Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blues vault to No. 1 in NHL with 3-1 win over Ducks

With 93 points, St. Louis sits atop alone;
Backes, Halak lead charge in win over Anaheim

ST. LOUIS -- Thirteen games into the season, the Blues were a team searching for an identity and some continuity.

They were a game under .500 at 6-7 and not off to the start and promise a talented team that was expected to take that next step.

But a coaching change and culture change in place, four months later, not only are the Blues competing, not only are they in a playoff position ... but standing on top of the NHL standings, it couldn't be.

There are still 14 games left on the schedule and lots can happen, but when the Blues went to bed Thursday night and when they wake up this morning, it will say: St. Louis Blues as the No. 1 team in the NHL.
(Getty Images)
Goalie Jaroslav Halak (41) and Alex Pietrangelo celebrate the Blues' 3-1
win over Anaheim Thursday that vaulted St. Louis atop the NHL standings.

But even though the Blues are in uncharted territory, they seem to be humbled by the whole scenario.

David Backes scored twice, David Perron had two assists and the red-hot Blues moved into the top spot in the overall standings by beating the Anaheim Ducks 3-1 Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

Patrik Berglund also scored for the Blues, and Jaroslav Halak won his seventh straight start, a personal best, by stopping 24 shots. The Blues also improved to 35-0-0 when scoring three goals or more and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 home games against Anaheim. St. Louis is 11-1-1 in its last 13 home games, outscoring the opponents 36-15.

The Blues (43-18-7) improved to 28-4-4 on home ice. The 28 home wins are most in the NHL. Coupled with the New York Rangers' loss at Ottawa, where old friend Ben Bishop backstopped the Senators' win, the Blues have 93 points to the Rangers' 91. Vancouver stayed a point behind the Blues with 92 as it beat Winnipeg late Thursday night.

"Five years ago, we were pretty much last in the standings," said Perron, a first-round pick in 2007. "Now we're first. It's a lot of fun. It's mostly for our fans who have been supporting us over the last five years and even when I wasn't here. ... For us, there's much more work to go and our goal is more than just to finish first in the standings. It's to win the Cup."

Berglund added: "It's a great feeling, but we all are on the same page. We're really humble about it. All the teams are really good. You can't take a day off and think you're better than someone else. ... Hopefully we can stay consistent and keep going."

It's quite a story for a team that was in 14th place at the time they decided to fire Davis Payne and bring on the veteran Ken Hitchcock, who is now 37-11-7 since taking over on Nov. 6.

But the Blues have come together in all facets of the game: in goal, on defense, special teams, timely goals and discipline in all three zones on the ice.

"Our record's good and we are what we are, but we're not one of these teams that overwhelms you with big shot totals and outplays you and your goalie's got to be the first star. We just find ways to win. That's what a team is," Hitchcock said. "We know we're not the most talented team in the National Hockey League, but we are very much a team. When we play as a team, as the game wears on, we find cracks and we've done it all year. We find cracks in the opposition, but we need our goalie to be good every night, we need our special teams to be good, especially our penalty killing.

"We need every aspect of our game on the mark for us to win. Other teams can do it a different way. They got more depth scoring-wise, they got more power on both units on the power play, more units, whatever. But we have to do it a certain way. We need every aspect of our game on the mark for us to win."

Corey Perry scored for the Ducks (29-29-10), who dropped their fourth in six games after a 17-3-4 run. Jonas Hiller stopped 24 shots.

"It's tough for the opposition to play in this building," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Once the crowd gets going, you can see they really get into it.

"Five-on-five, we were just as good as they were, but the special teams, which have been our Achilles' Heel for the last month, snuck up on us again and killed us."

Berglund's first goal since Feb. 9, a span of 15 games, was his 14th of the season and it came off a corner feed from former Duck Andy McDonald. The redirection came with Berglund in tight on Hiller at 4:47 of the third period. It was McDonald's 13th point in nine games against his former mates.

It turned out to be the game-winning goal.

"We talk about it every day: funnel the puck with traffic in front and find the rebound," Berglund said. "It's always hard for the other team to find the puck when you shoot it a whole lot. I think we did a pretty good job there."

Kevin Shattenkirk's point shot at 6:48 of the third period got through a screen and deflected by Backes in front for a 3-1 lead, the Blues' second power-play goal of the game. They are 8-for-20 with the extra man in the last six games.

"For the first period, we thought we could play that end-to-end game," Backes said. "We were tilting the odds against us playing that sort of game. When we got back to getting the puck deep and going in there with bodies and staying in the battles, we tilted the odds back in our favor."

Perry opened the scoring with his team-leading 34th goal of the season 4:18 into the second period when he broke in with Lubomir Visnovsky 2-on-1 and snapped a shot past Halak. Matt Beleskey created the play by making the puck available for an onrushing Perry after absorbing a hit from defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo along the right boards inside the blue line. When Colaiacovo went for the body of Beleskey, it left Alex Pietrangelo to fend off the odd-man rush for himself.

The Blues got the equalizer from Backes on the team's third power play of the game. Perron's wrister from the top of the left circle saw Backes use perfect hand-eye coordination from the slot and he was able to redirect the puck past Hiller at 11:38 of the second period to make it 1-1.

"On the power play, we have to have the a shooting mentality like we have had for a little while," Perron said. "It's something we practice a lot, the high shots like that. I knew with Backs, it was either going to go on the far side or Backs was going to get a stick on it and the play was going to go in. It did, so we'll certainly take it."
(Getty Images)
Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf tries to get away from the Blues' David Backes in
action Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

The Blues held the Ducks to five shots in a scoreless first period, but Halak had to be on top of his game on the last three, which came in succession. After making a save on Ducks defenseman Luca Sbisa from the slot, Halak was outstretched at the left post and was able to thwart a pair of Saku Koivu rebound attempts with 9:44 left in the period.

"It’s always great to win a few games in a row," said Halak, who is 7-0-0 with a 1.40 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in his last seven starts. "But it’s always a team effort, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without the guys and without the PK again and the power play. We scored huge goals."

The Blues extended their penalty-killing streak to 35 dating back to Feb. 14 (or 13 games) by brushingaside all three Ducks power plays and will wake up Friday morning looking down at the rest of the League.

"We can't get caught up in it, though," Backes cautioned. "You think you've accomplished something with 15 games left or whatever we have and you start sliding in a hurry playing teams like this fighting for their playoff lives."

Added defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who has 30 points in 30 games after an assist in the game: "It's an accomplishment, it feels pretty good. We've certainly come a long way. ... We can't really take our foot off the pedal here with so many games left."

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