ST. LOUIS Not long after his team earned another victory in his short St. Louis Blues tenure, coach Ken Hitchcock marked the growth under his leadership. He called the second period of a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday one of the best the Blues had played since he replaced Davis Payne on Nov. 6. To Hitchcock, his vision had started to mature.
Hitchcock spoke in a small room deep in the Scottrade Center and analyzed the triumph that improved the Blues' record to 9-2-3 under his guidance. He called the performance "strong" against a team that came into the game alone in second place in the Central Division. He had seen promising moments in recent nights, he said, but this time his players executed to his liking.
"Continuity-wise, we're starting to get it," Hitchcock said. "We're starting to do the things we need to do. We're understanding where teams are vulnerable. We've been kind of on the edge of it for three games now. But tonight it's nice to finish."
The result was further evidence of Hitchcock's impact in helping the Blues recover from a mediocre start to the year. They were 6-7 when Payne was fired in his third season with the organization. Since, they have rallied to tie the Red Wings for second place in the division and are confident in their direction through 27 games.
In addition to advancing in their division, the Blues have improved within the Western Conference. Entering Tuesday, they had jumped from 14th on Nov. 7 to a tie for fifth. Part of the reason for the run is their defense: They did not allow a second- or third-period goal in the first five games under Hitchcock, setting a franchise record.
Hitchcock's early streak ranks as the Blues' best. He debuted with a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 8 and went 7-1-2 through his first 10 games. The mark topped Joel Quenneville's 7-3 record from the 1996-97 season.
"He has got us directed well and all on the same page," said David Backes, a Blues winger and captain. "He has been around it for a long time. He knows how to beat teams. As long as we've got guys buying in, it has turned out to be a lot of victories."
The victories Hitchcock have earned over his career give him credibility among many within the Blues locker room. He began as an NHL head coach with the Dallas Stars for the 1995-96 campaign and spent parts of seven seasons there before leading the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets. Prior to arriving in St. Louis he compiled a 533-350-88-70 record, including a Stanley Cup title with the Stars in the 1999-2000 season. He also coached Team Canada to a silver medal in the 2008 World Championships.
"I think his reputation precedes him," Bernie Federko, a former Blues center and Hall of Fame player, told FOXSportsMidwest.com. "He has been very successful. Anytime you have an older coach who has been around who has won a Stanley Cup, the respect factor is a lot larger when you're player for a guy who has already won. He's got a man's respect just by being there.
"Anybody who has been around I don't care if it's in sports or politics or anything people who have been around, they get respect immediately by walking in the door because their reputation precedes them."
With the move to St. Louis, Hitchcock gained comfort to go along with the respect he earned over time. In his introduction, he spoke about knowing general manager Doug Armstrong for more than a decade and recalled memories of John Davidson, the club's president of hockey operations, defending the goal in the Western Hockey League. Because of his relationship with the two men, Hitchcock said he could not pass on a chance to become the 24th coach in Blues history.
Armstrong and Davidson hope Hitchcock's emphasis on discipline and strong defensive play ends a playoff drought. The Blues have not appeared in the postseason since the Vancouver Canucks swept them in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals during the 2008-09 campaign. In each of the past two seasons, the Blues have finished fourth in the Central Division.
Yet, despite the four months left in the regular season, Hitchcock has already referenced postseason scenarios. Last Saturday, following a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, he stared forward in a small room and stressed the Blues must win more loose pucks and stick fights if they want to be considered a playoff-caliber team. He said Chicago "sent us a message" and showed his players what a seasoned lineup can accomplish.
"This is what all the top teams in the West give you," Hitchcock said then.
On Tuesday, his tone was less aggressive. Afterward, Hitchcock praised center Alexander Steen's goal in the second period that tied the score at 1, saying, "The things we talked about on the second goal we did." As a result, the coach said he noticed how his players are starting to exploit weaknesses."
"I think everyone has been paying a little closer attention to detail," Blues goalie Brian Elliott said. "We talked about doing the little things right and coming back and helping your teammates. That's his whole philosophy don't put your teammate in a bad position and pay it forward. I think everybody is trying to help each other out and play as a team. When you play as a team for 60 minutes, it doesn't matter your skill level. You are going to give yourself a chance to win."
And the Blues have done a lot of it lately under Hitchcock. They left the ice Tuesday to organ music and a pleased sellout crowd, now just three points behind the Blackhawks for the division lead.
A month ago, the Blues were searching for an identity during a middling start. Now, with Hitchcock, they have found direction and perhaps a renewed confidence that could make them contenders.