ST. LOUIS – Ken Hitchcock walked to the podium calm and confident.
True, this was the St. Louis Blues’ first playoff series win in a decade. For the man who presided over their rise to prominence, it’s only natural that he’s still coaching.
“This feels normal for me,” Hitchcock said after the Blues finished off the San Jose Sharks in five games with a 3-1 victory Saturday night. “This is why they brought me in, for this time of the year.”
The Blues are in the playoffs for just the second time in seven seasons. They lived up to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference by eliminating a team that made it to the conference finals the last two years.
St. Louis will face Los Angeles in the second round. The eighth-seeded Kings beat top-seeded Vancouver 2-1 in overtime to Sunday to end to win that series 4-1.
Since bringing in the 60-year-old Hitchcock in November, the Blues have thrived despite a lack of star power.
In Game 5, they rewarded a loyal, long-suffering fan base with their first series win since beating the Blackhawks in five games in 2002. Hitchcock thought the cheering from a standing-room crowd during introductions was so vociferous because fans were saying, “Could you get to the end of the game?”
“When we scored the second goal, the joy and explosion that happened in this building was unbelievable,” Hitchcock said. “It was 50 per cent joy, in my opinion, and 50 per cent relief.
“The fans carried the tension of ‘something bad’s going to happen.’ Man, when we scored that second goal, that roof just came right off.”
Andy McDonald had four goals and four assists in the first round, and Patrik Berglund had seven points. But it remains an ensemble effort for a franchise that didn’t have a 60-point scorer.
“We can’t do it by ourselves. We can’t do it with one guy,” Hitchcock said. “Our top scorer is our top checker, so it’s a different element.”
The lineup is an unselfish mix of young talent finally living up to expectations—including former first-round picks David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo, who collaborated on the go-ahead goal in the third period—and veterans like Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner, who teamed up for the tying goal just 45 seconds earlier.
Hitchcock joked that the experienced checking line was “Grumpy Old Men 3.”
“They play the game the right way. They know their skills. They keep a third guy high so there’s never an odd man rush, and they work. And they are dogged on the puck,” Hitchcock said. “They play bigger than their size, and we have no fear playing against anybody.”
The Stanley Cup experience provided by Hitchcock, Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott has helped the team stay loose. Real loose.
“Some of the kidding that goes on, you and I would go to jail over,” Hitchcock said. “The comments that are made or whatever, we’d be written up on CNN or whatever.
“They go after each other, in a fun way, but they really need each other and rely on each other.”
For 2 1/2 periods of Game 5 they were frustrated and scoreless, but they stuck with a plan that calls for constant attack.
“We were talking about keeping it simple,” defenceman Barret Jackman said. “We’ve been a team all year that has just been kind of keeping it simple, going right to the final buzzer.”
Before the third period, they didn’t need much of a pep talk.
“It wasn’t a big speech. It was just a common-sense discussion with the players: ‘This is who we are; this is how we play,'” Hitchcock said. “The buy-in went right back in again, and away we went.”
The goalie tandem is the league’s best. Brian Elliott, who led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average and had nine shutouts in the regular season, shut down the Sharks the last three games after Jaroslav Halak was sidelined with what appears to be an ankle injury.
Halak started the first two games and could be back in time for the second round.
In front of them, everyone’s willing to sacrifice bodies. Captain David Backes is one of only two NHL players with 200 hits each of the last five seasons.
“I don’t mean to discredit their goaltenders by any means,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “But they tend goal as a team, and that allows those two guys to be as effective as they are.”
Special teams made the difference in the first round. The Sharks were just 2 for 17 against the penalty killers, and the Blues scored six of their 14 goals on a power play that kept things simple.
The power play has thrived with two units that go against the grain, with one pair of left-handed shooters on one and a pair of right-handed shooters on the other. Both blasted away with one-timers.
“When they pressured us, we moved it quick; when we had time, we showed great patience,” Hitchcock said. “Not many power plays want to shoot the puck, but ours does.
“We just want to lock and load and fire away and let it go.”