TORONTO - The road to the Stanley Cup very well may go through St. Louis, but the Blues' path there may include directions from Sochi.
With his team mired in what most teams would consider a scoring slump, coach Ken Hitchcock has a theory on how to deal with it: Don't talk about it.
"I've always believed, like a lot of coaches, if you're not scoring, talk about checking. If you check better, you're going to get more chances," Hitchcock said Monday at Air Canada Centre. "The structure of our game, we're just going to weather the storm. The structure of our game has got to stay solid like it is right now, and then we'll weather it and we'll come out on the other side fine."
An 82-game regular season is a totally different animal than the Olympics, but a similar philosophy guided Team Canada to gold. Worries about a lack of offence from star forwards—at least externally—lasted well into the playoff round, but those were quieted by dominant play on the puck.
"It's about controlling the hockey game. And you don't control the hockey game with offence, you control it with checking," said Hitchcock, who was one of Mike Babcock's assistants in Sochi. "We were tied or leading by one goal—we weren't concerned with the way we were playing that we weren't scoring. It doesn't matter if you're leading 5-4 going into the third period or 1-0 as long as you have the lead you're in good shape."
Like with Canada, Hitchcock said he feels comfortable seeing the Blues checking well because it means they're "committed to the right things." Defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester contributed to that undefeated run and see it as something of an ideal that St. Louis can strive for.
"We're supposed to play the same way," Bouwmeester said Tuesday. "All the systems and points of emphasis are pretty similar. ... When we're good, there are similarities. We want to kind of hold onto the puck and forecheck and wear teams down that way instead of having to play defence in your own end the majority of the time."
Pietrangelo, a Norris Trophy candidate at age 24, saw Babcock's approach to the game as close to Hitchcock's. He and Bouwmeester didn't have to change too much when Canada's practices and games ramped up because what Babcock asked them to do was along the same lines as what they do so well in St. Louis.
"The style that we play here certainly carried over to the way we played in Sochi," Pietrangelo said. "We've been able to put up quite a few goals this year, but when we're not, our structure is so strong defensively that it's always something for us to fall back on."
Hitchcock said Monday he was proud that the Blues displayed a high work standard during the past two games, even though they scored just two goals combined. His captain, David Backes, leads that charge.
"We've scored one goal in our past couple games, but when we're concerted, we were able to find a way to win a game against a really good opponent with just that one goal," said Backes, whose goal Sunday against Pittsburgh came as a deflection off his leg.
To Hitchcock, the way the Blues play is a bigger deal than having an offence that's always rolling or a power play that's constantly clicking at a high rate. As far as special teams go, he's more concerned about the penalty kill and what that could mean come playoff time.
"I've seen a lot of (teams) who have had bad power plays do really well in the playoffs, but I've never seen any team play worth a damn if you can't kill penalties," Hitchcock said. "It's more on can you kill the penalty at the right time because you can live with poor power plays and still win hockey games. But you can't survive if you can't kill penalties because your whole game falls apart, you're nervous, you're uptight, you panic and we've got to be great killing penalties."
That would also follow Canada's blueprint. The gold-medal-winning Canadians converted on just 16.67 per cent of their power plays in six games, middle of the pack in the tournament, yet led the Olympics with a 93.75 per cent penalty-killing rate, giving up one goal on 16 chances.
Backes saw first-hand as a United States forward how frustrating Canada makes life for its opponents, and by extension how St. Louis suffocates teams around the NHL.
"I think you saw some of the frustration with the dedication and how dialled-in the whole team was," Backes said. "When you've got the top-end teams willing to play in the team structure and make sure that they're taking care of their own end first and then taking what the other team gives you on the offensive side, then it's a very effective way to play.
"And we've done that for the majority of the year. At times we've come off that and been beaten, but there's other times when we've been right on that game and it's tough no matter who we're playing."
Of course Hitchcock must guide the Blues through choppier waters than Canada endured at the Olympics. Sixteen playoff victories are required to win the Stanley Cup, and most of those won't be by large margins.
Perhaps that's one way the Blues balance plays in their favour. The have no one player in the top 35 in the league in scoring, but 10 with at least 30 points, led by Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie's 54.
St. Louis isn't built on scoring, which means they could be built to withstand droughts like this.
"You're going to go through stages where you're not scoring, and you're still going to have to win hockey games," Hitchcock said. "If you've got to win for a week or 10 days, you've got to win 1-0, 2-1, you've got to do it until you get back engaged where you're going to score again."
Until then, the Blues are happy to talk about—and execute on—checking well and frustrating opponents in the process.
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