He came from the depths. Once a mere mortal, now the heartland's one true avenger arises. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...Ken Hitchcock?
Speaking of birds, I am eating crow as I write this. I was one of a vocal majority who felt it was high time for Ken Hitchcock to go. He was a very winning coach during the regular season, but his lone Stanley Cup was barely visible in the rear view mirror. It felt like time had passed him by. The NHL wasn't a defensive grind it out league like it once was. Players from the top line to the bottom had to be able to score like a Hull and skate like Michelle Kwan. His stale tactics worked in the regular season, when no game is truly a must win. Then when it came down to do or die, his teams always seemed to flatline. Game's just aren't won 1-0 in the playoffs anymore. It wasn't just the on ice product that had grown stale to me. His post game interviews after losses and poor play left a bitter taste in everyone's mouths. After hearing the same phrases over and over, it felt like Hitch was in over his head. He would find lines that would work for long stretches and blow them up for no reason. Remember when we used to see Ott with top line minutes? How Sobotka, a grinding player with little upside from an offensive stand point was picked to center the Tarasenko line?
Then, seemingly over night we have a new man behind the bench. Some kind of inner demon has awoken inside our cuddly Ken. He looks like a coach with a cup under his belt. He looks like the coach who drove his Jr. hockey team home after an away loss without dinner. He put together the most intelligent lines of the season when it mattered the most. In the Chicago series when the calls went inexplicitly against his team, he pulled the ref to his bench and demanded the respect he deserved. It was a fire that I haven't often seen inside of him. There was no way to have the call overturned in his favor, but as hockey often does, a bad call against can often lead to a bad call in favor. The spark in his eyes seemed to catch whatever was under the officials on fire. The Blues would get a few timely penalty calls in their favor after some of the most mind boggling calls against. His team was able to capitalize. I openly wonder if he had sat back like normal, would we have gotten some of those calls. When the officials blatantly give calls to a team they respect for its post season prowess, it seemed to make a difference to demand respect in return. Something Hitch hasn't done in years.
For a coach who is known to throw lines at the wall and see what sticks, he has made some of the most educated personnel moves of his career this post season. He brought Steve Ott back into the lineup at just the right time. That move lead to a win. Otter's ability to unnerve the other team and calm his own is uncanny. He was needed in a series that felt they were destined to lose. Then a new series and a new opponent. Dallas was faster and possibly even more dangerous offensively than the Blackhawks. The Blues looked like they were a step behind. Their hits weren't coming, they were just too fast. Hitch stepped up again, calling in one of the most feared enforcers in all of hockey. Ryan Reaves is as good as they come at laying lumber on moving targets. His bone jarring hits slowed the speedy Stars. After the blowout win came the heartbreaking loss. The Blues had split the first 4 with Dallas, handing them back home ice advantage. They traveled back to big D wondering if they had what it took. Hitch jumbled lines, hoping that getting a big body like Berglund with Tarasenko and Lehtera would improve that line's ability to play in the corners. He again tinkered with his 4th line, and again it came up big. Jaskin had a disappointing season with only 4 goals. He had been slumping towards the end of the regular season, and had been completely replaced on the lineup. In his first game of the playoffs, Jaskin scored the game winning goal. When Hitch realized his new lines weren't clicking after a single period. He quickly reset them, and the rest is history.
In the playoffs, games are all about adjustments. Teams are able to game plan against their opponents. Its not like the regular season when you can play multiple teams in a weeks span. This was where the Blues had failed. When teams looked close they found cracks, and the Blues were never able to fill them before they broke. This season it seems different. Things as small as changing out a single member on the 4th line has arguably given us 3 wins and has us 1 win away from the Conference Finals. Hitch has matched lines well against other teams. He has put the best lines of the season together when they were needed, and most importantly, he is making in game adjustments like a man who has held a Cup.
His coaching job isn't the only thing that has the Blues where they are. He might be in a completely different place if Moose wasn't on fire. His goalie has kept him in every game so far. That being said, he was the one who made the decision to go with the veteran who had always failed before in the post season. He sat his star goalie in the making down to give it to the man who has been the MVP thus far. For a coach with so many head scratching personnel decisions in the past, Hitch has made all the right calls thus far.
You can even tell in his in game interviews that he is a new man. I never liked his answers during these behind the bench moments. Even the FSMW crew commented on it before. He would make comments that would anger his players while they sat right in front of him. It seemed like he antagonized his own players at times and only seemed to further a perceived rift between them. Now we have this:
Hitch, if I ever see you out, I'll tell ya myself, I was wrong. Kick me in the shins if you want, just keep doing what you're doing.