ST. LOUIS (AP) — General manager Doug Armstrong’s difficult decision is paying off.
Armstrong fired his friend, Ken Hitchcock, as the Blues’ head coach on Feb. 1. He replaced him with Mike Yeo, the former Minnesota Wild boss who was brought in as the coach-in-waiting last offseason after Hitchcock decided the 2016-17 campaign would be his last.
The coaching change has breathed new life into the Blues, just like it has after similar switches with the New York Islanders and Boston Bruins this season and the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins a year ago.
“I think because we lost so many games we wanted to win with a new coach,” Blues center Paul Stastny said, “and at the same time we felt like we had new life and if we didn’t start working for each other there were going to be changes in here. So it was one or the other or both. I think once one happened I think it kind of woke everyone up and really kind of made everyone focus a lot more sharply and decide they were going to throw the season away now or make something out of it — and I think we want to make something out of it.”
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The Blues, who advanced to the Western Conference finals last season, have done just that in the weeks since Hitchcock’s firing and put themselves back into playoff contention with 22 games remaining. They next play Sunday at Central Division rival Chicago.
St. Louis is 7-3 under Yeo following Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the visiting Florida Panthers. The Blues were 1-5 in the final six games under Hitchcock and allowed an average of 4.7 goals per game during that stretch.
Under Yeo, they are averaging 2.9 goals per game and allowing just 1.6. The penalty-killing unit has been a big part of that success, allowing just one goal in 28 chances over the past 10 games after allowing seven goals in 18 opportunities in the previous six games.
“When your coach gets fired, ultimately it’s on us,” said veteran center Kyle Brodziak, who played for Yeo in Minnesota before joining the Blues. “It’s a clear indicator that we’re not performing the way we should. It’s a slap in the face to the guys, too. . I think guys have been taking that to heart and I think you can see just the way everything has been going the last few weeks. Guys have really cranked up their focus and determination level.”
The players got a fresh start with the coaching change, Stastny said, a “reboot” with a renewed focus that felt like Day 1 of training camp.
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk agreed. He said players feel a need to prove themselves again, almost like a tryout, and show the new head coach that they can play the way he wants them to.
“That’s just a natural thing that you want to try to impress the new coach and make sure that you’re in good standing with him and that sort of focus I think has been good for us,” Shattenkirk said. “We realized that after the coaching change that we were probably the next ones that we’re gonna start getting cut and chopped here by Army (GM Armstrong) and it was our responsibility as players to start making that change in here.”
The most significant change, in terms of playing style, has been a switch from a man-to-man defensive scheme to more of a zone coverage philosophy.
That has helped during the first 10 games under Yeo.
The more substantial difference has been the renewed focus and determination up and down the roster to doing the little things that make a difference in winning games.
“I think lately we’ve been a team that’s playing harder for each other,” forward Scottie Upshall said. “I don’t know what the reason is for that. I just feel the chemistry in here has gotten much tighter. We’re blocking more shots, we’re shorter shifts, we’re doing things that winning hockey is all about and sometimes that doesn’t promote yourself as much as the team but we’ve been great together. . We’ve got a really tight group and it’s been a good little run here and we want to keep it going.”