ST. LOUIS – Ken Hitchcock’s debut as St. Louis Blues coach was a huge success—even if he had quibbles with his first game behind the bench in nearly two years.
“I think far and away the weakest player was me,” the 59-year-old Hitchcock said after the Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0 on Tuesday night. “I’m going to have to get a little bit further up to speed because it was a playoff atmosphere with a playoff-style game.”
Jaroslav Halak shrugged off his shaky start to the season with 29 saves and Chris Stewart scored on the power play to end a 10-game goal drought. T.J. Oshie had a goal and an assist, and defencemen Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk had two assists apiece.
The Blues’ 6-7-0 start cost coach Davis Payne his job, and several players mentioned the Hitchcock hire as a “wake-up call.” Their penalty kill was impressive, blanking the Blackhawks on nine chances.
“Guys were buying in all over the ice, making plays,” said captain David Backes, who was plus-2. “Jaro was outstanding, he bailed us out when we needed it at critical times in the game.”
Stewart’s deflection in the second period was only the fourth goal in 41 power-play opportunities for St. Louis, which entered as the NHL’s worst team with the man advantage.
At his introductory news conference Monday morning, Hitchcock said it would take only one practice to fix the power play.
“To be able to grasp a couple of the concepts this quick on the power play is a real good sign,” Hitchcock said. “And our penalty kill battled like crazy.”
Hitchcock coached his first game since getting fired by Columbus in January 2010. He encountered a mental challenge after Scott Nichol was sidelined by an upper-body injury in the first period.
“I was down to 11 forwards and I was like, lost,” Hitchcock said. “I was up to speed for a little while but when it really got going I need to improve.”
Corey Crawford made 20 saves for Central Division-leading Chicago, which has lost three in a row. The Blackhawks were blanked for the second time, and the power play took the brunt of the blame.
“Right now who cares about the stat?” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “We know we’ve got to be better, so we’ve got to keep working on it. I don’t know what else you want me to say.”
Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville had little to say that was positive.
“Our puck possession, our puck movement, was terrible,” Quenneville said. “It’s certainly unacceptable.”
Hitchcock was the third straight Blues coach to face the Blackhawks in his first game at home. The first to win, too, after Payne lost 6-3 in 2010 and Andy Murray fell 3-2 in 2006.
Hitchcock became the first Blues coach to win in his debut, period, since Mike Keenan on Jan. 20, 1995.
Halak entered 1-6 with a 3.35 goals-against average and has been splitting time with backup goalie Brian Elliott. Halak was especially strong during several scrambles in front of the net, earning his first shutout since last season’s finale against Nashville.
“When a coaching change happened so fast, we just needed to probably look in the mirror and ask yourself if that was the best you have,” Halak said. “Everybody did their best.”
Stewart, who finished last season with 15 goals in the last 28 games, scored his third of the season and first since Oct. 13 for a 2-0 lead at 1:23 of the second. Stewart, who was planted in the slot to redirect a feed from Oshie, totalled just one assist during his slump.
The Blues blunted a late charge by the Blackhawks when Oshie scored his third goal in three games on an innocent-looking shot from the left circle at 13:54.
Vladimir Sobotka drove to the net and wedged the puck past Crawford midway through the first period for his first goal since March 30. He has four points in the last four games.
NOTES: The Blues paid tribute to Pavol Demitra and Igor Korolev, who died in the plane crash that wiped out a Russian KHL team, in a pre-game ceremony attended by Korolev’s wife and two daughters along with several former teammates, including Brett Hull. The Blues wore patches with the No. 38, worn by both Demitra and Korolev, and placed a mural honouring Demitra in the lower bowl concourse. … Nichol (upper body) was sidelined in the first period. … Hitchcock coached his 1,043rd game, sixth-most on the active list. Quenneville is third with 1,096. … The attendance of 19,150 was the Blues’ 46th sellout in a row.