It’s been a whirlwind week for the Blues–the firing of Ken Hitchcock drew national attention and narrowed the focus on the team with a month remaining before the trade deadline. Doug Armstrong hoped swapping out Ken Hitchcock for Mike Yeo would deliver the spark the Blues needed to surge back into the playoff picture.
While the personnel move might have given the players license to exhale–the rumors surrounding Hitchcock’s job security had swirled since Yeo was announced as coach-in-waiting last summer–another factor was at play in Thursday’s win over the Maple Leafs.
There’s just something about those sweaters.
On the night of the banner raising ceremony for No. 5 Bob Plager, the Blues remained undefeated when wearing the beloved Winter Classic costumes, improving to 3-0 in the vintage-inspired get-ups. Precisely a month removed from that magical day at Busch Stadium, the Blues performance Thursday resembled that early January rout of the Chicago Blackhawks. It was probably the team’s best performance since.
It certainly was for Jake Allen. After his shutout of Chicago in the Classic, Allen experienced a turbulent month on the ice, at one point getting pulled due to performance in three consecutive starts. He bounced back Thursday, as the first goal he gave up turned out to be the only one. The second period was Allen’s first shutout frame since the third period of, you guessed it, the Winter Classic.
It hasn’t been easy, but Allen finally appears to be returning to form.
“It’s been the last couple weeks, three, four weeks of me trying to get better,” Allen said. “It’s been a long process–it was a real tough time for me. But I’m really working my way out of it. I’m trying to work hard every day, doesn’t matter win or loss–I’m just trying to get better.”
Though it was fair to wonder whether Ken Hitchcock might still have a job had Allen been merely a league-average goaltender in January, the backstop wasn’t the only problem with the Blues.
There were widespread breakdowns. The attitudes and expressions of individual players led to the general manager throwing the gauntlet down in his press conference Wednesday–the quip about the Blues being “independent contractors” stood out in particular.
At least for one night, those concerns looked to be a thing of the past Thursday.
“I think the guys themselves, we were more positive with each other,” Paul Stastny said. “We were trying to keep the life up within ourselves.
“It was up to us to keep that energy, keep that life, and I think it was a lot easier just knowing there was a new sense of urgency.”
Though Yeo wasn’t particularly vocal in his first game as head coach, Stastny’s emphasis on player-to-player communication shows the Blues were behaving as a unit. Colton Parayko agreed with the notion that Armstrong’s comments served as a wakeup call for the team to get its act together.
“Yeah, for sure,” Parayko said. “Obviously, we never want to be individuals; we want to become a team and play for the crest. At the end of the day, that’s all what we’re wearing together. That’s how we’re unified. We’re all wearing the same uniform, same logo. If we want to be a championship team, we all have to play together because playing as individuals won’t get us anywhere.”
A man who embodies those ideals as well as anyone in the history of St. Louis Blues hockey stood on the ice before his banner was raised to the rafters and delivered a powerful message. Bob Plager talked about the importance of playing for the crest on the front of the jersey instead of the name on the back.
Yeo explained after the game the effect he believed Plager’s message had on the Blues in the game.
“I like that he said it twice in case somebody didn’t hear it the first time,” Yeo said. “How can you not? There’s a guy who has given his heart and soul to the organization for 50 years. I thought it was a great ceremony. I’m glad that all our guys got to be out there for it and to witness that and to hear those words. I know it’s something we’ve all heard before, but when a guy like Bobby’s up there and speaks with the passion that he does about what it means to be a Blue–that was special. I think that had an effect on our group, for sure.”
Be it was Plager’s touching speech or simply an internal motivation to be better, something gave the Blues a new mentality. When Vladimir Tarasenko is diving after loose pucks like a fourth-liner clinging to a roster spot, something’s definitely different. The players appeared in it for each other, and in it to win.
Whether they can continue and build upon that attitude will determine the fate of the season.
“We’ve done a lot of good things in the past; we’ve got a lot of good players here,” Yeo said. “We don’t need any heroes, but we need everybody to go out and do a lot of the little things really well. We saw that tonight. Our mindset now has to be that we come back to the rink and we get better. And that would have been the same mindset if we lost this game tonight. If we continue to do that, we’ll start really taking off here.”
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