Monday, January 16, 2012

Blues have reached pinnacle of West with win over Stars

Team is tied with Rangers, Blackhawks with 60 points atop NHL

When the Blues made a coaching change early in November and the team was floundering in 14th place in the Western Conference, the uphill climb they faced was enormous and certainly challenging.

Who really thought this was possible?

But in a little over two months, the Blues have arrived. They're sitting atop of the NHL with some pretty impressive company.

T.J. Oshie and David Perron worked some third-period magic, and the young forward duo helped the St. Louis Blues move into a tie for first place in the NHL.

(Getty Images)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (74) scores the only goal Monday in a 1-0 win as the
Stars' Tom Wandell (23) and goalie Kari Lehtonen try to defend the play.

Oshie's backhand turned out to be the lone goal, and Jaroslav Halak earned his third shutout of the season and 19th of his career with a 22-save effort in the Blues' 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars Monday night at Scottrade Center.

The win enabled the Blues (27-12-6) to move into first place in the League, tied in points with the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers, who are first in the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers technically hold onto the top overall spot because they have played two fewer games than the Blues, but to be in the company they are in now compared to being a bottom-feeder says something just how far a team that has only one playoff berth since the 2004-05 lockout has come.

"Before the season started, if you would have told us at this point of we would be first in our conference or division, it would be really impressive," said goalie Jaroslav Halak, who stopped all 22 shots to earn his second shutout of the season and 19th of his career while improving to 9-0-3 in his last 12 starts dating back to Nov. 22.

"It feels good," said Oshie, who notched his 14th goal of the season. "It's been a hard-fought battle to get here. We've got to keep our head and feet on the ground here though. There's still a lot of season left. The standings have been changing every other night here."

Added Perron: "It's awesome to see compared to where we were five years ago. It's real positive obviously, but I think we're working towards the next game every time. It's good to be up there, but they key goal is to be up there at (the end) of the season. We just have to keep going that way."

It took a gutsy effort by the Blues, who earned a point in a franchise-best 13th consecutive games, going 11-0-2 in that span. They've also amazingly not allowed a goal now in nine straight games and earned a point in a franchise-record 13th straight home game.

"It'll change tomorrow or the next day, but I think it's the 60 (points)," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team has an NHL-best 19 wins on home ice and who is personally 21-5-6 since taking over the team on Nov. 6. "I've said this before: when you get into this stage where you're close to the break, plowing through the 60s and getting into the 70-point total ... when you get into the 70s, the light is at the end of the tunnel. So getting through the 60s is hard because everybody seems to be around that 50-point total at this time. Each conference has 10, 12 teams in the 50-point range. Getting into the 60s is good. And then if we can quickly plow a way and get through the 70s now, there's light at the end of the tunnel. So for me, it's about the points."

Kari Lehtonen stopped 31 shots, but the Stars (24-19-1) have dropped three of their last four.

"We worked hard against a very good club," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "We got into a position to have some success. We got it into a next-goal-win game and it just wasn’t us that got it."

It was the Blues, and Oshie and Perron worked a perfect give-and-go, with Perron feathering a pass into Oshie, who deked to his backhand and slid the puck past a sprawled Lehtonen 11:26 into the third period for a 1-0 Blues lead, which would stand up.

"It's a hard job, driving the middle, driving the net," Oshie said. "Perry's been showing he can go to the hard areas. He went there. He made a great play. I was yelling for him to throw it back. Fortunately, I just caught the goalie sliding across.

"My coach Mike Murphy in pee-wees always told me any pass down low, grab it and cut back across. Since it was on my backhand, right away when it started sliding across, I knew what I was doing."

Perron said he read the play as soon as he got the puck from Pietrangelo.

"I knew if I drove through there, it was going to hit me and he did," Perron said. "I heard him back right away so I knew that I would try to set it up in the middle and a great finish by (Oshie).

"It was a big goal by us and Jaro had some key saves obviously. Good win overall."
(Getty Images)
Blues players David Perron (left) and T.J. Oshie celebrate Oshie's goal in
the third period as the Stars' Loui Eriksson reacts in a 1-0 Blues victory.

Lehtonen, who came in 7-1 in his career against the Blues, had no chance.

"They made a nice pass," Lehtonen said of the Blues. "I kind of felt like (Oshie) was going to shoot right away and I tried to get over. He’s a great player and he can see I’m doing that and he held on to the puck and made it look pretty easy."

The Blues moved Oshie to the top line with Perron and David Backes before the game, dropping Chris Stewart down to the second line with Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini. The move paid huge dividends. Backes won the faceoff in the Blues' zone, and Alex Pietrangelo, who extended his consecutive points streak to seven games, made the initial outlet feed to Perron.

"I just felt like we needed a different energy," Hitchcock said of the change. "I just felt like we were too focused on checking other teams' players and their top players were struggling. I thought we needed a different energy in the top six.

"I thought Stewy played well all night. I thought he could go down and play with Bergy and not miss a beat. I thought Osh could fly around and create some energy. It was a great play on the goal by all three guys. ... I just thought the line was on their heels. They were defending too much rather than attacking. Osh is an attack player and that's what he did."

Halak did the rest, and making the first big stop in the third period of the scoreless game was the initial key play that kept the Blues within one shot of winning.

When a bad hop off the boards got past the Blues' Jason Arnott and Eric Nystrom was off on a breakaway at the end of a St. Louis power play. Halak closed the pads on Nystrom's attempt with 11:58 to play to keep the game 0-0.

"We kept (Nystrom) on the outside and I think we did a great job," Halak said. "It was a tough bounce for us on the power play, but I was glad I stopped that one and I kept the score tied."

The Blues haven't been in first place this late in the season since Jan. 14, 2000. They'll savor it for a night, then get back to business as usual on Tuesday.

"We've put a lot of hard work in," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We've kind of quietly been working our way up the standings and our team's been playing great together. Nobody's been really standing out and carrying it. It's a collective effort, so it feels that much better."

When Hitchcock stepped into his initial press conference with the Blues, the task at hand was daunting. It took exactly 71 days for the Blues to climb up the Western Conference ladder. They've struck pay-dirt, but now the goal is to stay there.

"I don't look at the record, I just look at the way we play," Hitchcock said. "I just know if we play well, we'll get points. It might not come overnight. Has it come a little quicker points-wise? Sure. But the play is what I expected. I expected that the team could play at this level. We still think there's a whole other gear when we get people back ... hopefully this week."

The Blues will need to keep stockpiling points. They have 60, but Chicago (60), Detroit (59) and Nashville (56) -- all Central Division teams -- arguably make up the best division in hockey.

"I thought that we were able to play at this level," Hitchcock said. "I saw this level in this team when I watched last year. ... The point totals are good, but when you look at things, jeez we're going to need these points because to have four teams going like this in the division is ridiculous. To be this hot with four teams, nobody's disappearing on each other. I talked to the Nashville people today. They think they can win the division the way they're playing. This is just going to be a battle to the end. Hopefully we keep playing well."

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