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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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As the red numbers hit 9:00 on the digital wall clock that counts down to the opening face-off against the Blackhawks on March 6, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, trailed by his assistants, enters the dressing room. He issues reminders ("Don't get [caught] stickhandling and making 'hope-for' plays") and ticks off the Chicago starters, each of whom is greeted with derisive hoots ("Sucks!" "Loser!"). Now the coach yields to defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, whom he has entrusted this night with the duty of introducing the players who will start for St. Louis.

"In goal, our guy Jaro." Jaroslav Halak.

"On D," Shattenkirk proceeds to introduce the Blues' top defensive pair, Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo—"Petro and Carlo"—with an unprintable phrase.

Shattenkirk continues. "The smallest left wing in the NHL, Vladimir Sobotka." Sobotka is 5'10", 198 pounds.

"Right wing, Chief Running Water, T.J. Oshie." Oshie is one quarter Ojibwe.

"At center the best dog rescuer in Houston, David Backes." The St. Louis captain flew to Texas during the January All-Star break to rescue three strays, which he brought back to a nearby animal shelter.

"And by special request, the only guy I know ballsy enough to call out a Norris Trophy winner, and he's been popping his collar ever since, Ian Cole." (Cheers. Laughter.) Cole, a defenseman who's playing for the second time since Jan. 16, chirped Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom via Twitter a year ago.

"Isn't that something?" Hitchcock murmurs as he troops back to his office. Yes, it is something. If not quite Saturday Night Live, the repartee—authentically puerile and insensitive—is witty enough, considering these guys are hockey players. "We built this stay-loose-until-we're-ready-to-play mentality," says Hitchcock, who delegated the pregame emcee role to players midway through the season. "Too much stress, too early, creates tension. And tension creates tired play. Laughter and togetherness go a long way."

St. Louis bursts onto the ice, stands for the national anthem and then stands for little else from their Central Division rival, crushing the Blackhawks 5--1. Our Guy Jaro makes 19 saves. The defense pair of Petro and Carlo combines for three assists. The Smallest Left Wing backhands a nifty shorthanded goal. Chief Running Water opens the scoring. The Best Dog Rescuer wins eight of 12 face-offs and dishes out a game-high five hits, not including the extra shove he gives Chicago defenseman Dylan Olsen after a Blues power-play goal.

In victory, some teams award hard hats or shovels to their unsung heros. St. Louis gives a raspberry-colored tartan tam with a two-foot-long felt hot dog on the crown, which fourth-liner B.J. Crombeen, in homage to injured winger Alex Steen, purchased on eBay for $12 six weeks ago. Steenie's Weenie Hat. As the most recent winner, Halak—who had stymied the Sharks to conclude a 5--1 road trip—chooses center Scott Nichol as the recipient of the Weenie Hat. Nichol, a bite-sized 37-year-old now with his sixth team, assisted on a shorthanded goal and helped nullify five power plays—the Blackhawks had just three shots with a man-advantage—as the Blues ran their total to 32 straight penalty kills. Says Nichol, who sports his award during postgame interviews, "I wear this hat with pride."

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