When the 2011-12 NHL season began, no one viewed the St. Louis Blues as a contender to the Western Conference throne. Now, when we take a look at the Western Conference standings, we see the Blues sitting atop the pack.
A season that was headed for disaster early in the campaign has done a complete u-turn. Coach Ken Hitchcock, brought in to replace Davis Payne after an abysmal start, has been nothing short of a miracle worker. Hitchcock has guided the Blues to first overall in the West as of the date of this writing, dethroning the familiar faces of the Detroit Red Wings. The St. Louis Blues do not have a single megastar among them. Names like T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Backes, and Alex Pietrangelo have been leading the Blues attack, both offensively and defensively. Oshie leads the Blues with 47 points in 65 games…hardly a total to strike fear in the hearts of opposing goalies. But the Blues are getting scoring support from everyone, with 26 points separating the Blues’ leading scorer from the tenth place scorer, Jamie Langenbrunner. The goaltending has been nothing short of spectacular, with both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott sporting goals-against-averages of under 2.00 (Halak, 1.89, .926 save percentage, Elliott, 1.63, .937 save percentage). Even more astonishing is the resurgence of Elliott, left for dead after a horrible campaign with Ottawa and Colorado last season.
The Blues are riding high, and if their 5-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks is any indication, this team believes in itself. Success at any level requires every player buying into the coach’s system, knowing their roles on the team, and playing for each other. The Blues are playing at a level few thought they could, in large part to a team-first system implemented by Hitchcock and his coaching staff. They are set to earn a playoff berth for the first time since the 2008-09 season. Not only are they earning their way into the postseason dance, they are doing it while flying under the radar. Everyone is talking about the Red Wings, the Blackhawks, and the Canucks. The Blues, despite being tied with the Rangers for first overall in the league at the moment, are largely ignored…and one gets the feeling they are perfectly okay with that.
The Blues are poised. They are ready to strike. Hitchcock has the St. Louis squad making fine music in the National Hockey League, while causing their opponents to sing the Blues. The players and their fans are believers. Hitchcock has Stanley Cup experience, and it’s clear expectations are high in St. Louis this year. Halak carried the 2010 playoff edition of the Montreal Canadiens to the Eastern Conference Finals, so he knows the grind of a prolonged playoff run. This experience will be crucial to a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The Blues are hot, and they are showing no signs of slowing down.
Watch the Blues. Keep your eyes on the music note from St. Louis. The city of St. Louis is known as the Gateway to the West…and for all intents and purposes, this rings true for the rest of the Western Conference of the NHL. The Blues show no signs of faltering, and if their high level of play keeps up, the road to the Stanley Cup Finals will be built through St. Louis.