Monday, January 2, 2017

Blues top Blackhawks 4-1 in first outdoor game at Busch Stadium

Tarasenko scores twice for St. Louis, 
victorious in the 2017 Bridgestone Winter Classic

ST. LOUIS -- The stage was set, and the eyes and ears of the hockey world were entrenched on Busch Stadium and the Blues.

Playing the Chicago Blackhawks, who are used to this stage, and used to big moments with three Stanley Cups in the past seven seasons, this was old hat for them.

But Vladimir Tarasenko and the Blues, wearing their retro inaugural 1967 uniforms, wanted to take a chunk out of the Blackhawks' fervor on the big stage Monday at an overcast and rainy at times Busch Stadium and were able to do so in a 4-1 victory at the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic before 46,556 rabid fans.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera (12) celebrates with teammate Vladimir Tarasenko after a 
Tarasenko goal in a 4-1 win over Chicago at the Winter Classic.

Despite the stage and despite the glitz and glamour, the Blues (20-13-5) had to take a business-like approach in a game that meant as much to them as it did to the reeling Blackhawks (23-12-5), who have lost five of six (1-4-1).

Tarasenko scored two third-period goals to snap a 1-all tie, Alexander Steen had a goal and assist, Patrik Berglund scored and Robby Fabbri added two assists for the Blues in the third of a six-game homestand. And the Blues became just the third home team in the nine Winter Classics to be victorious. 

"I think that was one of the coolest things I think we've done, or I've done," said Steen, whose empty-netter with 1 minute, 14 seconds remaining sealed the win. "That was awesome.

"... You want to try and stay focused on what's going on inside the boards, but there's obviously a few times, especially towards the end. It was kind of a cherry on top to be able to win the game and kind of enjoy that part of it at the end of the game. Boys played good. 'Jakey' was great in the net."

Jake Allen, who only allowed one bad-bounce goal to Chicago's Michal Kempny 1:03 into the game, made 22 saves, but the Blues fired 35 shots in the game, 34 of them at Corey Crawford, who did his best to keep the Blackhawks in it.

But the Blues, once down a goal early, turned up their game and turned it into their favor.

"I thought we played great today," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who sported a stylish, old-school fedora bought at Levine Hat Co. on Washington Ave. in downtown St. Louis. "I thought we ground on them hard, I thought we did a great job in getting pucks deep. I thought we managed the game really well. I thought we played really well. 

"This is the same way we played against Philadelphia, and the way we played for the first half of the game against Nashville. I thought we played a really smart, sound hockey game and, quite frankly, deserved to win."

The Blackhawks, who fell to 1-4-0 in outdoor games, got Kempny's goal quickly on a shot from the left point that skidded off the ice, over defenseman Colton Parayko's leg as he was trying to block the shot, and off the top of Allen's glove and into the top of the net.

"That was so early and it was kind of a (bad) bounce," said Steen, who picked up his 300th NHL assist and 500th NHL point on Berglund's goal. "There's not much you can do on those. ... Yeah, I was proud of our group, I was proud of our game. It's easy to get distracted in events like this, especially if it's your first one. Our group played really well. Our passing game and the way that we supported each other throughout the game was as good as it's been all year."

That was evident on Berglund's tying goal in the second, at 7:45, when Steen threw a pass into the path of Jay Bouwmeester, who took it into the left corner below the goal line and fed Berglund in the slot. Berglund's quick one-timer beat Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell to the puck and past Crawford to tie the game 1-1.

And then in the third, Tarasenko, who had nine shots on goal and 13 attempts, was all over the place; he started it off with a breakaway but was denied by Crawford, then on the power play, snapped a shot off the near post before scoring his 17th of the season on a fortuitous bounce.

The Blues broke out with an odd-man rush after Richard Panik's blind backhand pass to the point was picked off, Fabbri led Tarasenko, who tried to backhand a pass into the slot to Jori Lehtera but the puck caromed off the skate of Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and in with 7:55 remaining to give the Blues a 2-1 lead.

"Everyone was so invested tonight," Fabbri said. "Everyone stayed on the same page. Leave it to 'Vladi' to put us on top there."

Tarasenko struck quickly, 1:53 later, to give the Blues a 3-1 lead after Vinnie Hinostroza turned the puck over at the center red line, the Blues countered with a pass play of Fabbri to Lehtera, who fed Tarasenko. Tarasenko kicked the puck to himself and beat Crawford far side with a wrister from inside the left circle at 13:58 for a 3-1 lead.

"It wasn't on purpose," Tarasenko said of his first goal. "The second one, my linemates just create a good chance for me and it's really important win for us and it's not about my goals. We have a great team, we have a great captain, a great goalie, and we really needed those two points, especially against Chicago."

Said Hitchcock: "Well, he's a hungry offensive player. He's a guy that if he sniffs out weaknesses or he sniffs out coverage issues and he jumps on it. And when he's engaged like he was today and like he's been for the most part of this year, he's dangerous, because he's one shift away from breaking the thing wide open. I thought for sure -- he usually doesn't miss on those breakaways -- and I thought for sure that was going to be the one. But he was very hungry, he was very heavy and hard on the puck and that's, those type of players, they don't come around very often. And I just thought he played a great game at the puck. He was very competitive, he won a lot of board battles, he came up with a lot of loose pucks down low. And then, obviously, he's just got the gift of knowing where the goalie is not when he's on the angles."

Hitchcock made a subtle switch, moving Fabbri to the line with Lehtera and Tarasenko and dropping Jaden Schwartz, who played after falling ill and did not skate Sunday, to a line with Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin.

"It wasn't made because one guy was going better or the other, it comes out of PK," Hitchcock said. "Usually out of penalty killing. So if we're killing penalties, we come off of a PK, we always want Lehtera and Tarasenko to come out right after that, so if Schwartz is killed, then Fabbri takes that spot. So it always comes out of special teams. But it's not by, it's not being disappointed in anything. I liked it both ways. But I thought Robby Fabbri again, now three games in a row, has been excellent and looks like he's really healthy and back engaged again, which is a good sign."

The Blues, who outshot Chicago 11-6 in the third, have been in these close games a lot in the third period lately and have had a some go the wrong way.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Patrik Berglund celebrates after scoring the Blues' first goal in a 4-1 win
over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Winter Classic at Busch Stadium.

This time, it went their way, and the Blues limited Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin and Jonathan Toews to six combined shots on goal, and none for Panarin, who attempted one shot.

"Jake, obviously, was fantastic again," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "I think we did a good job as a group of six back there limiting the second opportunities, that was something that we made sure of. You could see the bounces, you didn't know what was going to happen, a little unpredictable, you look at that first one. So that was a bit of an eye-opener for us and really the goal was to limit the amount of pucks that they were going to get to the net. I thought we did a pretty good job and when we didn't do our job, 'Jakey' was there."

"Our passing game and I think our support. We played to space on the ice," Steen said of the third-period difference. "We were very instinctive. There was times where we supported each other, although it wasn't maybe where you're supposed to go. Everybody was kind of moving and getting to the right places and open and making sure. We knew that the elements was going to be what it was. When pucks bounce a little bit, you need to make sure you have someone that supports you if something happens. I thought we did that for the most part tonight."

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