Sunday, April 5, 2015

Blues jump to first in division with 2-1 win against Blackhawks

Backes, Jokinen provide offense; Allen makes 38 
saves in first regulation win at United Center since 2010

CHICAGO -- The magnitude of the Blues' 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Sunday will determine plenty when the Central Division standings are finally decided by the end of the regular season.

A Blues loss would have dropped them into third place, one point behind Chicago and the Nashville Predators with three games remaining for all three teams. 

Instead, the Blues (49-23-7, 105 points) control their own destiny and vaulted themselves into first place, one ahead of the Predators and more importantly, three ahead of the third-place Blackhawks (48-25-6).
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester (19) and goalie Jake Allen celebrate
the Blues' 2-1 victory Sunday night against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"It's huge," said Blues goalie Jake Allen, who made 38 saves and earned his 21st victory. "Our division's pretty crazy when you look at the standings and see how tight three teams are. Just one game at a time; we've got three games left on home ice to try and create some positive momentum going into the playoffs. Hopefully, the results will end up taking care of themselves in the conference."

The two critical points for the Blues came in a building that's been a house of horrors for St. Louis in recent history.

The win in regulation was the Blues' first here since Feb. 3, 2010. They had lost 14 of 16 games in that timeframe, but both victories came the past two seasons via shootout wins.

"It's two good teams and it was a well-played game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I look at it more from the standpoint of how we're playing. This is two of the last three games we've played well. We've really played the right way and we've done it by missing our top two scorers scorers (Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen). I think it's the confidence that you can win without the top players in your lineup, which is a good confidence-builder from all of us."

The Blues' other objective is to play good, sound hockey heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last season, despite a plethora of injuries, they lost six in a row to end the regular season and it carried over into the Western Conference First Round against these same Blackhawks, a series in which St. Louis lost in six games after taking a 2-0 series lead.

"We like the fact that we're playing good hockey with three games left," said Blues captain David Backes, whose power play goal in the second period tied the game 1-1. "We've won three in a row. We kind of backed into the playoffs last year and it was tough to turn it around there to play good hockey in the First Round. I think we played alright in the playoffs last year, but if we're kicking on all cylinders, then it's a smooth transition rather than having to go to the infirmary and find some bodies and chuck them into the lineup and see what you've got there. Now we've got our two leading out right now, but we're finding ways and we're showing great character with the guys that are in the lineup."

The intensity was ratcheted up immediately. Blues enforcer Ryan Reaves laid a couple of crunching checks on Bryan Bickell and Kimmo Timonen before being belted from behind himself by Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

"It was a physical game," said Reaves, whose tooth that he lost the last time these two teams played popped back out. "Not mad it wasn't a call. It's how the game was.

"You've got to set the tone; you've got to play physical. You never know when you're going to catch a guy. ... Same (tooth) that I lost last time we played Chicago. It popped back out."

The Blues threw 16 shots in the first period at Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, and some dandies too, but the Chicago goalie was up to the task.

And the Blackhawks got the game's first goal off a turnover, when Oshie's pass was intercepted in his zone by Marian Hossa, who fed Versteeg for the easy redirection in front at 14:12.

"We were in the offensive zone, sustaining zone time, shooting pucks on the net, finding second chances," Backes said. "A few really good chances we don't put in. You just needed one to break the mold and figure you'd get another one. That's what happened."

Earlier in the period, Allen made the save of the game on Bickell, whose one-timer off a 2-on-0 after a turnover.

"That happens. It's not a big deal," Allen said. "It's a mistake and that's what I'm there for."

The Blues lost defenseman Robert Bortuzzo on the play before the goal, as he was trying to check Jonathan Toews and missed. Bortuzzo's arm was slung back awkwardly and he was shown slumped over after Versteeg scored. He left and did not return with an upper-body injury.

Hitchcock said Burtuzzo will be evaluated on Monday and is day-to-day.

The Blues increased the intensity in the second period and grabbed the lead with a power play goal by Backes and Jokinen's first goal in 23 games.

Backes tapped in a shot from Kevin Shattenkirk, that was tipped into the slot to Jaden Schwartz, who slid a little feed to Backes at the right post at 6:07 of the second to tie the game 1-1.

"He said he doesn't know how the heck it got through there; I don't either," Backes said of Schwartz's pass. "The fact is it got through and we're not going to complain about it. Making plays and finding loose pucks. I think the key was we had four guys around the net and you outnumber them at the net, you're going to get a loose puck now and then. We were able to to."

Jokinen, who last scored with Nashville against the Los Angeles Kings on Jan. 3, was on the doorstep for another rebound of Alex Pietrangelo's shot that hit Ty Rattie at the side of the Hawks goal as Rattie was trying to jump out of the way right to the slot, where Jokinen flipped the rebound over a sprawled Crawford at 15:12.

It was Jokinen's 321st career goal. He's scored for nine of the ten teams he's played for.

"It was a good faceoff win by Jori (Lehtera)," Jokinen said. "'Petro' got the shot through and Rats was going to the net and it ended up hitting him. I happened to be in the right place at the right time. 

"Being in and out of the lineup, you try to fit in and make an impact every chance you get to play.

In the third when the Blackhawks came with a push and outshot the Blues 12-5, Allen was up to the challenge and the Blues were in shooting lanes. They blocked 24 for the game, and defenseman Zbynek Michalek led the way with six.

"I just take it one save at a time," Allen said. "My job's to keep the puck out of the net, not put it in. That's my mentality, go one minute at a time, one save at a time and let the guys do the rest. I just want to give them a chance. They did a helluva job tonight. 'Z,' I don't know how many big point blocked shots; he's been great since he came to us.

"We played hard, extremely hard, played extremely hard. I thought our last three performances have been some of our best throughout the year. Guys just grinded tonight, didn't get worried when we got scored on, which is key. We just kept plugging away, plugging away. We got two greasy goals. I think that's going to be the way we need to score. We're going to obviously get some nice goals, but we're a team that mucks and grinds and finds those ways to put the puck in the net."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues' David Backes (42) scores past Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawfiord
in the second period of a 2-1 victory at Chicago.

The Blues and Blackhawks will play against each other again on Thursday in St. Louis. The Blues know the mission's not complete, and according to center Paul Stastny, it's just a matter of looking at the next game: Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.

"I don't even know what the standings are," Stastny said. "You look at our next three games, they're all three potential playoff opponents. They're three teams that are either playing for first, for home ice or for playoff spots. They're all going to be tough games and I think for us, it's just enjoy this one and get ready for Winnipeg."

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