Saturday, April 11, 2015

Blues close regular season with 4-2 victory against Wild

St. Louis will open playoffs against 
Minnesota; Tarasenko, Steen return, contribute

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues gave themselves a chance with a victory. 

The rest was up to the Anaheim Ducks or Arizona Coyotes to determine if the Blues would finish as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

The Blues' 4-2 victory against the Minnesota Wild to conclude the regular season before 19,155 at Scottrade Center Saturday afternoon didn't affect their place as the second seed in the West. It did affect whether they'd be the top seed because the Anaheim Ducks, despite matching the Blues with 109 points, will be the conference's top seed after a 2-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes. 

The Ducks own the first tie-breaker based on more regulation or overtime victories (43-42), so the Blues will face this same Wild team in the first round beginning either Wednesday or Thursday. Games 1-2 will be at Scottrade Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alexander Steen (20) returned to the Blues lineup Saturday 
and had two assists in a 4-2 victory against Minnesota.

Unlike a season ago when the Blues limped into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they're heading heading in this season with a different demeanor.

The Blues were besieged with injuries, and they paid for it with a six-game losing streak that followed with a First Round defeat to the Chicago Blackhawks.

This season, the Blues go in with an abundance of confidence after winning their fifth in six games.

Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen, who missed four and five games respectively because of lower-body injuries, returned to play in the regular season finale.

Tarasenko had a goal and an assist and Steen had two assists and the Blues (51-24-7) gave themselves an opportunity to clinch the top seed.

"We're not comparing anything to any other previous years," Steen said. "It's just focus on what we're doing right now. The one thing I will say about previous years is we take it as experience and move forward. We don't sit and analyze last year and two years ago compared to this. We're just having a good vibe right now. Goaltending has been great. Our 'D' have been extremely quick, patient with the puck and we were able to bang some home tonight.

"I was a little antsy (to return), wanted to get back in. It was nice to have a game."

Jori Lehtera scored two goals for the Blues, and Brian Elliott made 23 saves in his first game since April 3.

Lehtera, who centered Steen and Tarasenko, combined for six points as a group and said the Blues are a confident team.

"I think so. We had a bad first period today and then we played good hockey," Lehtera said. "I think it's good to end a game like so we're ready for the playoffs. 

"Yeah that was fun. I had so much fun today. ... I have no idea what the lines are going to be in the playoffs, but I would love to play on that line."

The Wild (46-28-8) is locked in as the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. 

Minnesota, which got goals from Marco Scandella and Zach Parise, saw its NHL-record 12-game road winning streak end. Devan Dubnyk started in goal for the Wild and made 11 saves on 14 shots. Darcy Kuemper replaced Dubnyk at the start of the third period and made eight saves on nine shots.

Both teams played without regulars in the lineup. 

The Blues were without captain David Backes, forwards T.J. Oshie and Steve Ott and defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. 

The Wild rested captain Mikko Koivu, defensemen Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon and forward Justin Fontaine among their regulars. 

After no goals through the first half of the game, the Blues and wild combined for four in a 6:04 stretch, with the Blues scoring three of them. 

Dmitrij Jaskin's second goal in two games put the Blues ahead 1-0 on a 3-on-2, as Patrik Berglund found Olli Jokinen, who fed Jaskin in the right circle. Jaskin's wrist shot beat Dubnyk to the far side at 13:27 of the second. 

Tarasenko made it 2-0, getting a pass from Steen in the slot and beat Dubnyk high glove side at 18:00. 

Scandella scored 51 seconds later to make it 2-1 on a shot from the blue line that appeared to deflect over Elliott's glove, but Lehtera restored St. Louis' two-goal lead at 3-1 when he finished Steen's pass into the low slot at 19:31. 

Lehtera's second goal of the game, his first multi-goal game since scoring a hat trick Nov. 11 against the Buffalo Sabres, came 5:03 into the third period on the power play. Lehtera tried centering a puck and it caromed off the stick of Wild defenseman Nate Prosser past Kuemper's near post. 

Parise scored on the power play with 37.6 remaining to make it 4-2.

Steen played exactly 19 minutes and Tarasenko played 17:18.

"I think both (Tarasenko) and Steen needed to play," Hitchcock said. "You don't want to find out about yourself sitting there in the playoffs. That's not a good feeling because you're trying to feel your way back into the season and the game's at this furious pace. Having them play today, we gave them a lot of minutes, played them in a lot of different situations, they were comfortable, they're going to come out of this thing 100 percent healthy. That's a real big step for us and a real good sign."

As for Elliott, he was solid. He was tested early when the Blues showed little pulse offensively -- they were outshot 7-1 in the first period and 10-1 -- before they cranked it up with the three goals in the second.

"It's always a tough game last game of the season when things are locked up and you try to rest some guys," said Elliott, who last played April 3 in Dallas. "Each side was resting a couple guys. I thought our game built as we went along and didn't start too fast, but guys really poured it in and kind of picked it up. Obviously scored four goals was big for us.

"I thought we responded really well today. It showed a lot of guts, a lot of grit for guys to kind of dig in after kind of a slow first period and really play the way we wanted to do. We scored some big goals; you saw a lot of chemistry out there. It kind of looked like the Russians sometimes down at the other end passing at the backdoor between the legs, finding each other. That's really encouraging to see in these last few games before the playoffs is a welcomed thing going into the playoffs."

The Wild, 18-19-5 at one point in the season, finished the regular season on a 28-9-3 run to finish with 101 points. 

The Blues finished with 109 points, which is the two points off of last season's 111. But this group is geared and poised for a long run.

"It doesn't matter who we play in the first round," said Tarasenko, who finished as the leader in goals (37) and points (73). "If you want to win a Cup, you've got to win them all. We'll just wait on our opponent and start preparing tomorrow.

"If you want to be the best team in the League, you're supposed to beat everybody, so it doesn't matter."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Goalie Brian Elliott (right) makes a save on the Wild's Thomas Vanek in
a 4-2 Blues victory Saturday at Scottrade Center. Elliott had 23 saves.

As for the goalie situation, Hitchcock gave an interesting twist.

"I said this before, you've got one guy that's had a heck of a season in Elliott and another guy that's had a heck of a month in Allen," Hitchcock said. "We've got no problems, whichever guy we go to, it might depend a little bit on the opponent. Elliott's played well against Minny, Jake's played well against Winnipeg. We'll see, but we'll base it on what we think is best, but if we've got to change, we'll change. We're not going to hesitate."

Asked if he'd check the score or watch the Anaheim-Arizona game?

"Check the score later," Hitchcock said before joking. "I'm tired of watching hockey right now. Need a break. Tired of talking to you guys, need a break from that too."

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