Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shorthanded Blues keep winning, top Wild

Schwartz continues hot streak with goal, assist; team keeps ends 
2013 with second-best record points percentage-wise in franchise history

ST. PAUL, Minn -- After Chris Stewart took a puck to the face in the first period Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild, the Blues were without 53 goals from their lineup counting Alexander Steen and David Backes.

It doesn't seem to matter. The Blues are finding different ways to win games without their top guns, but Jaden Schwartz has stepped up.

Schwartz continued his torrid streak with a goal and an assist, giving him goals in six straight games and 20 points in 18 games (11 goals, nine assists) as the Blues ended a stretch of three games in three and a half days earning six points after knocking off the Minnesota Wild 2-1 at Xcel Energy Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Jaden Schwartz (9) continued his hot streak by scoring in his
straight game in a 2-1 win against the Minnesota Wild Tuesday.

T.J. Oshie scored in his second straight game after going 15 games without a goal, Brian Elliott stopped 24 shots, came within 8.3 seconds of his 24th career shutout and even added his second career assist as the Blues improved to 27-7-5 and continue to stay on the trail of the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division race, pulling within four points with three games in hand. Elliott also improved to 5-0-0 in his career against the Wild.

The Blues also improved to 13-0-1 against Central Division foes, they're 23-1-3 when scoring first and 17-0-3 when leading after two periods. The Blues ended 2013 with the second-best record in terms of percentage points (.756) through Dec. 31 in franchise history. Only the 2000-01 team's 25-5-4 mark (.794) has been better.

How did they do it on this night, you ask? Well, how about 24 blocked shots, consistent sticks in lanes, getting contributions from every and anyone. It's been a recipe for success and the Blues have the belief that no matter what lineup they throw out on the ice, they can not only compete but win.

"We talked about it at the beginning of the year, our depth," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who played over 20 minutes and blocked two shots as well as added a pair of hits. "Rolling four lines and not tiring out the top guys. Obviously we have a lot of important people that are hurt, but there's injuries all around the league and teams have to deal with it. Guys are stepping up really big."

"It wasn't more so much what we were looking for, it was more necessity," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We were obviously missing a lot of guys. The big thing for us was not to have to chase the game. We knew that in Dallas when those guys weren't here and then we knew it tonight. We couldn't afford to chase the game. We chased it once with Chicago (Saturday) and got away with it, but you're not going to get that very often."

There was no Backes (upper body) for the fourth time in seven games, Steen (concussion) missed his fourth straight, and Stewart took a nasty shot to the mouth midway through the first period Tuesday and did not return.

The Blues have placed a lot of faith in guys like Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, Vladimir Sobotka as well as Oshie, Magnus Paajarvi and Dmitrij Jaskin.

Since his return from an upper-body injury, Schwartz has grabbed the bull by the horns and run with it.

"Guys are just stepping up, guys who weren't playing as much and are playing a little more and working hard and battling," said Schwartz, who has 14 goals and 30 points in 37 games. "It's a few gutsy wins in a row now from us. Obviously we miss (Steen and Backes) but it's a chance for guys to step up and get more opportunity. I think we're doing a good job of that. Everyone's just chipping in and playing defensively and staying on it right now."

Oshie gave the Blues a 1-0 lead when a Keith Ballard pass was sent into the skates of Mikael Granlund, who got the puck taken from him by Schwartz, who led Oshie in alone on Josh Harding and Oshie deked backhand before sliding a forehand shot past the Wild netminder 6 minutes, 49 seconds into the second period for a 1-0 Blues lead.

"I don't even know what happened," Oshie said. "It seemed like it just happened so fast. Great play by 'Schwartzy.'

"The depth that we've been trying to get here that management has been trying to get is paying off for us. We do have guys that are stepping up and can step into those big roles and take on a little more responsibility on the ice."

The Wild missed out on an opportunity to tie the game, and Schwartz took off with Vladimir Sobotka and trailer Vladimir Tarasenko on a 3-on-1. Schwartz kept the puck and powered a shot off Harding's right skate at 15:59 of the second for a 2-0 lead. Elliott for the secondary assist on the play.

"I don't think he's bright enough to realize the importance that we're putting on him right now," Jackman jokingly said of Schwartz. "He's a gamer. He's got a ton of skill. His tenacity around the puck and making players around him better is really what is driving him and driving our team right now."

"Getting the lead for us was pretty important," Hitchcock said. "I thought the second period we played was outstanding. I thought overall until really we started giving away the puck a little bit at the end of the third period, we really managed the game well. We took a lot of energy out of their team by making them turn and having to go back and get the puck all the time."

The first period went according to plan for the Blues, who lost Stewart for the game after he took a puck to the face following a dump-in by the Wild's Jason Pominville with 8:30 left.

The Blues were outshot 9-7 but were pretty efficient in defensive coverage and did not allow the Wild much sustained zone time.

The Blues' best chance in the period came with roughly six minutes left when Paajarvi intercepted Harding's pass behind the net, but his wraparound into an empty goal rolled off his stick.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Defenseman Ian Cole (right) looks to fend off Minnesota's Matt Cooke in
action Tuesday night in Minnesota.
Elliott helped the Blues defeat the Wild (who suffered their sixth straight loss) for the seventh time in a row and if not for Ryan Suter's goal with 8.3 seconds remaining, he would have helped shut out the Wild for the third game in a row.

The Blues' shutout streak against the Wild ended at 212:52.

"There were a lot of sticks," said Elliott, who helped the Blues improve to 5-0-2 in their past seven road games and 5-0-1 overall. "When guys are doing that, it just makes it a lot easier. They're not shooting through skates and legs where it's hard to pick up. When they're off a stick in the mesh, that's a good thing for me.

"We kept a lot of things to the outside. They really didn't have any penetration there. I was kind of able to steer the rebounds aside and we were able to get going. When I get an assist on that one goal by steering a rebound, that makes me feel pretty good. Those guys did an awesome job finishing. 'Schwartzy's' pretty hot right now."

Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo summed it up best, using a term legendary coach Herb Brooks used, more notably for the United States Olympic team: You play for the name in the front, not the one on the back."

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