Team halts 0-2-1 skid; Halak continues strong play with 34-save effort
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The ride under Ken Hitchcock had been so good. So good that the Blues forgot what adversity was ... or meant.
But when the Blues got slapped around by the Detroit Red Wings Saturday night, some doubt began to creep in. Confidence began to waver. How would the Blues respond to some good old-fashioned adversity?
Simple: get back to doing what this team does to win. By forechecking, transitioning the puck through three zones, driving the net and getting plenty of vulcanized rubber on goal.
The result was a 4-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Tuesday night at Scottrade Center that snapped the Blues' first three-game winless streak of the season (0-2-1).
Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak (left) makes a save in front of Phoenix's
Mikkel Boedker Tuesday night. Halak stopped 34 shots in a 4-1 Blues win.
A 3-0 loss to the Wings on New Year's Eve was humbling to say the least for the Blues, who improved to 22-12-5 on the season and 17-0-0 when scoring three goals or more.
But After losing twice to Detroit (the Blues lost 3-2 on Dec. 27 in which they coughed up a two-goal lead) and at home against Nashville Friday and then again in Detroit Saturday, the Blues were hit with a dose of reality: teams were not going to take them as one that had not been among the Western Conference's elite. It was time to get back on the horn and push back those attempts that the opposition was ramping up against them.
"I think any time you're playing those top teams ... Detroit, Chicago, San Jose, Vancouver, you have to have everybody, especially our team," said winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who had a goal and an assist. "Our team doesn't have a superstar that can carry us and we can just lean on them to score two goals a night. We've got to go by committee. That works well for us. We got away from it a little bit. We weren't playing as five-man units and going one after another and putting pressure on teams. When you don't do that against Detroit, they're going to make you pay for it.
"I think we learned something about our composure in those games. It's going to be tight and it's not going to be easy. It's not always going to go your way. We've got to learn how to battle through that. That's part of growing and getting better. That's hopefully something we learn from."
Hitchcock said his team, for the first time since he's been here, lost not only some focus but its confidence as well. It was time to restore some swagger.
"We lost a little bit of confidence against Detroit," Hitchcock said. "When you play that well and you lose, you lose a little bit of confidence. I think coming back tonight and getting a win is a big step for us."
T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund scored goals while David Perron and Alex Pietrangelo had a pair of assists for the Blues, who improved to 17-1-1 when leading after two periods They also tied the Red Wings for most home wins (15). Jaroslav Halak stopped 34 shots -- a season-best -- and has not lost in regulation in eight straight starts, going 5-0-3 in that stretch. Halak has a 1.45 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage during this stretch.
"I had a tough start and obviously, it's going to affect your confidence," said Halak, who began the season 1-6-0 with a 3.53 GAA and .835 save percentage. "But I tried to work hard. Every game I've had the chance, I just tried to do my best.
"I've got to give our guys credit. After losing three straight, we came up big. We have a big stretch at home this month and we want to start by winning."
Blues center Patrik Berglund (right) pursues Coyotes defenseman Keith
Yandle during action Tuesday night at Scottrade Center.
Added Hitchcock: "For me, (Halak's) moving in the net well. He's anticipating well. He's done a good job. Both goalies have.
"The goaltending has been good since the day I got here. Jaro's played very well since I got here. I'm confident in both guys. When you're letting in one goal every game, you really give your team a chance to win and he's doing that every night now.
The Coyotes (19-17-4), who began a stretch of games in which eight of 10 are on the road, got a goal from Radim Vrbata and fell to 1-4-1 in their last six games. Mike Smith, who was activated Tuesday from injured reserve because of a groin injury, stopped 27 shots in his return to the lineup.
"It's always nice to get back, but it's not the outcome we were looking for," Smith said. "We got out-competed tonight. We've got to find ways to win hockey games."
Added coach Dave Tippett, whose team is 0-2-0 against the Blues this season: "We needed to put more will and committment into the game. They won a lot more of the one-on-one battles than we did. Our execution was slow and poor."
The Blues came out with zip, and their top line set the tone. Stewart gave them a 1-0 lead when he found a rebound in the slot of a David Backes one-timer and beat Smith 4:43 into the game.
Langenbrunner tipped a Barret Jackman point shot past Smith with four minutes left in the first to make it 2-0, but the Blues had a chance to make it 3-0 when Backes flew past Ray Whitney and got a shorthanded breakaway attempt. Smith closed the pads with 1:40 left and Phoenix cashed in on the power play with Vrbata snapping one past Halak just 29 seconds later to make it 2-1. In essence, it was a two-goal swing that got the Coyotes back in the game instead of a 3-0 hole.
The Blues continued their hard forecheck, getting pucks to the net as well as driving it into the second period, and Oshie restored their two-goal lead with a power play goal of his own.
"You want to have that check-first mentality," Stewart said. "We came out the first four, five shifts in the game and we definitely took the body to them, established our forecheck early. When we're going to do that, we're going to control the puck.
"It's a lot easier to play when you're the aggressor."
Added Langenbrunner: "That's kind of our calling card. I think we showed a real good stretch there in the second where we really seemed to take control of the play. It was one line after another.
Oshie drove the net and put himself in place to get Pietrangelo's blast and backhand it past Smith 4:28 into the period for a 3-1 Blues lead.
"Phoenix has a good defense and I thought we got into them a little in the second period, got the momentum," Hitchcock said. "The third goal was huge."
The Blues got a bit conservative in the third period protecting a two-goal lead but got an empty-netter from Berglund with 37.9 seconds left. They improved to 17-1-1 when leading after two periods.
"We had a lot of good players today. We had a lot of good play," Hitchcock said. "We did a lot of things that we wanted to do, and we stayed with it. Phoenix is a lot like us. They work hard, they battle, they compete and I thought the way we played for two-and-a-half periods was really sound. From the goalie out, we competed at a pretty high level and we were forced to do that."
* NOTES -- Blues D Cade Fairchild, recalled from Peoria Monday night, had 12:24 of ice time on 17 shifts. He had three blocks in the game. Fairchild was recalled in light of Ian Cole's three-game suspension, which he began serving Tuesday. ... LW Alex Steen (concussion-like symptoms) missed his third straight game and Hitchcock said there was no real update on his status. ... F Chris Porter was a healthy scratch for the third consecutive game.