Houlder Sings Note of Optimism in St. Louis


St. Louis seems to suit Bill Houlder. So does winning. And as an added bonus, he's managed to avoid falling out of favor with dictatorial Coach and General Manager Mike Keenan.

When he walked into The Pond on Sunday for the first time since being traded from the Mighty Ducks to the Blues last summer, Houlder felt "a little weird, to tell you the truth."

He hit the ice feeling as if he was in a fog. But then somebody hit him with a tough check and he returned to reality.

Yes, I'm wearing a Blue note on my chest. And that's Brett Hull with the puck over there. And that's Mike Keenan standing behind the bench. And we're Stanley Cup contenders to boot.

"The biggest difference," Houlder said after the Blues' 4-2 victory over the Ducks Sunday, "is when you get behind, you have a legit chance to come back. If you make a mistake it's not going to cost you the game. It's not like saying, 'Oh God, it's over. I made a mistake.' "

Playing defense for the Blues (15-8-2) means there is a margin of error. One foul-up can be erased in a flash by Hull, or Brendan Shanahan, or Curtis Joseph.

Playing defense for the Ducks last season meant he had to be almost perfect. Houlder occasionally was not, much to the chagrin of Coach Ron Wilson, who grew weary of seeing the same mistakes. Houlder contributed 14 goals and 25 assists in his first opportunity at consistent ice time in the NHL. But when he made a defensive error, such as being caught too far up ice or making a bad clearing pass, the Ducks often paid the price with a goal scored against them.

On Aug. 29, they traded Houlder for Jason Marshall, a young defenseman who has spent the season with the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League.

"I was disappointed," Houlder said. "It was a breakthrough year for a lot of guys. And a lot of guys made good on their chances to play."

Certainly, Houlder was one of them, and this season the Blues have benefited from his more confident, more dependable style of play. He's not perfect, but so far he's avoided Keenan's notorious doghouse.

Although he did not record a point in Sunday's game, Houlder does have a point in 10 of the past 19 games and ranks third among Blues' defensemen in scoring with three goals and 10 assists. His plus-minus rating, a team-low minus 18 last season, is a respectable plus 10 with the Blues.

"He's playing with a great hockey team," Duck defenseman Bobby Dollas said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence. When he left, a lot of us thought he wasn't a Mike Keenan kind of player, but he's playing hard, moving the puck.

"He's a great guy. I'm happy for him."

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