Road trip puts Blues back in race

2/18/2013 - NHL St. Louis Blues

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

VANCOUVER -- Almost a week ago, this road trip began amid uncertainty and disappointment for the St. Louis Blues.

Now the trip comes to a close with the Blues running the table, beating Detroit, Calgary and, on Sunday night in an emotional tilt against one of the best teams in the NHL, squeaking by the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 in a shootout.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock wandered into the euphoric locker room and someone silenced the portable stereo that was blaring out music celebrating the win.

"I thought we played a helluva hockey game. It's a hard game against this team and we've turned this thing around now. We just got to keep going," he told his players.

"Very, very impressed with our grit level today and, like I said, you win on the road, it's a great feeling as a team. You guys deserve to have a great feeling. Now we just got to make sure we take care of ourselves and get back home to start the winning ways there."

And with a round of applause, the coach was gone.

At the start of this road trip, the Blues looked like a team that had lost its way. They were among the worst teams in terms of goals allowed and were coming off a 0-4-1 stretch that had included three straight home losses.

As the team prepared for its first extended trip of the truncated post-lockout season, Hitchcock talked about the opportunity this trip represented. He predicted they would kick themselves down the road if they didn't take advantage of the opportunity to reach deeper, find out more about themselves.

He was right.

Veteran defenseman Barret Jackman said after Sunday's win that they were a team that needed to reconnect with each other.

"We've got a great group of guys that care about each other in here," said Jackman, who had a dominant game on the blue line for the improving Blues.

"Hopefully this is the slingshot when we get back home."

At various points in time during the trip, including late in the third period Sunday when the Blues got into penalty trouble and allowed the Canucks to tie the game at 3-3, they got sensational netminding from rookie netminder Jake Allen.

He won all three of the starts on the trip -- his first NHL action -- and has impressed the coaching staff with his maturity and confidence.

"I'm just trying to take it slow," Allen said after doing another round of interviews postgame Sunday. "This is a huge learning experience for me."

About 12 hours earlier, Hitchcock talked about the importance of this final game of the road trip on a number of levels.

Having won two in a row to stop an ugly 0-4-1 slide and finishing with a perfect 3-0 record would go a long ways to reinforcing that this team has turned a corner.

But it was also a game against a team that, notwithstanding blowing a lead against Dallas in its previous game, has been rolling along. They play well at home, Hitchcock said, and when they smell blood they usually put the hammer down.

"We've played some of the best hockey I've ever seen our team play in this building and took 10 minutes off and it was over," Hitchcock said.

They are big and they are very well-coached, he added.

"I'm excited because this is one of those 'we're going to learn a lot about ourselves' games. It's going to test you," he said.

In spite of the import of the game and the prospect of heading home after almost a week on the road, there is little edginess in the Blues' locker room.

During pregame meetings, Hitchcock outlined a game plan that included trying to get captain David Backes' line on the ice against the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik, as much as possible given past success with that matchup.

Hitchcock asked his coaches what they thought about the matchup with the Sedins.

Assistant coach Ray Bennett joked that he'd offer an opinion but his suggestion on the off-day practice from the previous day was shot down by Hitchcock.

"So I'm a little sensitive," Bennett joked.

"Sorry what was the question?" added assistant coach Gary Agnew, who happened to be working at a separate table at his laptop.

"Do we make a six-for-six trade?" Hitchcock quipped.

Although the Sedins ended up with a goal and two assists between them, Backes' line answered with St. Louis' first goal when T.J. Oshie scored his fifth of the season after falling behind 1-0 on a power-play marker.

When Hitchcock and his staff gathered with the players before the game to go over strategy and watch brief snippets of video, most of the players had sticks with them at their dressing room stalls for pregame taping. They were set to the side, so their full attention could be given to the coaches making the presentations.

"We're the No. 1 power play in the National Hockey League because we're a shoot-first power play," Hitchcock said.

If they try to get too fancy, forcing passes through the seams in the offensive zone, they aren't nearly as successful, the coach explained.

In the video segment, Agnew showed clips from a successful power play against Calgary, as well as a stretch play that wasn't part of the game-planning.

"It's sticking with what we're doing," Agnew said.

Although Vancouver scored first, the Blues played a strong second half of the opening period, tying the game and limiting the Canucks to just one shot.

Unfortunately for the Blues that shot went in with 50 seconds left in the opening frame.

It is a breakdown that leaves Hitchcock and his staff in an ornery mood.

Hitchcock suggested moving Vladimir Sobotka up the depth chart to play with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart in place of rookie Jaden Schwartz. The Berglund line was dynamic against Calgary in a 5-2 win, but the Canucks are much more physically imposing.

The move nearly paid dividends in the second when Sobotka was denied on a clear scoring chance by netminder Roberto Luongo. Then it paid huge dividends with 12 minutes left in regulation when a Sobotka shot glanced in off Berglund to give the Blues a 3-2 lead.

"We took it over. We took that period over," Hitchcock said after the second.

"That was a good switch moving Sobotka up," observed goaltending coach Corey Hirsch.

The message as the team headed out for the final period -- perhaps -- of the three-game road trip is get a point.

"You got shootout cards if it comes to that, Ags," Hitchcock asks his assistant, showing more than a little prescience.

"It's going to be a helluva period this one," the coach said.

Game day routine

One might expect that by the time the final game of a road trip rolls around there would be frayed nerves or a sense of weariness. Yet there was more than a little comfort to the game-day routine, the constancy of it.

Sometimes the coaches will mix it up if they feel that the team has seen too much video, assistant coach Bennett explained. They might bring a power-play group into their office, "something a little more intimate where you can look them in the eye kind of a thing," he added.

But the pattern and structure are both comforting and necessary.

If you went into pretty much any other locker room, Bennett said, you'd find variations on this pattern.

There is also something comforting about being in the Vancouver coaches' office because of the treats. For years, a member of the Canucks dressing room staff, Johnny, has been coming and making coffee and bringing popcorn and homemade beef jerky.

On this day, Johnny's treats also included Nanaimo bars named after the British Columbia town.

A heavy bass line thumps from the players' room, which is connected to the coaches' office and associate coach Brad Shaw explains that he's going to close the door to the office.

"I'm going to close the door on what these young people call music," he said. "I have to listen to it at home. I don't have to listen to it at work."

"Grandpa Shaw," offers Agnew.

It's "Hockey Day in America" as part of "Hockey Weekend Across America," so there are games on the big screen in the coaches' office. There is good-natured discussion about Western Hockey League goalies. Hitchcock coached in Kamloops from 1984 to 1990 and Hirsch played for him as a teen.

Hitchcock asks if there are more Kamloops alumni who are logging managers or NHL goaltenders.

"You wanted to go home every second week," Hitchcock tells Hirsch.

"I'd get a call. I'd say he's starting tonight, well, then you better go pick him up at the bus depot."

"I was homesick. I was 16," Hirsch said. "I always came back."

Speaking of goaltenders, while Allen has more than survived his baptism of fire, the Blues will soon have some decisions to make on that front.

Jaroslav Halak, out with a groin injury, served as Allen's backup on Sunday in Vancouver, while Brian Elliott was in street clothes as the odd-man out of the suddenly interesting three-goalie dynamic in St. Louis.

"I really want him to become part of the team quickly here," Hitchcock said of the decision to make Halak the backup Sunday.

At some point, Halak will get a start and Hitchcock wants him to feel part of the mix, even if it's just serving as a backup.

When the coaches arrive back in their office after Andy McDonald's shootout winner, there are more treats, including a big plate of Johnny's beef jerky.

"Celebrate," Agnew said with a laugh as he grabs a piece.

"Well," added Hitchcock, "we're back in the race now."

A week ago that seemed like a noble goal but not necessarily realistic.

But a lot can happen in a week.