As the red numbers hit 9:00 on the digital wall clock that counts down to the opening face-off against the Blackhawks on March 6, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, trailed by his assistants, enters the dressing room. He issues reminders ("Don't get [caught] stickhandling and making 'hope-for' plays") and ticks off the Chicago starters, each of whom is greeted with derisive hoots ("Sucks!" "Loser!"). Now the coach yields to defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, whom he has entrusted this night with the duty of introducing the players who will start for St. Louis.
"In goal, our guy Jaro." Jaroslav Halak.
"On D," Shattenkirk proceeds to introduce the Blues' top defensive pair, Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo—"Petro and Carlo"—with an unprintable phrase.
Shattenkirk continues. "The smallest left wing in the NHL, Vladimir Sobotka." Sobotka is 5'10", 198 pounds.
"Right wing, Chief Running Water, T.J. Oshie." Oshie is one quarter Ojibwe.
"At center the best dog rescuer in Houston, David Backes." The St. Louis captain flew to Texas during the January All-Star break to rescue three strays, which he brought back to a nearby animal shelter.
"And by special request, the only guy I know ballsy enough to call out a Norris Trophy winner, and he's been popping his collar ever since, Ian Cole." (Cheers. Laughter.) Cole, a defenseman who's playing for the second time since Jan. 16, chirped Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom via Twitter a year ago.
"Isn't that something?" Hitchcock murmurs as he troops back to his office. Yes, it is something. If not quite Saturday Night Live, the repartee—authentically puerile and insensitive—is witty enough, considering these guys are hockey players. "We built this stay-loose-until-we're-ready-to-play mentality," says Hitchcock, who delegated the pregame emcee role to players midway through the season. "Too much stress, too early, creates tension. And tension creates tired play. Laughter and togetherness go a long way."
St. Louis bursts onto the ice, stands for the national anthem and then stands for little else from their Central Division rival, crushing the Blackhawks 5--1. Our Guy Jaro makes 19 saves. The defense pair of Petro and Carlo combines for three assists. The Smallest Left Wing backhands a nifty shorthanded goal. Chief Running Water opens the scoring. The Best Dog Rescuer wins eight of 12 face-offs and dishes out a game-high five hits, not including the extra shove he gives Chicago defenseman Dylan Olsen after a Blues power-play goal.
In victory, some teams award hard hats or shovels to their unsung heros. St. Louis gives a raspberry-colored tartan tam with a two-foot-long felt hot dog on the crown, which fourth-liner B.J. Crombeen, in homage to injured winger Alex Steen, purchased on eBay for $12 six weeks ago. Steenie's Weenie Hat. As the most recent winner, Halak—who had stymied the Sharks to conclude a 5--1 road trip—chooses center Scott Nichol as the recipient of the Weenie Hat. Nichol, a bite-sized 37-year-old now with his sixth team, assisted on a shorthanded goal and helped nullify five power plays—the Blackhawks had just three shots with a man-advantage—as the Blues ran their total to 32 straight penalty kills. Says Nichol, who sports his award during postgame interviews, "I wear this hat with pride."
In the convoluted league standings, with arcane columns such as OTL, can there be one for LMAO?
This is wrong. The Weenie Hat, obviously, is incredibly wrong. But the first-place Blues? St. Louis, which has not won a playoff game since 2004, leapfrogged the Canucks to grab the Western Conference lead with the win over Chicago. (Through Sunday the Blues, with 97 points, were first in the NHL.) So you jot down the lines. Hmmm. St. Louis is massive down the middle. Backes and fellow centers Patrik Berglund and Jason Arnott average 6'4", 221 pounds, but together they also average .55 points. With 12 games left, no player is on pace for 60 points. (Among postexpansion Cup winners, only the '03 Devils, led by Patrik Elias's 57, have traveled this path.) And the defensemen? It's hard to believe there isn't a pair named Smoke and Mirrors. The Blues had just one player chosen for the All-Star Game; he was the backup goaltender, Brian Elliott.
Now take the metrics and stand them on their head, which Halak and Elliott rarely are obliged to do because few teams play with St. Louis's mix of passion and attentiveness. Like Hitchcock's Stars teams of the late 1990s, the Blues clog the middle of the ice so, as general manager Doug Armstrong puts it, "it's like going through seaweed." They allow the fewest shots, an average of 26.0 per game. They break out of their zone briskly. They routinely make three-to-five-foot passes to wriggle out of trouble—Pietrangelo banked a three-foot forehand off the left boards to winger Chris Porter that short-circuited a half minute of sustained first-period pressure by the Blackhawks—because the puck support and the options for a play rival that of the brilliantly structured Red Wings. If St. Louis holds opponents to an average of 2.83 goals per game in the remaining 12 matches (the average is 1.65 since Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne and took over a foundering 6--7 team on Nov. 6), it will best New Jersey's 82-game mark of 164 goals allowed in 2003--04.
"We aren't going to overwhelm you with individual stupendous play," says Hitchcock, ensconced behind his desk the day before the Chicago game. "We're all about volume. The volume of the checking. The volume of the shots. The volume of the pressure. That's the way we have to do business."
"There are no stars," Pietrangelo says. "That's what makes us pretty good."
The humility is welcome although wildly inaccurate. There are two stars, beginning with Backes, an invaluable checker for Team USA at the 2010 Olympics who marked his territory before the Games by fighting, in succession, three Team Canada members in a 10-day period: Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry and Rick Nash. (This earned him the delightful, if fleeting, nickname Inglorious Backes.) "I'm trying to get them to do stuff like that all the time, and for some reason they obliged me," Backes demurs. "They can't be scoring when they're spending five minutes in the box."
The other star is the aw-shucks defenseman himself, Pietrangelo, who has not mere numbers—11 goals, 32 assists, +15—but a theatrical quote. In late 2010, Detroit coach Mike Babcock observed Pietrangelo and pronounced, "He looks like he's been touched by a wand by God."
Drafted No. 4 in 2008, the 6'3", 205-pound Pietrangelo was part of the fabulous class of defensemen that included the Kings' Drew Doughty (No. 2), the Jets' Zach Bogosian (No. 3), the Maple Leafs' Luke Schenn (No. 5), the Sabres' Tyler Myers (No. 12), the Senators' Erik Karlsson (No. 15), the Rangers' Michael Del Zotto (No. 20) and the Capitals' John Carlson (No. 27.). But while Doughty and Bogosian were zipping around the NHL that winter, Pietrangelo was relegated to junior hockey for the better part of two seasons. "When we drafted Petro, [our former chief scout] said he had a chance to be the best of that group but might take longer to develop," Armstrong says. The long view was prescient. One Eastern Conference scout now says, "He's ahead of Doughty. Bigger and a better skater." Pietrangelo is blessed with a preternaturally low panic threshold for a 22-year-old, making plays with the patience of the Wings' Lidstrom. "You always want to play fast and advance the puck," Pietrangelo says. "But for me, sometimes it's better to slow it down and find the extra second to find the right play."
So perhaps the success—the Blues are 26-3-4 at home and 39-11-7 overall under their new coach—is not the part that feels wrong.
Maybe it is being around a Hitchcock team that seems so damn happy.
His first hockey memory is from 1955. He is four. He is rinkside at Edmonton Gardens with his father, Ray, attending a game between the Red Wings, the '55 Stanley Cup winner, and their farm team, the Edmonton Flyers. He sits near the blue line, where there is no protective glass, no chicken wire, nothing. His father often talks about Gordie Howe, and there comes number 9, taking one loop, then stopping and leaning across the boards and chatting with Ray for the remainder of the warmup.
Here is what Hitchcock remembers best: Howe, who was ambidextrous but shot righthanded, carried a lefthanded stick, a stick that was "the wrong way."
Details mattered, even then.
Ray was a minor league hockey coach, and Ken was his father's son. And when Ray died in 1965, of cancer, the bottom fell out of a teenager's world. Hitchcock struck out on a self-destructive mission to dwell on the edge. He lived fast. Food would become a release from frustration. He could teach and motivate like few men. He had to. When he landed his first NHL job in 1990, as a Flyers assistant coach after a successful junior hockey career, he weighed more than 400 pounds.
During a conversation at the Blues practice facility in January, Hitchcock said, "You'd hear, 'Oh, my God. He coaches? Does he skate?' ... You develop convenient hearing. It hurt me, but I never let it get inside myself."
He was too immersed in details. He would prepare his teams brilliantly—his old antagonist on the 1999 Cup team in Dallas, Brett Hull, swears no coach was better—but the constant drip, drip, drip in pursuit of excellence eventually would fray his players and erode his teams. When his time was up in Dallas and Philadelphia and finally Columbus (and with the hard coaches, their time invariably comes) there were shards of broken glass.
This time? Maybe a storybook ending awaits Hitchcock and a Cup-starved franchise. The coach is 60 and has never seemed as comfortable in his own skin. He follows the CrossFit lifestyle system and a so-called caveman diet, eating meats and nuts and berries. He says he has lost "significant weight" in the 25 months since he was fired as the coach of the Blue Jackets, although he declines to give a number. He has reconnected with the people part of the hockey business, enjoying his players more than ever. ("When he found out we were thinking of pranking his office," Pietrangelo says, "he told us he would plant a tree in our driveways.") When Hitchcock is vexed, he stays in his car outside the practice facility for as long as it takes to tamp down the ill humor. "I'm still a bear about playing and acting the right way," he says, "but I don't sweat the small stuff." After playing the familiar part of the sitcom mother-in-law, Hitchcock as nag, he is now more like "a mother," ventures St. Louis president John Davidson.
"The biggest reason for [firing Payne] and bringing in Hitch was we had to find out if these drafted kids ... were going to become good NHL players or not," says Davidson, who drafted Oshie, Berglund, Pietrangelo and traded for Shattenkirk and winger Chris Stewart, core players who are 25 or younger. "[Armstrong] said Hitch'll figure out quickly if these young players are capable of carrying a team. If not, we better start moving people out. Enough of potential.
"I like this Hitch.... I don't know if it's fair to ask [Jamie] Langenbrunner if he would've come knowing Hitch would be the coach"—the winger, who signed as a free agent last July and who is now out with a broken left foot, played for Hitchcock for eight years in the minors and in Dallas—"but it'd be an interesting question."
When asked, Langenbrunner smiles and replies, "Yes. Yes, I would."
Does St. Louis have another gear? With the Blues exhibiting playofflike intensity now, they might not be able to match the other heavyweights when those teams ramp up for the spring.
"There's another gear here," Pietrangelo avers. "There's always another gear."
Maybe once the postseason gets rolling the clock will strike 12 for a Cinderella that plays with a snarl and a smile, but now the dressing-room digital is ticking toward 9:00 and somebody has to make introductions.
THE BLUES HAD JUST ONE PLAYER CHOSEN FOR THIS YEAR'S ALL-STAR GAME; HE WAS THE BACKUP GOALTENDER, BRIAN ELLIOTT.
"I'M STILL A BEAR ABOUT PLAYING AND ACTING THE RIGHT WAY," SAYS HITCHCOCK, "BUT I DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF."
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
ALL TOGETHER NOW St. Louis has shot to the top with balanced scoring from its forwards, including David Perron and Andy McDonald (10), who celebrated Perron's goal in a 3--0 win over San Jose on Feb. 12.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
CAPTAIN BLOOD The gritty Backes (42) leads the Blues with 21 goals but is valued nearly as much for his checking, which helps St. Louis clog the middle of the ice and shut down opposing attacks.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
HAT TRICK Hitchcock (right) wants his team having fun. The Weenie Hat—modeled by Nichol (below)—goes to the unsung hero of each victory.