strategies in the morning meeting with the players.
They joke about the red folding chairs that litter the office and have been a staple at Joe Louis Arena seemingly since it was built.
"Scotty must have brought these in," Hitchcock jokes, referring to legendary Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman, who was famous for making the visitors' dressing room as inhospitable as possible.
"My mom had these chairs for people she didn't like," joked Bennett.
Later, while Agnew and Hirsch are watching the Red Wings take their optional morning skate, Bennett and Shaw present to the team a series of video clips highlighting positive aspects of the penalty kill and moving the puck out of their zone.
Any of the negative "debris," of which there has been plenty during the Blues' five-game winless streak, is saved for off days when the players can process if better, Hitchcock said.
Instead, the video clips always show players making good plays, good decisions.
"It puts them in a position where they feel good about the game," the coach said.
During the video presentations, the players sit in their dressing room stalls, taping sticks, or stretch on the floor. At the end, Hitchcock, who has been sitting silently along one wall, quickly goes over a series of points related to the team's psyche.
Revisiting a theme he has been hammering with his slumping team, Hitchcock explains that the Blues need to change their frustration and anger to desperation and hope.
"We're going to [frigging] get pushed tonight," Hitchcock said. But the Blues know they can play with this Red Wings team, he added.
"Toughness is going to be paying the price."
The morning skate will last only 12 or 14 minutes, Hitchcock tells his team as he leaves the room.
Lineup changeMaybe it's playing longtime rival Detroit on national television. Maybe it's the fact this is the fourth meeting between these two teams since the start of the lockout-shortened season. Or maybe it's the change in the Blues lineup, but there is a definite buzz about the team.
Hitchcock and the coaching staff decided that rookie Allen will get his first-ever NHL start.
Hirsch informed Allen, the 34th pick in the 2008 draft, of the news on Tuesday before the team flew to Detroit.
"We've got a young guy that deserves a chance to play," Hitchcock said.
It's not so much that the team takes its cues from the goaltending -- "our team takes its cue from structure," Hitchcock said -- but the team has given up too many chances and has allowed too many of those chances to go in to have success.
After most of the players were off the ice, Hitchcock sat on one of the benches and chatted with Elliott. He rarely has much to do with the goaltenders, preferring to leave the technical aspect of that game with Hirsch. But when the issues are beyond the technical, he will intervene.
Elliott is best when he is patient and holds his position, but lately he has been too anxious, "and pucks start to go through you," Hitchcock said.
"Brian's still a very young, emerging goalie. That's what people fail to realize. He's trying to establish his career, he's not in the middle of it."
Later, Hitchcock will tell reporters that he has no idea how this will turn out and, early on Wednesday night, it looked like it would be more of the same as Allen allowed a goal 2:17 into the game and another, a weak effort, before the first period was at the midpoint.
"We look tentative," Agnew told the other coaches during the first intermission. "We need to get out there and play. We're waiting for something bad to happen."
But in the second period, the Blues stormed back and scored three times in a little over five minutes to jump in front 3-2. But Allen was caught out of position and allowed a Pavel Datsyuk shot to go in off his catching glove from behind the Blues' net to tie the game.
"How is your goalie making out, Hirschey?" Hitchcock asked his goalie coach in the second intermission. "Do I put Elliott in?"
After Alexander Steen gave the Blues the overtime win, though, Hitchcock said he really wasn't considering making a switch. You have to think big picture, he said, and he was concerned about the impact on Allen's psyche if he had made a switch. And in the end, Hitchcock, the coaching staff and the Blues were rewarded with the win.
"It is tough, you don't want to do that," Allen said of the two early goals. "But I wasn't going to quit on the guys. They battled hard for me as well."
Indeed, Shaw joked after the game that the Blues might have spent $10,000 on broken sticks as they blocked 24 Detroit shots.
Leadership hierarchyLong ago in Edmonton, Hitchcock had a top lawyer explain how their firm worked in terms of hierarchy and how the senior partners were responsible for the firm's leadership and direction. Hitchcock has used that information over the years to establish leadership groups on his teams to whom he can go to talk about various issues and to help the flow of information within the team.
Hitchcock normally meets twice a month with the Blues' leadership group, but given the team's current state and the start of the road trip, the coach met with them on Tuesday.
Players will only follow a coach's instruction so far, Hitchcock said. But having an emotional connection with the leaders of the team is important to keeping everyone focused on the team's goals.
"I'm a big believer that you teach 23 but you coach a small group," Hitchcock said.
"Leaders can push further and further than any coach can. Followers have to play for the leaders and the leaders have to follow the plan of the coach.
"The things that needed to get said got said [Tuesday]. Win lose or draw, we need to start the building process."
Game timeAbout 3 1/2 hours before scheduled puck drop, the coaching staff was back at Joe Louis Arena decked out in dress shirts and ties, working on their game plan -- not for the Red Wings, but for their next opponent, the Calgary Flames.
"You've got to try and stay a game ahead," Hitchcock said.
"What system are they playing in Calgary, Ray?"
Shortly after 5 p.m., the players filed past the coaches' room and into the dressing room. The sound of sticks being cut and the heavy bass from a portable sound system soon filter into the coaches' room.
About half an hour later, Agnew presented video instruction to the power play units with specific attention on how they might take advantage of the Red Wings' penalty killers. For instance, the Wings have for years challenged opposing power plays with aggressiveness and have been willing to leave an opposing forward alone in front of the net while the puck is being moved.
"We need to get pucks to the net," Agnew explained. "They're letting the goaltender take the net-front guy."
At the end, Hitch added that with Jimmy Howard, the workhorse Detroit netminder, they need to bother him and make the Detroit defenders collapse back to the net.
"Just start hacking and whacking," Hitchcock said.
The videos served their purpose, as the Blues went 1-for-3 on the power play.
When the brief meeting ends, the coaching staff returned to their office where GM Doug Armstrong, vice president of hockey operations Dave Taylor and director of pro scouting Rob DiMaio are in the room. Armstrong was in Toronto earlier in the week and then went to Sarnia, Ontario, to visit his dad before joining the team in Detroit.
Armstrong never interferes with lineup decisions -- "he just wants to know who's playing," Hitchcock said. But in the case of the goaltending change, Hitchcock as a matter of course told the GM they were planning to give Elliott a break.
"Army was fully supportive of doing this," the coach said.
The two get along well, Hitchcock said, because they see the game differently.
Armstrong sees the team a month down the road, while Hitchcock sees the team on a day-to-day basis.
"I would make a very poor general manager, because I would base things on wins and losses too much," Hitchcock admits.
Hitchcock filled out the official lineup card for the game and asked Shaw if he would like Ian Cole and Alex Pietrangelo to start with David Backes' line, as they assume the Wings will start with the red-hot Henrik Zetterberg.
With less than half an hour to go before game time, Hirsch paceed nervously around the office and then out into the hallway and back in again.
The rest of the coaches joked that he's like a nervous dad with Allen readying for his first start.
Hirsch spoke to Allen earlier in the day and tried to tell him that the game is still the same, just a little faster, the players a little bigger.
Did the advice sink in?
Hirsch grinned. Not likely.
He recalled his own first NHL start almost 20 years ago to the day in this very same building.
"I know, kind of creepy," he said.
A few minutes later, the voices of the players rose as the pregame warmup approached.
"Well, let's find out what we're made of today," Hitchcock said.
A few hours later, it turned out the Blues were, on this day, made of pretty stern stuff.
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