Originally written on Red Light District Hockey  |  Last updated 12/20/11

On November 6th, the St. Louis Blues fired Davis Payne and hired Ken Hitchcock to be his replacement. Blues forward T.J. Oshie called the moment a “reality check” for the team. Ever since then, the team has taken off and is starting to fulfill their potential, going 13-2-4 in 19 games.

“Losing Payne was kind of a reality check for guys,” Oshie said. “Obviously it wasn’t all his fault; we’re the ones on the ice playing the game. The reality check plus Hitch’s confidence in winning and what he’s telling us makes guys believe him. We’ve jumped on board and have been playing well ever since.”

Forward Chris Stewart, who has seen his all-around game improve since the coaching change, echoed those thoughts from Oshie.

“Once your coach gets fired, everyone has to take a serious look in the mirror and eliminate all doubts. There are no more excuses now. We brought in a veteran coach that has won a Stanley Cup, has a recipe to winning hockey games.”

When Hitchcock was brought in, the Blues were one game under .500. Now they are battling for the Central Division lead with Chicago and Detroit, sitting in fifth place in the West after their month-long hot stretch.

“I don’t think anyone expected us to have the record we have now,” said the 60-year-old bench boss. “We’ve been a product of what we’ve put into it. The players have really dug in. We get outplayed some games, but we perk our head up right away and respond. I like the way we respond to getting pushed from the opposition, and I think that’s what has given us a good record.”

The coach everyone calls ‘Hitch’ is quick to steer the attention away from himself when it comes to him being the difference-maker in the team’s season.

“All I did was bring concepts in,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of changes here. Each coach has had its piece here to bring it (the team) up – Andy (Murray) took it a little bit of the way, Davis took it a little bit of the way and I’m trying to take it to the next level. So I don’t think it’s just one guy resurrecting anything; there were a lot of good things in place to start with.”

It is hard to ignore the defensive success the Blues have had since Hitchcock took over, though. The team gave up an average of 2.69 goals per game in 13 games under Payne. In 19 games with Hitchcock, that per game average has shrunk to 1.58.

Goaltender Brian Elliott, who has seen success this season no matter what coach is behind the bench, believes hard work and confidence have been the biggest difference for the Blues.

“The guys come to play and work hard,” he said. “When you have that throughout the lineup, it promotes a good winning feeling that, no matter what the score or situation is, we’re not going to give up. As a goalie it just makes it a lot easier back there. Once everyone has that feeling, it’s hard to beat us as a team.”

Now that the Blues have put together a solid six-week stretch, the question becomes whether or not they can continue at this pace for the rest of the season. They have the pieces in place throughout the lineup, especially in net. If forwards like Oshie and Stewart continue to play well under Hitchcock, it will only help in the Blues’ pursuit of their first playoff berth in three years.

“Now it’s up to us from now on,” Stewart said. “We’ve taken the challenge head on. So far we’re doing great.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

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