At each of his NHL coaching stops, Ken Hitchcock likes to have a solid group of veterans his teams can rely on in tough situations.
He trusts them to help run the dressing room, to serve as a conduit between the players and coaching staff, to lead by example on and off the ice. He did it in Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus.
Now Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues club has a solid veteran group of warriors eager to bring a deep taste of playoff success to fans whose team hasn’t played in a conference final since 2001 and last reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1970.
Following the Blues’ dominant 6-1 victory Tuesday in Game 3 that gave them a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars, Hitchcock singled out some of those core veterans for praise.
Alexander Steen and David Backes scored two goals each and Troy Brouwer scored a goal as well, but Hitchcock said to look well beyond the scoring totals when it comes to assessing their value to the club.
It might be checking the opposing team’s top players. It might be keeping a rookie’s head up after a critical mistake was made. It might be keeping the locker room on the same page after a tough defeat, turning the page quickly ahead to the next game.
Hitchcock called Steen the Blues’ best player, said he’s never seen Backes playing any hungrier and that Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup in Chicago, “provides the conscience and plays the game the right way, acts the right way, behaves the right way.”
At this time of year, you can’t have enough of those guys. And I’ve always said this — that playoffs are for veteran players, and they are for guys like (Brouwer) and Steen and Backes. This is their time.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock
“It’s nice to chip in,” Steen said. “We’ve had that mentality as a group. We have our roles going into the playoffs and the No. 1 thing is getting wins.”
Hitchcock has enjoyed the play of his talented rookies and future stars, but believes the playoffs is a time to lean heavily on veterans.
“At this time of year, you can’t have enough of those guys,” Hitchcock said. “And I’ve always said this — that playoffs are for veteran players, and they are for guys like (Brouwer) and Steen and Backes.
“This is their time. And you could see it in their disposition and the way they raise their level in their game.”
The Blues will need to raise that level again Thursday at home in Game 4. The Stars are coming off a 6-1 pounding and could be facing a bit of a goaltending controversy, not to mention the scary proposition of being in a 3-1 hole.
Lehtonen got the win in Game 1, then surrendered three quick goals in Game 2 and was replaced by Antti Niemi. Niemi stopped 19 of 20 shots in that game before surrendering Backes’ overtime game-winner.
The former Blackhawks goaltender did not play well in Game 3, allowing three goals on only 12 shots before being yanked in favor of Lehtonen again. Lehtonen did little to solve the dilemma, surrendering three more goals on 27 shots.
I think Hitch is like the peanuts on top of the bar. They’re complimentary. And I’m not buying into that part.
Dallas coach Lindy Ruff when told Ken Hitchcock thought Game 3 was closer than the 6-1 score indicated
“It hasn’t been a goalie issue, really,” insisted Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was on the ice for four Blues goals Tuesday. “We’re giving up some big chances, at bad times, early in games. “Lost confidence in our goalies is not an issue. It’s our game.”
Hitchcock and Dallas coach Lindy Ruff coached together and even roomed together with Team Canada at the Winter Olympics.
Asked Wednesday about his reaction to Hitchcock saying the Blues’ 6-1 win was closer than the score indicated, Ruff was having none of it.
“I think Hitch is like the peanuts on top of the bar,” Ruff said. “They’re complimentary. And I’m not buying into that part.”
Meanwhile, the Blues are buying into Hitchcock’s approach. Their physical forechecking helped force at least two turnovers that led to goals in Game 3 and the Blues took advantage of their size to negate the Stars’ edge in skating and speed.
“I think there was maybe a shift or two where they came at us hard,” Backes said. “Rather than sitting back, we made the push back and got pucks deep and made our wave on wave (momentum). We made a couple good changes where we were able to get some fresh bodies out there and then occupy the offensive zone and keep the pressure on.
“It seemed to be something that guys really bought into, that we’d leave the next line in a good possession to have some success. Not leave them with (the Stars) coming at us Mach 1 and then start the whole shift in our zone the way we did in the third period in Dallas.”
Sealed with a kiss
One of the lasting memories of Game 2 was Blues winger Ryan Reaves blowing a kiss in the direction of the Stars’ bench after hammering winger Curtis McKenzie in a one-sided fight with 3:01 remaining in the game.
Reaves was coming to the aid of a teammate after Dallas’ Stephen Jones drove Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo hard into the boards. In the resulting scrum, Reaves and McKenzie emerged and Reaves rained enough right hands down on McKenzie that it brought a quick end to the bout.
“I think the players note that, yeah, I think they do,” Ruff said when asked about the kiss gesture. “Our guys were embarrassed last night, and that’s stuff you take to heart. That’s stuff you use. We’re a proud team.”
Ruff told Dallas media that injured forward Tyler Seguin and Patrick Eaves would not play in Thursday’s Game 4.
“Both skating,” Ruff said. “Won’t be available for tomorrow.”
The Blues’ penalty kill unit remains a huge positive in the series after killing off all nine Stars power plays.