Saturday, March 10, 2012

Blues stay in first in NHL with 4-1 win over Jackets

Stewart nets game-winner, Elliott earns win;
teams will play again Sunday in Columbus

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues went into Columbus to play the last place team in the NHL, easy two points right?

They found out the hard way that there are no easy games in the NHL after a 2-1 loss on Valentine's Day.

The Blues learned a valuable lesson: Don't take any game -- or anyone -- for granted in the NHL.

They learned that lesson, at least on Saturday night as the NHL-leading Blues continued their winning ways by beating the last-place Jackets 4-1 at Scottrade Center.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' David Backes checks former teammate and Blue Jackets
defenseman Nikita Nikitin during the second period of Saturday's game
in St. Louis.

The Blues (44-18-7) have the best record in the NHL and most points with 95. The Blue Jackets (22-39-7) have the NHL's worst record and fewest points (51). It's easy to overlook someone in that situation.

"Sometimes they can be, but I think we're fortunate they're a division rival," said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who added an assist and has 10 points in seven games and 14 in his last 13 games. "We know we're going to get a chippy game and a gritty game and it kind of forces you to get involved and forces you to stay on your toes. It's easy to underestimate them and kind of sit back a little bit, but eventually, we got a little wake-up call tonight."

Said goalie Brian Elliott, who picked up his 21st win of the season: "It was a little bit of a tough game to play knowing that they came in winning four straight. We know teams are gonna gun for us. We kind of have a target on our backs, but we showed up and everybody played a good team game for the most part."

David Perron, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie and Alex Pietrangelo scored for the Blues, and Andy McDonald added two assists as the Blues passed Detroit for most home wins in the NHL with 29. They're 29-4-4 and have matched a franchise record for home wins set in 1980-81 when they were 29-7-4.

Elliott stopped 21 shots and picked up his first win since Feb. 18, improving to 21-8-2 on the season, as St. Louis won for the eighth time in nine games. The Blues also stayed perfect when scoring three goals or more this season -- they're now 36-0-0 and 38-0-1 since their last regulation loss at San Jose on March 19, 2011.

"This was like three different hockey games," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who is 38-11-7 since taking over the head coaching reigns on Nov. 6. "The first period we were good. We did the things we needed to do, got lots of shots, it's 1-0. Second period ... they worked. They're fast, their forwards are fast. They've got a lot of young, hungry guys. They really dialed it up. They were all over us, and then we recovered nicely in the third. I thought the third period, we played a very sound, controlled third period and didn't give up much. I thought the third period from a team standpoint was by far our best period."

The Blues are 21-1-3 in their last 25 home games, a big reason they're on top of the overall standings with 95 points as they head into a seven-game road trip that begins with a rematch Sunday in Columbus.

"They're pretty much out of the playoffs, so they don't have that much pressure on their backs and they can just go out there and play," Elliott said of the Jackets. "We have to know that the hockey that we're playing now is what we're going to carry into the postseason. They're important games and we really have to take advantage of these situations."

The Jackets, who saw their season-high four-game winning streak snapped, got a goal from Cam Atkinson. Former Blue Curtis Sanford stopped 25 shots.

"They play fast, they play big," Jackets interim coach Todd Richards said. "I think the depth on their team is one factor. I don’t think Hitch is concerned with any matchups. He’s kind of just rolling his lines. The defense they have, they do a great job of moving the puck up the ice and at key times, they’re getting the saves they need from their goalies."

The Blues, despite going 0-for-3 on the power play in the opening 20 minutes, did get on the board first when Perron snapped his 13th of the season past Sanford 6:01 into the game.

The Blues were able to break out with numbers, allowing the speedy McDonald to race to the left corner, feed the puck towards the goal and get a carom right to Perron, who wasted no time putting it on goal for a 1-0 lead.

The Jackets got the equalizer when Atkinson was able to pounce on a loose puck in the slot, poking a shot past Elliott after the Jackets' first power play of the game expired 2:24 into the second.

After some lethargic stretches, Stewart showed his skills after Barret Jackman blocked a shot at one end, and the puck caromed to Stewart, who flew down the left side before deftly lifting a backhand into the roof of the net, perhaps catching Sanford off guard, 9:17 into the second for a 2-1 lead on only their second shot of the period.

"I don't think he was ready for it," Stewart said of Sanford. "Go short side and I got a little bounce there, so it was good.

"They came out and got that goal there, and then (B.J. Crombeen) gave us a big fight there and sparked the boys and we came back and got back-to-back goals from me and Osh. It was definitely a boost."

And a goal the Blues really benefited from, and a goal very reminiscent of one Stewart scored last season in overtime that gave the Blues a 4-3 win in Columbus.

"Yeah, kind of. It played out the same way for sure," Stewart said. "We got hung in our zone and I think I was out there with (David Perron) and Backes. I was fresh. It was a pretty long shift. I had a chance there with a little speed and they gave me the outside. I got off a backhand and it happened to go in and I'll take it."
(Getty Images)
Chris Stewart (right) reacts after scoring to give the Blues a lead in the
second period as Columbus defenseman Brett Lebda trails. The Blues won
4-1 on Saturday night.

Oshie picked up his 18th of the season, matching a career-high set in 2009-10 when he took a David Backes feed on the power play in the high slot and one-timed a shot over Sanford at 14:38 for a 3-1 lead. It was the Blues' 2,700th power play goal in franchise history.

"He looked in the middle once," Oshie said of Backes. "I didn't think he was going to shoot so I yelled there as loud as I could. Luckily he heard me and threw it back. I just tried putting it on net. Luckily it went where it did.

"They just come at you. They come at you in waves. They're a hard working team," Sanford said of his former team. "They work hard from the first drop of the puck until the last buzzer. You always have to be paying attention because they have some skilled guys as well that can make some really quality plays."

The Blues added anothermaking them 10-for-26 in the last seven games, when Pietrangelo picked up his 31st point in 31 games on a one-time shot from the low left circle that went in off former Blue Nikita Nikitin at 7:11 of the third. McDonald went cross-ice to Pietrangelo for the one-time shot.

The Blues also were perfect again on the penalty kill, turning Columbus away on all four chances and giving them 39 straight kills dating back to Feb. 14 against the Jackets. The Blues also swept the three-game homestand against Chicago, Anaheim and the Blue Jackets, outscoring them 12-3.

"I think right now we're just playing," Hitchcock said. "There's lots of things that we can work on, but I think we're playing. I think we dial up the sense of urgency when we have to. I think there's a whole other level we're going to have to play at. I think mentally we're capable of doing it, but we're kind of just playing good enough to win right now. I know we can play a lot better than we're playing right now. I think we will when we get pushed here, whether it's a road game or even if it's tomorrow night. I think we have another gear we can play at.

"We're playing nice right now. I think we can go a lot higher than this."

The Blues ended the night with a four-point lead in the division over Detroit, which lost at Nashville. The Predators remained eight points back. And pending Vancouver's late game against Montreal, the Blues could lead the NHL by three points. The Canucks were trailing the Canadiens 2-1 early in the third period.

No comments:

Post a Comment