After an emotional pre-game ceremony, the St. Louis Blues dominated the Chicago Blackhawks for a 3-0 win in Ken Hitchcock's coaching debut.
Even before the St. Louis Blues made the decision to fire Davis Payne and replace him with veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, November 8 was circled on the organization's calendar as they welcomed their Central Division rivals into town.
The start of a five game homestand for the Blues, they used the evening to honor the memory of former players Igor Korolev and Pavol Demitra, who lost their lives in the Lokomotiv disaster.
With Korolev's family in attendance (Demitra's wife and children are still in Slovakia), the Blues gathered former teammates, friends, and coaches to honor the memory of both men. Former linemates Keith Tkachuk and Brett Hull, who both spoke to the memories of their lost friends, carried a great deal of emotional weight in their eulogies.
When asked about his coaching debut, Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis media that he planned to "just watch" in his first outing behind the bench, not shaking up the existing lines and pairings set up by his predecessor. The Blues seemed to understand that jobs could potentially be on the line and responded in a very "Hitch-like" fashion, checking hard and maintaining an obvious commitment to team defense to open the game, preventing the Blackhawks from getting solid looks at starting netminder Jaroslav Halak.
Both teams appeared to wait for one or the other to blink, and St. Louis would find an opportunity just past the eight minute mark of the first period. Barret Jackman took the puck in the neutral zone near his own blue line and sent a long lead pass up to Kevin Shattenkirk, who cut into the Chicago zone around John Scott and curled across the ice before sending the puck over to Vladimir Sobokta as he crashed toward the Chicago net. Sobotka would actually slam into Corey Crawford's outstretched goalie stick and lose his footing, but the puck would take an odd bounce off the top of Crawford's outstretched leg pad and into the net for a 1-0 St. Louis lead.
As the Blues enjoyed the luxury of playing with the lead, they began to turn up the physical play that tends to mark Central Division hockey. It was not long before a big hit from Ryan Reaves on Patrick Kane drew the ire of the Chicago bench, with Daniel Carcillo dropping the gloves and engaging almost immediately despite giving up several inches and about 20 pounds to the Winnipeg native. Both would tangle up before firing a few blasts, but Reaves would deliver a hard takedown, though Carcillo did get off the ice and attempt to throw a few last punches as the linesmen moved in to separate the combatants.
The first period would end with the two teams even in shots on goal, but the critical advantage to the Blues on the scoreboard.
Less than thirty seconds into the second period the Blues would find themselves on the power play after Carcillo attempted to low-bridge Ian Cole, ending up in the box for kneeing as a result.
The St. Louis power play had struggled under their former coach, not the least because some of their top players had failed to find the back of the net. Both appeared to be on a better footing after Carlo Colaiacovo cycled the puck from the blue line down to T.J. Oshie at the far boards, who drove in and fired the puck in from the boards to Chris Stewart in the high slot. Stewart redirected it past Crawford to extend the St. Louis lead, his first goal since October 13th.
The joy was somewhat dampened when the Blues learned that Scott Nichol, who had left the ice early in the first period following a collision with Viktor Stalberg, would not return, forcing the team to shuffle combinations to adjust for the shortened bench. Late in the period it appeared that the Blackhawks might take advantage of somewhat heavier legs when they drew a series of three consecutive minor penalties, but some excellent goaltending by Halak and a little bit of luck when an apparent Dave Bolland goal was negated by a quick whistle prevented Chicago from getting back into the game with the manpower advantage.
That frustration would be a theme for the Hawks all evening as they made frequent mistakes with the puck, fanning on prime opportunities and giving up lazy turnovers to a well motivated opponent. Halak was exceptional in his eighth start of the season, reacting decisively and using his size effectively to take away the open net.
Despite being outshot 10-5 in the third period, the Blues maintained their 2-0 lead with just over six minutes to play in regulation. Kevin Shattenkirk would carry the puck out of his own zone and connect with a waiting Oshie behind the Blackhawks forecheck, sending him free on a breakaway. Duncan Keith would attempt to get back and cut off the opportunity, but instead mostly served to screen his goaltender when Oshie unloaded a hard shot from the top of the left circle that beat Crawford glove side.
From there, the Blues locked down hard on the final few minutes, allowing only two more shots on goal before capping off the electrically charged evening with Halak's first shutout of the season and a win for their new head coach. Hitchcock becomes the first St. Louis bench boss to win his debut game since Mike Keenan in 1995.