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Blues threatening to join NHL elite behind veteran coach's leadership

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2011, file photo, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock gives instructions during a timeout in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Blues were near the top of the Western Conference as the new year began and only two teams are stingier in goals allowed, too. The players credit their savvy, veteran coach, who was hired 13 games into the season and arrived with a track record of prodding teams to the top on short notice. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

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FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2011, file photo, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock gives instructions during a timeout in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Blues were near the top of the Western Conference as the new year began and only two teams are stingier in goals allowed, too. The players credit their savvy, veteran coach, who was hired 13 games into the season and arrived with a track record of prodding teams to the top on short notice. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

ST. LOUIS - All Ken Hitchcock has to do is bow his head and frown. That's the respect he gets these days from the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues are near the top of the Western Conference, rarefied air for the franchise in recent seasons. The players credit their savvy, veteran coach, who was hired 13 games into the season and arrived with a track record of prodding teams to the top on short notice.

Two months ago, they were foundering. Plug in Hitchcock, and they're legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

"They're a top team in this league," Canucks forward Daniel Sedin said after his overtime power-play goal beat the Blues 3-2 on Thursday night in a matchup for the lead in the Western Conference. "This is one of the toughest teams you can play right now."

The goalie tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak has combined for seven shutouts. The once anaemic power play has made big strides with a simple mandate to fire at will and capitalize on deflections and rebounds. They're perhaps more dangerous at even strength with a relentless forecheck and four lines with a combination of speed and big bodies.

Elliott, who wasn't even guaranteed a job in camp, is the team's lone all-star.

"It's his ability to convince us to pay attention to details and really want to play the game right for 60 minutes," Elliott said. "Having his hockey knowledge, I think we trust in it, and it shows."

Instead of thinking overhaul, Hitchcock approached the job much like one of his productive part-time gigs. Hitchcock coached Team Canada to a silver medal in the 2008 World Championships and served as associate coach on a pair of Olympic gold medal teams (his greatest NHL achievement was guiding the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999).

Aware of the untapped talent, Hitchcock tweaked the game plan but didn't swamp anyone with a brand new system.

"I knew the things you could do, the things you couldn't do and knew how much information they could absorb," he said. "I'm pretty lucky to have that experience."

Hitchcock turned 60 last month and seems a little bit professorial, with roundish body, rosy cheeks and cherubic face to go with his measured, learned delivery.

There were no bulging veins in the neck, no screaming fit, when Hitchcock addressed players after the Oilers' three-goal second period earlier this month. Body language combined with a few choice words motivated a stirring three-goal comeback victory.

The next day, Hitchcock accentuated the positive: "Keep the score, burn the scorecard."

"He's kind of an 'I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed' type of guy, and that hurts even more," captain David Backes said. "He's like a dad that's disappointed in the kids. That kind of stings."

Mostly, it's been the Blues doing the stinging.

A franchise that missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons led the Central Division at the midway point for the first time since 2001.

They stumbled a bit in late December with a pair of losses at division rival Detroit, but didn't stay down for long.

St. Louis had won four in a row before the overtime loss to Vancouver on Thursday night. So they're way past the honeymoon period.

"We're playing our game night in and night out. Consistent," forward Chris Stewart said. "We don't have the big star. We're playing to our identity."

Hitchcock has adjusted, too. He doesn't obsess over the little things as much.

"The world doesn't stop, your coaching ideas have to evolve, too," team president John Davidson said. "I give him a lot of credit. He's understood things he could have done better and things he has to do better.

He's shown up in better shape, too. Hitchcock is not quite so round anymore after diving into a fitness kick.

No more junk food. Hitchcock is an enthusiastic advocate of the so-called caveman diets, which emphasize foods that prehistoric humans ate and shuns processed foods.

"I cut out a lot of things. A lot of things," Hitchcock said. "The best thing that happened to me on the break was to find a different lifestyle.

"It's not a diet, it's a way of life. I feel good every day, I don't feel tired. I found a different way to handle the stress of everyday coaching."

Hitchcock doesn't think he's changed as a coach, except for being more accepting of individual tastes. Social media doesn't scare him.

Though the Blues were far from awful at 6-7 under Davis Payne, the front office detected it might have the makings of yet another futile season waiting for the youth movement to finally click in. It's happening now on a roster dotted with former high draft picks complemented by veteran presence.

Defenceman Alex Pietrangelo was the fourth overall pick in 2008, and forwards T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and Backes are all former high picks. Old hands Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, the latter a member of Hitchcock's Stars cup winner, provide stability.

The trade of former No. 1 overall selection Erik Johnson to Colorado last winter looks like a steal with Stewart and defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk playing key roles.

The Blues are among the NHL's best teams at home, going 17-3-3 headed into Saturday's game against Minnesota.

"After wins I think we've been really humble and after losses, too," Berglund said. "The next day we've been working really hard.

"I think everybody's on the same page, and everybody feels that confidence in the locker room."

Benefiting from introspection during his time out of coaching—he was fired by the Blue Jackets in January 2010—Hitchcock has made a special effort to relate to a younger generation that craves instant feedback. Whenever possible, he tries to incorporate humour.

"We try to do things that make people laugh, and laughter gets their attention," Hitchcock said. "We make fun of ourselves and each other. It loosens the load."

The day after games, Hitchcock believes players need him most.

"They're way harder on themselves. They're really looking for leadership, they're looking for a firm direction on what we need to do to get better," Hitchcock said. "They ask way more questions, they want more answers."

Hitchcock has shown some heart, too. Shutting out the Avalanche last week normally would have earned Elliott another start, but Hitchcock gave Halak the nod for homecoming in Montreal earlier this week, saying "I think it would be dismissive of me to not recognize that."

Halak responded with his own shutout.

"Hitch, he's pretty darn smart," Backes said. "When he jumped into this locker room, everyone believed in the game plan he was putting forward."

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