The team picked by many to finally take the step so many past editions of the St. Louis Blues failed to do – a serious run at the Stanley Cup after regular-season success – may have righted itself.
The Blues went into Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks on a two-game win streak after losing five in a row, and their comeback started when the players finally realized they fell victim to something that often bedevils NHL teams on the rise. After a 6-1 start this season, the Blues started taking their success for granted. They thought their offensive skill would be enough, and it wasn't long before opponents were the ones scoring at will – especially after goaltender Jaroslav Halak was lost to a groin injury and Brian Elliott, who pushed his way into a 1A role with Halak last season, went back to being the goalie who was previously bounced by the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.
It was time for head coach Ken Hitchcock, who turned things around last season by forcing the Blues to play hard at both ends of the ice, to light another fire under his charges. Hitchcock says he was not frightened by the team's recent slump, seeing it as a chance to push his players back to a hard-working style that isn't much fun but brings results.
"The opportunity is to build a team," Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We have a good skill level. We're like every other team that is a budget team, in that you'd always like to have more. But we have a decent team here.
"And what we're trying to do is get this to be a really good team. Not a team with the numbers and names on the back, but a real team. We are learning the lessons that all of these other teams have learned. Are you going to look for space or are you going to start fighting for space? If you're a team, you don't look for space."
It is a lesson not easily learned. The Blues showed promise when they started last week's three-game road trip by beating the Detroit Red Wings, and then went into Calgary and whipped the Flames 5-2. But the bad habits returned in Calgary as the Blues loosened up defensively after taking a 2-0 lead and almost let the Flames take over in the last two periods.
Hitchcock kept his players on the bus when they arrived at the Calgary airport following the game last Friday. He let them know turning pucks over and taking bad penalties is not the way to success.
"What we need to do is hard, it's emotional, it's gut-wrenching at times," the coach said. "But man, once you're there, it just seems like it's a lot easier than you thought it would be. But it's going to be difficult getting there."
Hitchcock will know quickly if his team is ready to play hard in front of the net at both ends of the ice. After the Vancouver game, the Blues have back-to-back, home-and-road games Tuesday and Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks and Avalanche, respectively.
Someone to keep an eye on in this stretch of games is rookie goaltender Jake Allen. With Elliott fighting the puck, the 22-year-old Fredericton native was given a start against Detroit, won, and then won again in Calgary, complete with an eye-popping save on Flames winger T.J. Brodie.
Allen earned his third consecutive start Sunday, with Halak, who says he is 100 per cent, serving as the backup.
Halak is expected to start either Tuesday or Wednesday, and Hitchcock says his plan was to give Elliott the other. Allen's recent play may change that – but it will take more heroics to make Hitchcock break away from his long-term Halak/Elliott tandem.