Since hiring Ken Hitchcock 71 days ago, a lot has changed for the St. Louis Blues. The team went from being an average Western Conference team to the hottest team in the NHL, tying them with the Chicago Blackhawks for most points in the league at 60. The Blues haven’t been in this position this late in the season since 2000 and have earned just one postseason berth in the last six years but can St. Louis continue on its warpath or will they come back down to earth?
Monday night’s 1-0 win over the Dallas Stars – which was courtesy of a goal late in the third period by T.J. Oshie – put the Blues in a tie for the Central Division lead and improved the team’s record to 27-12-6 since Hitchcock took over for coach Davis Payne on Nov. 6.
“The play is what I expected. I expected that the team could play at this level,” Hitchcock told FoxSports Midwest. “The point totals are good, but when you look at things, geez we're going to need these points because to have four teams going like this in the division is ridiculous.”
The Blues are competing in what has become the toughest division in the league, with the top four teams – St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit and Nashville – all separated by just four points and with each team having a legitimate shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup. But can St. Louis compete with the more experienced teams, two of which have brought the hardware home within the last five seasons?
One thing the Blues have going for them is goaltending, which is the most important thing for a team as they prepare to come down the stretch. It took a little longer than expected but the Blues’ trade with the Montreal Canadiens two years ago for Jaroslav Halak is finally paying off big. Halak has only allowed two goals in his last 211 minutes, 3 seconds in between the pipes. He has shutout three of the Blues’ last five opponents and hasn’t allowed a goal in the third period in their last nine games. His 2.08 goals-against-average is eighth in the league, though his .918 save percentage is ranked dead last.
Halak also has plenty of postseason experience under his belt and knows what it takes to get there. In 2010, he began to put together a historic run in the first two rounds of the playoffs but it all came to a halt in the Conference Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers. If he can stay hot, or get hot at the right time he has shown he has the potential to get the Blues their first ever trip to the finals.
But there is plenty of hockey left between now and then.
If the Blues want a legitimate shot, home-ice advantage could prove to be key. St. Louis is 19-3-3 at the Scottrade Center this season and has earned at least one point in 13 consecutive games – a franchise record. However, away from home the team is a lackluster 8-9-3 and after the All-Star break the Blues have more games on the road than at home.
The Blues are a young, fast team and that could certainly work in their favor as opposed to their more aged foes such as Nashville and Detroit. That should mean that the Blues won’t run out of gas as winter turns to spring but the biggest obstacle might be gelling together and building up more chemistry.
There’s no question that Hitchcock has the team going in the right direction and it might just mean postseason hockey in St. Louis.
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