Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Steen, Mason lead Blues past Blackhawks

4-2 victory over Chicago pulls St. Louis within six points of Colorado

ST. LOUIS -- As the final horn went off Tuesday, it was fitting that the two best players on the ice for the Blues congregated together, offering high-fives and hugs on a solid home victory.

Alex Steen was the first to pat Chris Mason on the head, and the rest of the team followed suit in making sure the top two players got their just dues.

In the case of Steen, don't let the dream end, because right now, it's a magical carpet ride that continues to escalate into great things.

Steen's two goals and an assist enabled him to set a career-high in points, and Mason was steller -- particularly early in the game, thwarting a pair of Chicago breakaways -- in stopping 32 shots as the Blues doubled up the Blackhawks 4-2 in front of 19,150 at Scottrade Center, the Blues' sixth win on home ice in eight games.

The Blues are a season-best seven games over .500 at 37-30-9 and moved within six points of eighth-place Colorado in the Western Conference playoff race with six games to go. The Avalanche was idle Tuesday.

As they trudge along in this playoff battle, Blues players were hoisted on the shoulders of Steen, who arguably is the team's MVP this season.

"He's playing great hockey," Blues coach Davis Payne said of Steen, who has 23 goals and 23 assists, surpassing his 45-point rookie season in 2005-06 with Toronto. "It's obvious that it's in his blood and he's come into this year determined to elevate his level, elevate his stature. We're certainly reaping the benefits of that. The determination to make the play, the determination to get the job done, the determination to make sure he's in the right place ... it's impressive."

Steen's second goal of the game was the game-winner against a Chicago team that has lost three games in a row in regulation for the first time this season and is 3-6-2 in its last 11.

The goal came 3 minutes 27 seconds into the third period, breaking a 2-2 tie when Steen coralled a cross-ice feed from David Backes and snapped a shot that went off the left arm of goalie Antti Niemi.

"The second one is a great pass from Backs," Steen said. "I was just fortunate it trickled in."

There's nothing fortunate about Steen shooting the puck these days. He leads the team in goals and took a team-leading seven of the 30 shots the Blues had in the game.

"It was a couple lucky ones there," said Steen, who took the spot of Paul Kariya on the top line after Kariya left early in the second with a lower-body injury. "The first one, Jay Mac pushes the d-man way back, gives me that extra time to get it off."

Steen, who logged 20:50 of ice time, knew the double-shifting was in order once Kariya went down.

"Going into the second, we knew we were a man short there with Paul out," Steen said. "The first shift there with Backs' line, (Payne) asked me to go, and I went."

For Payne, the decision was a no-brainer.

"It didn't take very long to come up with that one," he said. "... Here's a guy that's going. He seems to make every line kind of get a little more jump and a little more zone time and his ability to shoot the puck to generate those plays. It's great to see."

Probably more impressive that Steen's two goals was his ability to win a puck battle in the left corner that set up Erik Johnson's ninth of the season 10:22 into the third that gave the Blues a 4-2 lead.

Steen came out of a scrum after kicking the puck to himself, then feeding an on-rushing Johnson into the slot, and Johnson one-timed a shot between the pads of Niemi.

"I saw there was a little bit of a scrum over there in the corner and Steener came out with possession and then their defenseman was cheating away from that a little bit so I snuck in down the slot and got a really nice pass from Alex," said Johnson, whose nine goals are the most by a Blues defenseman since Chris Pronger scored 14 in 2003-04. "I just tried to put it on net and it's five-hole and it went in. It was a big goal at a big time of the game and it definitely felt good to score."

Steen had the play in front of him and saw Johnson rushing the slot.

"He made a great read, too," Steen said of Johnson. "He comes in as soon as I kind of kicked it out of there, EJ came down the pipe pretty quick and he made it an easy play."

The Blues had to overcome an early 2-1 first-period deficit in which the Hawks (46-22-7) had their pick of the ice and scored twice off costly Blues turnovers.

Two turnovers right inside the Chicago blue line led to both Blackhawk goals in the first period, with Patrick Sharp getting one 7:41 in and Marian Hossa getting another at 16:25.

The first one, T.J. Oshie's pass was behind that of Backes that allowed Jonathan Toews to spring Sharp in on a breakaway, and the Hawks winger waited Mason out before roofing a backhand shot for a 1-0 lead.

Steen's 22nd of the season at 13:05 tied the game 1-1, but then a puck hopped past Eric Brewer and Toews was off on a breakaway again. Mason made the initial stop, but Hossa was there to collect the rebound and backhand it past the sprawled Blues goalie for a 2-1 Chicago lead.

Obviously, the Blues had areas to clean up.

"All game there, they were flying guys out of the zone," Johnson said of the Hawks. "They had two guys stretch at the far blue line almost all night. We had to read and adjust to that. They have such good speed up front that we had to make sure to bog that down and clog that up a little bit for them. After the first, I think we got a little bit better, but we still had a few breakdowns -- myself included -- so it was something we tried to shore up.

"You have to be on a shoulder check and have your head on a swivel for sure. It can be tough, but it's what we've learned growing up since I've been a little kid. It's just kind of engrained into me and something you kind of learn from."

Brewer's seventh of the season tied the game, a shot from the left point that caromed off a Chicago player over Niemi 5:39 into the second period.

The Blues certainly tightened up the ice and limited Chicago's space, and Mason came up big when needed.

He stopped Hossa on a breakaway attempt just 1:25 into the third period of a 2-2 game, stacking the pads.

"I was fortunate enough to make a couple saves for the guys," said Mason, whose 27 wins match a career-best set last season. "We kind of got our legs and our heads back in it after the first period and started to play a lot better.

"You've got to watch that team. They've got some high-end talent. It's tough giving them chances like that because eventually, they're going to score. We tightened up after that. I don't know why we came out like that, but we recovered and got the win."

The Blues recovered because of Steen's offensive prowess and Mason's clutch saves.

"He's probably our MVP," Johnson said of Steen. "Chris Mason's up there. There's a lot of guys that have contributed, but I think he's been our most consistent worker every night. ... He's a jack of all trades and he leads by example."

* NOTES -- Payne said he didn't see Kariya's injury but that it would be a wait-and-see process. "I haven't seen the mechanism either. I don't know if it happened on contact or skating motion, but right now, it's lower-body, day-to-day." ... Blues goalie Ty Conklin turned 34 Tuesday. ... The Blues signed 2009 second-round pick Brett Ponich to a three-year, entry-level contract Tuesday. Ponich, a defenseman, will remain with his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. ... Forward Patrik Berglund returned to action after being benched on Sunday for missing practice Saturday. Berglund was a plus-1 with 14:07 ice time. ... Blues forward Cam Janssen was involved in two fights, the second drew him a game-misconduct after a fight with Chicago's Nick Boynton. Janssen got tossed because of the last punch he delivered to Boynton after he was on the ground.

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