Thursday, December 12, 2013

Strong start helps Blues double up Leafs 6-3

Sobotka, Schwartz, Stewart combine for seven points in second straight victory

ST. LOUIS -- First period dominance has been a missing ingredient from the St. Louis Blues' arsenal lately.

But the Blues found it again Tuesday night in Winnipeg. Even though they didn't score and were outshot 8-2 in that game over the first 20 minutes, the Blues felt like they found their first period focus to be back to pinpoint accuracy.

Thursday night was no exception, as the Blues scored three times in the opening 20 minutes en route to a 6-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Sobotka (right) battles with the Leafs' Nazem Kadri for a loose
puck Thursday night. Sobotka's two assists helped the Blues' 6-3 win.
The Blues were No. 1 in the NHL in second-period goal differential, at plus-16, and in third-period goal differential, at plus-17, coming into the game.

But they were even in the first period through 29 games after being outscored 9-1 in the opening period in their past five.

Make that plus-3. The Blues (21-6-3) scored three times in the first period against Toronto, getting goals from David Backes, Jaden Schwartz and Derek Roy.

The Blues, who pride themselves on puck pursuit and being able to keep possession of the puck based off of their forecheck, was an element the Maple Leafs couldn't handle coming off back-to-back nights.

"I would say (puck pursuit) was the same in Winnipeg (Tuesday)," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I thought we pursued it a little bit harder in Winnipeg, but it's very similar.

"We created turnovers, got them standing still. We gave them tired legs early because of it and took advantage of it."

Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle was a bit more stern with his critique of his team's play.

"For our hockey club, tonight looked like we were totally brain-dead in a lot of areas," Carlyle said. "I don't know any other way to describe it. We didn't win enough of the down-low confrontations, they had a lot of freedom ... look where they scored the goals from."

Schwartz finished with his second career three-point game (goal and two assists). Linemate Chris Stewart had a goal and an assist, and center Vladimir Sobotka had two assists as the Blues’ second line finished with seven points.

"That line was very good tonight," Hitchcock said. "Stewart was really good down low, in the zone, he protected the puck well, showed great patience in the offensive zone. I thought that line was excellent tonight. Real good to see."

Schwartz, the 14th pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, now has 12 points in 11 games.

"We jumped on them early," Schwartz said. "We threw a lot of pucks on net. We got a lot of second-chance opportunities tonight. Everyone played well. With me, I think our line just worked hard. My linemates made some great plays. Nice to see some goals go in."

Backes scored twice, including an empty-netter, for his 14th and 15th goals of the season. Alexander Steen also had a goal, his 22nd, and an assist.

"The first two periods are how you really draw it up," Backes said. "We played a good game. The third, we get a little over zealous and start leaning on the offense and they make us pay for two. ... Having four lines going, we were all on the same page, making their defensemen go pick it off the end wall and go forecheck them and check the puck back. We did a really good job for two periods."

The win was the Blues' 13th on home ice (13-2-2), which ties them for most in the League with the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins and Minnesota Wild. The Blues are 47-0-1 on home ice when scoring three or more goals dating back to March 12, 2011, when they lost 5-3 to the Detroit Red Wings.

The Maple Leafs (16-14-3), who got goals from Nazem Kadri, Nikolai Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk, fell to 2-6-2 in their past 10 games, and they haven't won a regulation game in 12 straight dating back to Nov. 19.

"[Wednesday] night looked like we had something to build on and tonight, it was all gone," Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson said of the team's 3-1 loss against the Los Angeles Kings. "Coming in from the game [Wednesday] night, we know legs were probably not going to be there, going to be tired, but what we did looked like we were more mentally tired.

"We can always deal with the body being tired, shorter shifts or whatever, but it looked like we weren't there mentally at the start."

The Blues' three-goal outburst in the first period chased Toronto starting goalie James Reimer after 16:10. Reimer finished with 12 saves on 15 shots. It marked the seventh time this season a starting goaltender was pulled from a game against the Blues.

The Blues outshot outshot Toronto 16-7 in the first.

"We just weren't our sharpest, including me," Reimer said. "We didn't have too much life. Not quite sure the reason."

Backes took a pass from Steen, who played for Toronto three-plus seasons to start his career, and one-timed a shot from the right circle over Reimer's left shoulder 4:48 into the game to give the Blues a 1-0 lead.

Reimer lost his stick attempting to play a puck headed to the corner, and Schwartz made him pay when he beat the Maple Leafs goalie on a second-chance attempt at 12:59 to make it 2-0. Reimer made an initial save with his left pad, but without a stick, he was helpless on the rebound.

Stewart beat Mark Fraser behind the Toronto net and fed Roy in the left circle, and Roy wasted ripped a one-timer into the top half of the corner to the short side at 16:10.

Reimer was replaced by Jonathan Bernier, who started against the Los Angeles Kings. Bernier stopped 18 of 20 shots in relief.

The teams traded goals in the second period. Stewart put the Blues up 4-0 at 00:29 when Sobotka found Stewart in the left circle for a one-timer that beat Bernier.

Kadri got one back for the Maple Leafs when his shot from the left circle got past a screened Brian Elliott 1:45 into the period to make it 4-1.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
The Blues' Alexander Steen (20) curls around the Toronto goal trying to
score with Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson in pursuit.
Steen's snap shot from the slot beat Bernier 7:04 into the third period to give the Blues a 5-1 lead off a feed from T.J. Oshie, his fifth assist in the past four games. Steen has nine points in nine games.

Kulemin's third of the season came off a shot from the high slot that beat Elliott high to the glove side with 5:30 remaining in the third. It pulled Toronto to within 5-2.

The Leafs made it a bit interesting late when van Riemsdyk got credit for a goal that when Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo kicked the puck into his own goal past Elliott (who stopped 19 shots) with 3:08 remaining to make it 5-3. Backes' empty-netter with 29.2 seconds remaining sealed the game.

It was Backes' 29th point of the season, which surpassed his point total from last season's 48-game schedule.

"We did a really good job for two periods and then tried to find a different way to play," Backes said. "It's a little bit of a less satisfying giving up a couple at the end but two points nonetheless and we've got to move onto our next task."

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