Saturday, March 21, 2015

Minnesota overwhelms Blues 6-3

Wild benefit from fluky bounces, beats St. Louis for 
second time in a week; Stastny gains 500th NHL point in loss

ST. PAUL, Minn -- Playing against the teams that hold the two wild card spots in the Western Conference the past two games, the Blues found out the hard way what it's like to play desperate hockey against desperate teams.

The Blues gained a point in a shootout loss against Winnipeg on Thursday, but the Minnesota Wild made their breaks and benefited from some strange goals in a 6-3 victory against the Blues Saturday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center.

The loss puts the Blues' lead in the division in jeopardy, as the Nashville Predators were two points behind the Blues pending their game against the Buffalo Sabres.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek (left) defends against the Wild's Mikko
Koivu during Minnesota's 6-3 victory Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.

The Chicago Blackhawks, who played at Dallas Saturday, had two games in hand and were four points in back of the Blues. 

The Blues (45-21-6) have no time to dwell on the loss, as they play at Detroit in the NBC Game of the Week on Sunday at 11 a.m.

St. Louis (45-21-6) fell behind by four goals, showed a pulse but were too far behind to mount a comeback.

"We just made a couple mental lapses," said center Paul Stastny, who scored in the third period to give him 500 career points. "We got behind 2-0 and they clamped down on us and kept going. Whenever they got a lucky break ... it doesn't matter. They kept getting in front screening the goalie. ... They got to the net and before you know it, it's 4-0. It's not over, but it's really tough to come back."

The Blues got off to a strong start but couldn't get the first goal. And it was Tarasenko that had the first big chance early but was stopped at point blank range by Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk 1 minute, 38 seconds in.

"In the game, we were good at the start," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They got the second goal, that gave them a little momentum. They looked nervous at the start." 

Nervous, maybe. But the Wild (40-25-7) then caught their bearings, and the Blues were scrambling on the ice. The Wild scored twice as a result.

Former Blue Chris Stewart scored on a breakaway after tipping a blind pass from Jaden Schwartz behind the Minnesota goal. Stewart read the pass and tipped it past Carl Gunnarsson, went in on Brian Elliott and beat the Blues goalie five-hole 7:47 into the game.

"I'm just trying to be a difference-maker, trying to help my team win a game," Stewart, who has nine goals and 16 points in 13 career games against the Blues, said. "... Once I got going, I got going pretty fast there. Came in on 'Ells,' and beat him five-hole."

Minnesota's forecheck led to the second goal, in which Thomas Vanek redirected Justin Fontaine's wrister from inside the blue line up and over Elliott at 12:14 of the first while being tied up in front by defenseman Zbynek Michalek. 

The Blues were not sharp with their puck distribution and on multiple occasions, players were falling to the ice and they didn't seem to be involved the way they needed to be playing a desperate hockey club.

"There's no excuses," captain David Backes said. "We're playing a team that's desperate for their playoff lives. We're trying to situate ourselves in the Central Division. You shouldn't need more motivation this time of the year. We need to be playing our brand of hockey every night putting it all out there, and if the team just plays better than us, we're going to tip our cap. But I don't think we can say that tonight. I think we came up short of our potential. They played a pretty darn good game and the result is a 6-3 game that after the first (goal), we never got our bearings to really compete and challenge them to take this (game)."

Things didn't change much at the start of the second, as the Wild doubled the lead and chased Elliott after four goals on 16 shots.

Zach Parise was on the doorstep to slam in another shot from the point that got through and a Wild forward was in Elliott's grill to make it 3-0 at 3:39. Just 26 seconds later, Brodin's fluttering shot from the right point somehow got past multiple bodies and a screened Elliott to make it 4-0, and Jake Allen, who is expected to start Sunday against the Red Wings, came on in relief.

"We let him down," Backes said of Elliott. "It starts with my line and myself and kind of focus as a team. We've just got to be better." 

"It's pretty inexcusable this time of the year," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We know we're playing desperate teams that are right there trying to stay in that playoff race. We've got to be a team that's playing for first place. ... They're all important games. We have to put this one behind us; we're lucky we get to play again tomorrow. We know we're playing a good team in Detroit."

Hitchcock has made the goalie changes often this season, more as a jolt to the team, and not necessarily a reflection of the goalie's play.

"He's part of the team; it's a team loss," Hitchcock said of Elliott. "This isn't on one guy; this is on everybody. They're fighting for their playoff lives and we don't think we are. So there's a level of investment and a level of desperation that's stronger on the other side. The same thing happened to us in Winnipeg. We got away with it in Winnipeg; we didn't get away with it today." 

The Blues tried to mount a comeback, and Tarasenko led the charge by scoring his team-leading 35th on the power play at 10:02 to make it 4-1, then assisting on Schwartz's 23rd of the season -- Tarasenko's 70th point of the season -- to make it a 4-2 game at 11:41.

The Blues had all the momentum and Alex Pietrangelo had a glorious chance from the high slot to make it a 4-3 game but fired his shot over the net. Stastny took a hooking penalty and the momentum was flattened.

"We get two and it's 4-2 and you can feel the momentum change," Backes said. "But they did a good job; instead of sitting back, they scored one and took it back and the result is we didn't get within three goals after that. ... We never really found our hard St. Louis Blues hockey that I think we played against them in our building. We just didn't put the puck in the net."

Fontaine's shot from the right circle deflected off Bouwmeester's stick and past Allen at 16:11 to make it a 5-2 game.

And the strange bounces continued as Mikko Koivu's power play goal, only the second the Blues have allowed in the past 37 attempts, was a a play where the Wild captain tried to pass through the crease and the puck caromed off Pietrangelo's stick past Allen 10:48 into the third for a 6-2 Wild lead.

"They were goofy, deflection goals," Hitchcock said. "We didn't play very well, but some of their goals were once-in-a-lifetime goals. Still, they scored six goals. It's our checking."

"Bounces are going to happen," Bouwmeester said. "You're going to get yours along the way too. You can't get rattled by a bad bounce early in the game or anything like that. For the most part, we didn't play good enough. We gave up too many chances. Usually when you do that, bounces are going to wind up in your net."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Jay Bouwmeester (right) goes to defend Minnesota's Zach
Parise in Saturday's 6-3 Wild victory at Xcel Energy Center.

Stastny's' power play goal, off a redirection of Alexander Steen's point shot was the Blues' second of the game. It's the first time Minnesota allowed multiple power play goals since Dec. 29 (38 games). There was little to celebrate Stastny's milestone.

"I honestly didn't even know until 'Panger' said something," Stastny said of Blues' color analyst Darren Pang of Fox Sports Midwest. "I was like, 'Why do you guys want to talk to me?' I'd rather have it in a win, but you just keep going forward. The only good news for us is we play tomorrow. We get right back at it. Another afternoon game to think about, playing, refocused and get ready for tomorrow. We play another tough team."

The Blues will know more regarding the availability of defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who left the game early in the second period with an upper-body injury.

They'll face the Red Wings (38-21-11), who have lost six of eight.

"We've got to pour more in if we think we're going to get more out," Backes said. "It starts with myself and my linemates and we go down the whole roster. We need more from everybody."

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