(HockeyStL) -- For fans that watched Thursday’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes, it was a flashback to last season. The Blues team that took the ice was a dominating force, perfecting their game as they did so well under head coach Ken Hitchcock last season. That perfection was missing only weeks ago, but now the team appears to be back to last year’s form, and not a moment too soon.
With only 21 games remaining in the shortened season, the Blues have picked a perfect time to catch fire. The team has won three of its last four matchups, despite missing key components in Andy McDonald and Vladimir Tarasenko. As both inch towards returning, the Blues are finally realizing that it takes more than skill to win. This is something that Hitchcock has preached to his team all season, but now it is clicking.
The Blues’ 3-0 win over Phoenix on Thursday was a prime example of what the team must do to win. The Coyotes’ scoring chances were limited, and when they did get opportunities, players came up big. The game left Hitchcock pleased to see that, for the first time this year, the Blues are back to playing consistent hockey.
“(Thursday’s win) was a team shutout,” Hitchcock said after the game. “This looked like us; this looked like how we envision our team. I think there is an engagement (between the coaches and the players) that is starting to connect now and is getting better every day.”
For much of the season, Hitchcock had identified the team’s weaknesses in his press conferences, but ultimately it was up to the players to turn things around. Hitchcock told his players time after time that skill alone wasn’t enough to win in the National Hockey League. It took an embarrassing slump for his team to realize what it takes to win, but maybe that is what the Blues needed. Perhaps the Blues had become too accustomed to winning after last year’s remarkable season. The team had to become grounded again, and had to be taught how to win consistently. Now there is a different mindset in the locker room according to Hitchcock.
“I think the value system on the team has changed now,” said Hitchcock. “We see the value of work and compete and we are starting to trust the fact that the score will take care of itself if we compete at this level. It has not only impacted us in wins and losses, but it has impacted the way we play. We look organized on the ice, we look coordinated, we look composed, and we are talking to each other in critical areas of the ice where players need help. The players deserve a lot of credit for embracing it.”
One player who deserves a lot of credit for the Blues’ recent turnaround is Chris Stewart. The 25-year- old winger came into training camp in shape, and with a different mindset after a disappointing 2011-12 campaign. Stewart reportedly dropped nearly 20 pounds in the offseason, one of just many steps he took to improve his game. It is paying off.
Just past the halfway mark of the season, Stewart leads the Blues in scoring with 26 points and is tied with Patrik Berglund for the team lead with 13 goals. Stewart has played in 27 games this season, and is only four points shy of the 30 points he accumulated in 79 games last season. It is a remarkable turnaround for the winger, but Stewart’s level of compete is what is leading to his success.
“I think confidence with him comes from competing,” said Hitchcock. “He put in all the work in the summer and did a great job, but he is competing on every puck, not giving up on any pucks, he’s not panicking under pressure, he’s not thinking he should make another play, he’s doing a lot of work himself.”
Nobody has ever doubted Stewart’s skill. The two-time 28 goal scorer is a menace to other teams when he is on his game, as he is this season. However, when Stewart becomes unmotivated he becomes stale and unsuccessful. That was the case last season. Stewart came into this season with a new one-year contract, and a clean slate which has seemingly been a source of motivation for him.
“When you are a skilled player and you play at a high level,” said Hitchcock. “I don’t know many that don’t have success and he has success because of (his compete level). He has success because he is determined on the puck.”
“I think he is a big, strong man learning how to compete at a high level, and it is very good for our team.”
For Stewart it is about being relentless, and being competitive. For the Blues, it is about buying in, keeping things simple and eliminating the small mistakes that add up in the long run. Both Stewart and the Blues are finding success now, and are looking to improve every day. It won’t be long before the playoffs arrive, and as of right now, the Blues are right where they want to be.