ST. LOUIS -- Ken Hitchcock was told the topic that this post was going to examine: Have his St. Louis Blues closed the gap on their division rival, and defending Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks?
He quickly interjected.
“We think we’ve closed the gap on everybody,” Hitchcock said when we sat down for a talk after practice on Wednesday.
That includes their postseason nemesis Los Angeles Kings, who the Blues will host Thursday night at the Scottrade Center, a place where they’ve lost only three times in regulation. It also includes the Anaheim Ducks, who will take another crack at the Blues when they travel to St. Louis on Saturday.
And yes, the list also includes the Blackhawks, a team the Blues trail by just two points in the Central, with four games in hand. Four. Nobody in the league has played fewer games than the Blues’ 45.
But Hitchcock’s definitive confidence in his team’s improvement comes with a small caveat.
“I’ve learned one thing in this business. The defending champion is the defending champion for a reason. They are the only ones with the knowledge of this other level,” Hitchcock explained. “Sometimes it comes out in the regular season but man, oh man, does it come out in the first two rounds of the playoffs when everybody is energized. As much as we think we’ve closed the gap on everybody, every person in the room knows there’s another level we have to play at. We’re pushing to get to that level, but teams like L.A. and Chicago, they know that level.”
The Blues are still searching.
It’s a level of play that’s hard to create during the grind of an 82-game regular season, where there just isn’t the desperation and urgency that comes with a playoff game. So far this season, Hitchcock has caught a glimpse of it just once.
It came during the first game following the Christmas break, when the Blackhawks visited the Blues. For the first 30 minutes of that game, an eventual 6-5 shootout win for the Blues, guys were absolutely flying. Players had energy coming off the break, there was emotion, intensity and a desperation that rarely comes with a December game.
“There was no control. You had to just play,” Hitchcock said. “It was at this furious level... [Blackhawks coach] Joel [Quenneville] and I felt at the end of the game, that was the first time we’d seen a really, really high-level, playoff-level hockey game [in the regular season].”
The Blues won, but the win came in the form out of a shootout, a device to end games that doesn't exist in the postseason. It kept the Blues undefeated against their division rival this season, but Hitchcock realizes that means nothing at this point.
“Yeah, we think we’ve closed on everybody but we’ve beat nobody,” Hitchcock said. “There’s another bridge out there you’re going to have to cross.”
That win over the Blackhawks provided a glimpse as to why the Blues are remarkably better than last season’s team without dramatically changing the roster.