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MIRTH OF THE BLUES
MICHAEL FARBER
March 19, 2012
St. Louis has found its happy groove under coach Ken Hitchcock, who has taken his new club from unheralded to seemingly unbeatable
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March 19, 2012

Mirth Of The Blues

St. Louis has found its happy groove under coach Ken Hitchcock, who has taken his new club from unheralded to seemingly unbeatable

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In the convoluted league standings, with arcane columns such as OTL, can there be one for LMAO?

This is wrong. The Weenie Hat, obviously, is incredibly wrong. But the first-place Blues? St. Louis, which has not won a playoff game since 2004, leapfrogged the Canucks to grab the Western Conference lead with the win over Chicago. (Through Sunday the Blues, with 97 points, were first in the NHL.) So you jot down the lines. Hmmm. St. Louis is massive down the middle. Backes and fellow centers Patrik Berglund and Jason Arnott average 6'4", 221 pounds, but together they also average .55 points. With 12 games left, no player is on pace for 60 points. (Among postexpansion Cup winners, only the '03 Devils, led by Patrik Elias's 57, have traveled this path.) And the defensemen? It's hard to believe there isn't a pair named Smoke and Mirrors. The Blues had just one player chosen for the All-Star Game; he was the backup goaltender, Brian Elliott.

Now take the metrics and stand them on their head, which Halak and Elliott rarely are obliged to do because few teams play with St. Louis's mix of passion and attentiveness. Like Hitchcock's Stars teams of the late 1990s, the Blues clog the middle of the ice so, as general manager Doug Armstrong puts it, "it's like going through seaweed." They allow the fewest shots, an average of 26.0 per game. They break out of their zone briskly. They routinely make three-to-five-foot passes to wriggle out of trouble—Pietrangelo banked a three-foot forehand off the left boards to winger Chris Porter that short-circuited a half minute of sustained first-period pressure by the Blackhawks—because the puck support and the options for a play rival that of the brilliantly structured Red Wings. If St. Louis holds opponents to an average of 2.83 goals per game in the remaining 12 matches (the average is 1.65 since Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne and took over a foundering 6--7 team on Nov. 6), it will best New Jersey's 82-game mark of 164 goals allowed in 2003--04.

"We aren't going to overwhelm you with individual stupendous play," says Hitchcock, ensconced behind his desk the day before the Chicago game. "We're all about volume. The volume of the checking. The volume of the shots. The volume of the pressure. That's the way we have to do business."

"There are no stars," Pietrangelo says. "That's what makes us pretty good."

The humility is welcome although wildly inaccurate. There are two stars, beginning with Backes, an invaluable checker for Team USA at the 2010 Olympics who marked his territory before the Games by fighting, in succession, three Team Canada members in a 10-day period: Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry and Rick Nash. (This earned him the delightful, if fleeting, nickname Inglorious Backes.) "I'm trying to get them to do stuff like that all the time, and for some reason they obliged me," Backes demurs. "They can't be scoring when they're spending five minutes in the box."

The other star is the aw-shucks defenseman himself, Pietrangelo, who has not mere numbers—11 goals, 32 assists, +15—but a theatrical quote. In late 2010, Detroit coach Mike Babcock observed Pietrangelo and pronounced, "He looks like he's been touched by a wand by God."

Drafted No. 4 in 2008, the 6'3", 205-pound Pietrangelo was part of the fabulous class of defensemen that included the Kings' Drew Doughty (No. 2), the Jets' Zach Bogosian (No. 3), the Maple Leafs' Luke Schenn (No. 5), the Sabres' Tyler Myers (No. 12), the Senators' Erik Karlsson (No. 15), the Rangers' Michael Del Zotto (No. 20) and the Capitals' John Carlson (No. 27.). But while Doughty and Bogosian were zipping around the NHL that winter, Pietrangelo was relegated to junior hockey for the better part of two seasons. "When we drafted Petro, [our former chief scout] said he had a chance to be the best of that group but might take longer to develop," Armstrong says. The long view was prescient. One Eastern Conference scout now says, "He's ahead of Doughty. Bigger and a better skater." Pietrangelo is blessed with a preternaturally low panic threshold for a 22-year-old, making plays with the patience of the Wings' Lidstrom. "You always want to play fast and advance the puck," Pietrangelo says. "But for me, sometimes it's better to slow it down and find the extra second to find the right play."

So perhaps the success—the Blues are 26-3-4 at home and 39-11-7 overall under their new coach—is not the part that feels wrong.

Maybe it is being around a Hitchcock team that seems so damn happy.

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