Sunday, December 26, 2010

Halak, Backes help Blues win third straight

2-0 victory over Nashville vaults St. Louis back into top eight

ST. LOUIS -- What more could the Blues and Nashville Predators expect? Their matchups typically come down to the wire.

Sunday was no different.

And it was David Backes (offensively) and Jaroslav Halak (defensively) that stood tall for the Blues, along with a defensive effort good enough to solidify a third straight win.

Backes scored twice, including the game-clinching empty-netter with 16.8 seconds remaining and Halak, who earned his 13th career shutout, blanked the Predators for the second time this season by kicking out all 32 shots as the Blues won their third in a row with a 2-0 victory over Nashville Sunday night at Scottrade Center.

Another one-goal nail biter was in the works again for these two teams, as 11 of the previous 16 meetings and seven of eight were decided by one goal.

It was headed that way again until the waning seconds.

"They're tight-checking," Backes said of the Blues-Predators matchups. "I don't know if they're the prettiest hockey ever to watch, but when we come out with our two points, we'll take it as ugly as they come."

The Blues (18-12-5) maybe didn't display some of their best hockey of the season, but they will move on with only their third winning streak of three games or more this season (the last was Nov. 19-24) in a game that only saw one minor penalty.

Halak, who has allowed seven goals in five games against the Predators (17-12-6) this season, was extra sharp in the second period when Nashville seemed to have the Blues bogged down in their end. His best stop may have come when he flashed the glove and snagged Cal O'Reilly's wrister four minutes into the period.

"Obviously, I like these types of games," Halak said. "Everybody likes more shots than a few shots on the net.

"They had some chances, we had some chances. It was a close game. Sometimes, that one goal makes the whole difference. Sometimes, it doesn't make any difference. Tonight, it made a difference. I'm really happy with the two points."

Backes, who last scored two goals in a game Feb. 3, 2010 at Chicago, snapped a wrist shot into a tight spot over Pekka Rinne's right shoulder just 1:45 into the second for the lone goal scored off the two netminders.

Nashville defenseman Cody Franson flipped a backhand pass through the neutral zone that Backes picked off, skated to the top of the right face-off circle and beat Rinne.

"I'm not at a very good angle there," Backes said. "I should probably have dumped that in there and got a line change. I kind of closed my eyes and saw a little daylight. I don't know if (Rinne) was expecting me to shoot from that angle there. We'll take it."

The Blues maintained that lead the rest of the game thanks in large part to Halak and a defensive effort that -- although they did allow 30 or more shots for the fifth time in the last seven games -- did not allow a plethora of prime scoring chances.

"It was a lot of chip-and-chase, a lot of skating and trying to turn the d-men back," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who along with Roman Polak and Eric Brewer earned high marks for their play from Payne. "Typical game against Nashville. They play hard. We just kind of outlasted them tonight.

"(Halak) played amazing, against Detroit the other night and I thought tonight, he stole the show and kept us in it and gave us a chance to win and maybe got us the win."

"From a shot-blocking perspective and from a physical perspective, not allowing any space in behind, I thought they did an outstanding job," Payne said of Jackman and Polak. "I thought Brew was best on puck touches and taking those possessions to space where we could deal with Nashville's fore-check. They're always a tough fore-checking team. ... I'd say with those three again, our defensive crew, guys who really take pride in that part of the game, were strong."

The teams continued to play penalty-free until Nashville's Joel Ward was whistled for tripping the Blues' Carlo Colaiacovo with 4:47 to play. It was the lone power play for either team as referees Tim Peel, a native St. Louisan, and Justin St. Pierre were relatively whistle-free.

The Blues, who are the third-most penalized team in the league averaging 16.7 penalty minutes a game, last went a game without a penalty was April 1, 2004 against Detroit.

"Until that one (tripping) call, I didn't think there was a heck of a lot out there that you could find fault with if you're looking for a penalty," Payne said. "I thought it was one of those games where we didn't get in enough people's way to manufacture any type of call. Guys were disciplined enough in making sure that sticks were down knowing that it was going to be a tight hockey game. One power play could swing it any way. We had to be disciplined."

The Predators pulled Rinne with a little over a minute to play and pressed the Blues once again, but Alex Steen was able to get a clear out of his end by banking the puck off the boards and out. The puck was spinning towards the goal but was running out of steam. However, Backes outraced O'Reilly to the puck and scooped it in before crashing back-first into the back boards.

"I was thinking about a change there, too," Backes said. "I noticed their guy (O'Reilly) wasn't going back exactly full speed for it. I figured even if I didn't have a chance to get the puck, I could put some pressure on him, maybe even make him stop back there. Not a ton of time left, and it might make him drain the rest of it out before they get back to our end. Then I realized I was gaining ground on him. I tried to protect it and throw it in there."

The Blues jumped back into the top eight in the Western Conference and are only two points out of fourth place. That's how tight the West is.

"These are the kinds of games if you're on the wrong end of them, you look back in April and say, 'Hey, those two points were critical at that time,'" Backes said. "For us to find a way to win them, that goal and an empty-netter is all we muster up tonight, but it was enough to get a win."

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