Battle for first place in Central Division when St. Louis plays at
Dallas Saturday; Tarasenko's two goals, assist fuel win against Anaheim
ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues wake up Saturday morning in Dallas to face the Stars in the second of back-to-back games, could anyone have imagined that in Game No. 70, they'd be playing the first-place Stars for first place in the Central Division with all the injuries they've had to endure this season?
But after another convincing 5-2 victory Friday night on home ice against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blues (40-20-9) leapfrogged over the Chicago Blackhawks into second place with 89 points, one behind Dallas, which trounced the Blackhawks 5-2 on home ice Friday, and one ahead of third-place Chicago.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
Troy Brouwer (left) celebrates with Paul Stastny after Stastny's
goal in the second period of the Blues' 5-2 win against Anaheim.
The Blues, who have tied a season-high with their fifth in a row and have scored 19 non-shootout goals in doing so, began the week with a stretch of four games in seven nights against Stanley Cup Playoff teams and have gone 3-0-0 with the chance to win all four if they can beat the Stars Saturday.
"I like the fact that we've ... with everything we've gone through, we wake up tomorrow morning in a hockey game for first place," Hitchcock said after the game. "Nobody would have thought of that because everything these guys have been through. That's been a feather in their cap. This is 3-0 against top teams, a chance to go 4-0 tomorrow. A tough opponent, but pretty impressive that we've been able to maintain a competitive level despite missing key guys all year."
Jori Lehtera and Patrik Berglund scored goals 1:04 apart early in the third period to help the Blues break a 1-1 tie; they would score four times in the third.
The Blues turned the tables on the Ducks in the third period, whose forecheck was creating issues for St. Louis early in the game.
Lehtera gave the Blues a 2-1 lead 1:55 into the third when linemates Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz forced Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler into losing the puck. Schwartz fed Lehtera in the left circle for a slap shot past goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Berglund scored at 2:59 when he picked off a Josh Manson pass in the slot, turned and beat Andersen with a slap shot for a 3-1 lead.
"I thought both teams really struggled against the other team's forecheck," Hitchcock said. "I thought we had some really good shifts in the first period on our forecheck and obviously we scored three goals (in the third period) because of it. They put the heat on us too. They come at you with a lot of speed, a lot of size. They come at you really hard."
Tarasenko had two goals and an assist and Paul Stastny scored. Jake Allen made 26 saves to earn his career-high 23rd victory. He is 4-0-0 lifetime against Anaheim.
"Like I said before, we have a lot of lessons this year," Tarasenko said. "Some of them was really bad, some of them was really good. We need to decide what's wrong and look moving forward. ... We're happy to get these two points. It's really important for us."
Allen said: "Yeah, it was nice. Got a couple of big goals at the start (of the third), buried on our chances. It was a great sign, a good start to this trip we're about to embark on.
"Great pressure on the forecheck, creating turnovers, making them make mistakes. Causing our own problems that turned into goals, two wide-open shots, great shots by the guys, credit to them on those."
Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell scored for the Ducks (37-21-9), who are 0-2-1 after a 14-game point streak (12-0-2). Andersen made 18 saves.
"We give them two shots right from the start (in the third period)," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's tough. They're a good team, but we can't make those defensive mistakes. We haven't in a long time and you would like to say those things happen and we haven't seen them happen. We don't want to see them happen anymore."
After the quick goals by Lehtera and Berglund, Rakell made it 3-2 with 4:33 remaining when he scored an unassisted goal that the Blues actually put into their own net. Allen made an initial save, but Troy Brouwer's clearing attempt caromed in off the skate of Stastny and into the net.
To which Allen joked: "Maybe 'Brouw' owes me a beer."
But Tarasenko made it 4-2 with 2:38 remaining, beating Andersen with a slap shot from the slot. Ducks defenseman Simon Despres couldn't handle Fowler's cross-ice pass and Tarasenko picked it off.
Tarasenko capped off his three-point game by hitting the empty net with 1:22 remaining for his 32nd goal of the season from three-quarter length of the ice.
"Yeah, not many guys shoot from there, but he's pretty confident in his abilities and so are we," Allen said of Tarasenko. "I was glad he took it."
The Ducks took a 1-0 lead at 5:17 of the second period when they cashed in on a two-man advantage. Getzlaf knocked in Ryan Kesler's shot from the slot to put Anaheim ahead.
After Lehtera was whistled for interference, the Blues were caught with too many men on the ice for 1:03, but Getzlaf was on the doorstep to bat a loose puck out of midair past Allen.
The Blues tied it at 16:36 when Stastny scored his first in 14 games. He redirected defenseman Carl Gunnarsson's shot-pass from the left point past Andersen for his seventh goal of the season. Brouwer, playing in his 600th NHL game, dug a puck out of the corner and fed Gunnarsson, who waited momentarily before finding Stastny alone to the left of Andersen after the Blues center peeled away from the top of the crease.
"We had one earlier, but we were a little off-target me and him," Stastny said. "Our line's playing well. We're creating chances, we're comfortable out there. We've got to find ways to keep chipping in and keep getting on the scoreboard. That was a big goal for us after they scored a 5-on-3; that's going to happen. We got the momentum back and we just kind of went from there.
"All four lines are clicking. I think when we can roll four lines line that, it's nice that we can kind of play four lines. The last couple games, we've had a lot of penalties in the first period. It's tough to get everyone going, but I think when we're at our best, we roll four lines. When we've got all the guys like that, I think the bench is fluid, I think everyone's kind of moving getting their feet wet and everyone's playing well."
Gunnarsson signed a three-year contract extension for $8.7 million before the game.
"I just got my head up and I was going to go bounce away, but he just peeled out and it worked out OK," Gunnarsson said of Stastny. "... It's always nice instead of being down a goal. Good timing and get some momentum going."
And first place? There will be 12 games left after Saturday, but the approach of just taking it one game at a time has been the best recipe for success.
"Yeah, to be honest, I think we were thinking about that more last year than we are this year," Allen said. "I think this year, the experience we went through last year in the playoffs ... I think the standings to be honest doesn't matter a whole lot. We're going to have to beat all these good teams to get to where we want to go. First place is great, yeah, but in the end of the day, it just matters with wins. I really don't think that's a focal point right now. I think we're just focusing on wins and just trying to get better. Once we get 'Steener' back and 'Ells' and 'Otter' and get our full lineup going, just be ready for playoffs.
|(St. Louis Blues photo)|
The Blues' Jori Lehtera battles Anaheim's Korbinian
Holzer for puck battle Friday at Scottrade Center.
"This is crucial. I think we had one of the hardest schedules to finish the season in the league. To be able to start the way that we did, the way that we have, is great but we've got a long way to go. Only a handful of games left, it feels like the season has flown by already. But we want to finish on the right foot and head into the playoffs on a winning way and just everybody have that confidence again."
Said Stastny: "It's hard to look at the standings because you lose three games in a row, and all of the sudden, you're worried you're going to drop to seventh or eighth. And then you win four or five in a row, you're in first or second. It seems like everyone's winning, everyone's finding ways. We're taking care of that home ice knowing we don't have that many home games. Obviously a big road trip coming up, and after that, we only have two or three. That's important for us and now we've just got to maintain that on the road.
"Last time we played there, they steamrolled us. It's a tough building to play in. We've just got to be ready to go."