Monday, March 27, 2017

Blues' top line, Allen lead way in 4-1 win over Coyotes

Steen, Tarasenko, Schwartz combine for 10 
points to keep pace in Western Conference race

ST. LOUIS -- The 19,164 that paid to watch the Blues and Arizona Coyotes on Monday were in the process of asking for their money back.

In the first period, the hockey was boring, there was no bite, and the Blues needed some sort of jolt in a game where two points mattered much more to them than the Coyotes.

This is where coaches normally say, "Our best players need to be our best players," and Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz took matters into their own hands.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues teammates Jaden Schwartz, Nail Yakupov & Alexander Steen (20)
congratulate Alex Pietrangelo on his second-period goal Monday.

In the end, after the trio had already combined for seven points, they teamed up for one more goal, one by Tarasenko, but it was evident that Steen and Tarasenko tried to get Schwartz a hat trick.

The Blues' top line saw Steen leading the way with a career-high four assists and matching a career-high four points (done two other times), Schwartz had two goals and one assist and Tarasenko had a goal and two assists as the Blues took care of business with a 4-1 win against the Coyotes for their 10th straight win against Arizona, and the Blues have earned a point in 14 straight against the Coyotes (13-0-1).

The win for the Blues (41-28-6), 5-0-1 in the past six, leaves them still one point behind Nashville for third place in the Central Division and two behind the Calgary Flames for the first wild card in the Western Conference. Nashville won 3-1 at the New York Islanders and Calgary took care of business at home, 4-2 against Colorado.

But more importantly for the Blues, they now have an 11-point edge on the Los Angeles Kings, who are the lone team mathematically alive for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the conference after the Blues eliminated Dallas and Winnipeg.

"It's that time of the year," said Schwartz, who got his first two-goal game since Dec. 6 against Montreal. "Everyone knows how big these points are and everyone wants to keep moving up and there's teams on everyone's heels. That's just how it is this time of year."

And the Blues kept pace because their top line got the ball rolling offensively, and Jake Allen was robust in goal with a 21-save performance to improve to 7-0-0 lifetime against Arizona.

In a first period that was as stale as the score indicated (0-0), neither team produced much offensively, but Allen had to make two strong saves in a 5-5 shot total for the period.

"We were just a little too relaxed, I think," said Allen, who earned his 30th win on the night and become the first Blues goalie since Chris Mason (2009-10) to win 30 games in a season. "First period on both teams, each team had a couple good chances, but other than that, it was a pretty slow period. I think both teams were a little sluggish to start and it wasn't good. It was 0-0, which was fine, but it definitely wasn't a great start."

Something clicked, and it was the top line that got the ball rolling.

"Yeah, we weren't good in the first, that's for sure," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "And so what you hope, you go in and you obviously challenge the group to be better from that point and so what you hope is that the response starts from your leaders and we got that."

"I thought after the first period, we started working a lot harder," Steen said. "I think we've had our fair share of chances in the recent last few games here and have hit posts and goalies made some saves, but tonight, we kind of turned it in our favor and got some bounces for us."

Schwartz put the Blues ahead 1-0 at 7 minutes, 53 seconds of the first when Steen made a move past Connor Murphy and slipped the puck in a spot for Schwartz to snap it past Mike Smith.

"That was a great pass," Schwartz said. "I saw him hesitate, I was on the outside, and that meant he wanted me to jump to the inside. The 'D' was focused on him, I think he drew a couple guys to him, that's what left me open and he made a great pass."

Steen added: "I knew once I made the move behind the net that I had a little bit of space. 'Schwartzy' made a great read, I think we both saw that area right away, so it was pretty easy. 

"He's easy to play with. He's a hard working guy which makes it easy to read off him. He's more times than not he's in the right spot. You know, just like that goal, you see the same area and he kind of jumps toward it. He's a good player, man."

Alex Pietrangelo's 12th of the season, which ties a career-high set in 2011-12, came after Nail Yakupov, who got an assist for the third straight game, tried to dangle through Anthony DeAngelo, but the puck caromed off the Coyotes defenseman right to Pietrangelo, who hammered a shot from the right circle off the far post past Smith at 12:28 of the second for a 2-0 lead.

That's when Allen came up critical.

After making key saves on Josh Jooris and Tobias Rieder in the first, Allen made four crucial saves in the second to keep it 2-0.

He denied Christian Dvorak's backhand charging hard at the net with 4:46 left in the period, then made the outstretched glove save on Max Domi with 4:41 left and heard the appreciation of the fans.

"You hear them, but you're pretty zoned in," Allen said. "It's tough to explain unless you're in the position that I'm in. You love the energy and hearing the energy. You more or less hear it at the start of the periods, but once the clock starts, it's all business. It's just something that grows on you after playing goal for 15-16 years."

Allen then made two back-to-back saves on Jordan Martinook late in the period.

"Jake was huge tonight," Yeo said. "The first period, for us to come out 0-0, that was on him. And then the second period, obviously we grab a lead there and at the end of the period, we gave up a couple of massive chances that not only did we keep the lead, but I thought the building came alive. I think the building recognized what he was doing for us and so we certainly got momentum from that as well."

"Obviously it's a jolt to the group," Steen said. "The biggest thing he brings to the table is a calmness. When there's a breakdown, you feel a confidence and he's going to stop this one and we're not going let that happen again. It's a little bit of a jolt for the group.

"... I've been saying it for years. I think you could see it right away when he came up in training camps and stuff. The technique and, in my opinion, he's got one of the better hockey senses in the group. He's able to read the play almost like in the beginning of the year, he was reading it too well, he was almost a step ahead and the bounce would beat him. He's a solid goaltender. I think he's one of the top three in the league."

The Coyotes (27-40-9), who got a goal from DeAngelo and 24 saves from Smith to finish off a five-game trip 1-4-0, got on the board on DeAngelo's long-range one-timer 1:01 into the third to make it 2-1, moments after Schwartz put a shot off the post and Smith robbed Steen with a sprawling glove save at 19:33. 

But the Blues regrouped, got a big goal from Schwartz at 10:06 after a pretty passing play between Steen and Tarasenko's backhand in the slot, and Tarasenko finished off a 3-on-1 when he and Steen tried to get Schwartz his hat trick.

"That's probably what everyone tries to do when anyone has two goals," Tarasenko said. "Just tried to set him up for a nice empty-netter, but I miss the play. Say sorry already.

"... It's nice 'Schwartzy' start scoring again. They're both are great players. I keep saying this, it's a pleasure to play with them and we need to improve more and win the games that we have left to prepare for the playoffs."

"It doesn't matter," Schwartz said of the hat trick. "These two points are all that matters right now. I knew 'Vladi' was looking for me, hat tricks aren't something you're really worried about."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen (left) makes a save on Arizona's Christian Dvorak
in the second period of a 4-1 victory on Monday at Scottrade Center.

It didn't go his way, but Swansea, Ill. native Clayton Keller, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Arizona on Sunday, made his NHL debut in the building he grew up watching and idolizing what would be his AAA Blues coach, Keith Tkachuk.

Keller, who was the seventh pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, played 14:09 and got a tap on the shin pads from Tarasenko at the opening puck drop.

"It's something I'll never forget," Keller said. "He's an unbelievable player. He's a star in the league and someone I definitely look up to. It was awesome.for him to come up and say congrats on the first one here.

"It was a really special moment getting to start. It is something I will remember forever and you only have one first NHL game, but I thought it was pretty cool."

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