Off days don't exist for Blues
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 visiting coaches' room at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary is a first cousin to a broom closet.
By the time the St. Louis Blues' coaching staff and their bags and computers are in the room, there is quite literally no room for anyone to turn around. After changing for a late-afternoon practice following a four-hour flight from Detroit, the coaches' clothes end up hanging from door jams and cords powering laptops are snaking into the tiny washroom attached to the room.
"Do we want to do video or get on the ice and just practice? It's been a long day," head coach Ken Hitchcock asks his staff.
The coaches agree that the video can wait until Friday, when they will face the hometown Calgary Flames in the second of a three-game road trip, so the team hits the ice for a 45-minute skate.
As the coaches dress, the subject of carnival workers comes up, and Hitchcock explains how he used to sell ice cream bars at a summer carnival that traveled from Edmonton to Calgary.
"Carnies, they're very interesting people," Hitchcock said.
Although the team was boarding a bus outside their Detroit hotel at 9 a.m. EST earlier that day, the skate has a snap to it that is indicative of a team that the previous night shed the burden of a five-game winless streak, sneaking by the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 on Alexander Steen's overtime winner.
It is an "off day" in that the Blues don't play a game, but there is little that is "off" about it.
While TSA officials methodically screened players and staff before they were permitted to board their charter Thursday morning, the coaching staff was already engaged in the debrief of the Detroit game, taking the time to examine video and build reports.
Each coach is tasked with writing a postgame review relating to their area of expertise, whether it is power play or penalty kill or defensive zone play. Each coach is also responsible for providing video clips from the game to back up their review and outline three drills that could help correct any problem areas.
It is then up to Hitchcock to decide which drills he wants to employ, depending on where he gauged his team's energy to be.
"My belief is that the postgame review is more important than the pregame prep," Hitchcock said.
Along with the postgame breakdown, each of the coaches is responsible for reaching out to individual players on the team at some point during the day.
Sometimes the discussion will be about something specific from the previous game, sometimes it will be about taking the pulse of the team.
"It could be anything. It's dialogue. It's building a relationship," Hitchcock said.
"Mark Messier once told me that great players and great teams embrace criticism and they view it as an unbelievable opportunity to get better."
During the flight, some of those points of contact are made. Others occur later during practice.
"It's not necessarily criticism, it's coaching," Hitchcock said.
The old days of a coach giving a player the silent treatment or simply ignoring him are long gone.
"This is a generation of player that wants to know how they're doing," Hitchcock said.
He said he spoke to two players that had already gone back and watched their shifts from the previous game via computer.
Veteran forward Andy McDonald likes the open lines of communication.
"I think you're always looking for feedback," he said.
With a compressed schedule thanks to the lockout and practice time often being sacrificed to give players time to recuperate, those moments of discussion with members of the coaching staff are even more important, said McDonald, who had a strong outing against Detroit, helping set up linemate Vladimir Tarasenko's power-play goal that tied the game.
As Hitchcock headed off the ice after practice, he stopped to chat with head medical trainer Ray Barile about captain David Backes, who left practice early.
"Well, that's interesting," Hitchcock said as he headed back to the tiny coaches' office. It appeared Backes suffered a slight groin pull. After taking off his skates, Hitchcock disappeared for a few minutes.
"He'll be fine," the coach said upon his return.
And if he's not, they'll deal with it, he added.
Each hockey game represents both a separate and unique entity and is part of a continuum.
The ability of a team to understand and embrace those competing elements tells a lot about their ability to generate consistent success.
The Blues' much-needed win over the Red Wings, a win that snapped an ugly five-game winless streak, does not necessarily suggest the end of hard times.
But it was, said McDonald, the biggest win of the year for a team that was feeling very fragile the past two weeks.
"It's been up and down so far and that win allows us to feel better about ourselves," he said.
As much of a relief as that win over Detroit represents, it does not eliminate an ongoing issue with the team's goaltending. Not yet at any rate.
Rookie Jake Allen got the win in his first-ever NHL start. But it was not a work of art.
He was beaten twice before the first period was half over. And after the Blues roared back to take a 3-2 lead in the second period, he could not get back into position in time to prevent a Pavel Datsyuk shot from behind the net from glancing in off his catching glove.
In overtime, though, he made a big save, and the Blues played strong defensively, limiting the red-hot Wings to just seven shots through the final two periods and overtime.
It was enough for Hitchcock to give Allen his second straight start.
"I want to see if he can improve on that," Hitchcock said. "It's not about getting another win, it's about seeing potential realized."
The 6-foot-2 native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, acknowledged that he should be able to better prepare for his second start now that he's put the first one behind him.
On the flight, Allen chatted at length with goaltending coach Corey Hirsch.
The former NHL netminder is in his third season with the Blues and previously worked with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Hockey Canada as their goaltending consultant working with top junior netminders.
Allen and Hirsch talked about things that went well and went over some areas where Hirsch feels Allen can improve upon. Specifically, Hirsch would like to see the energy and assertiveness that was apparent later in the game on display early on Friday night as the Blues try to build on Wednesday's win.
After giving up those two early goals, "he showed me some mental toughness," Hirsch said. "He's a really good teammate and he's a really good guy."
With Jaroslav Halak on the trip but still nursing a sore groin, the timetable for his return to action is uncertain and the goaltending remains in a state of flux.
Halak was the last player on the ice, working with Hirsch on some drills that forced him to repeatedly drop to his pads and then get up.
Longtime NHL netminder and veteran broadcast analyst Darren Pang understands the emotions Allen will battle as a rookie.
Pang allowed a goal on the first shot he faced in the NHL during the 1984-85 season and didn't get another chance until the 1987-88 season, where he again allowed a goal on the first shot he faced. But he learned from Hall of Famer Tony Esposito to view the game in five-minute chunks and that helped him control the nervousness.
Pang agrees that a second start in a row is important for Allen as well as the Blues, just as he feels this break has been good for Brian Elliott, who has struggled especially since Halak's injury.
"I really felt he needed a mental break after the second or third game but there were no options," Pang said of the team's recent slide.
Now, Elliott can continue to get back to his game, while Allen has a chance to push the Blues at least a little closer to where most observers expected them to be.
"I think it was a coming-together party for the entire group," Pang said of the win over Detroit. "The desperation they had to show in front of [Allen] was apparent."
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