TORONTO • The Blues’ 5-3 victory over Toronto on Tuesday night was as dominating a performance as fans will see in a game that wasn’t decided until the final moment.
The Blues posted 49 shots in the game and led by three goals entering the third period before the Maple Leafs, who put everything into their offense and little in their own end, rallied to make the outcome closer than reality.
David Backes' empty-net goal with 1 minute, 7 seconds remaining capped his second-career hat-trick and lifted the Blues to their 49th win of the season, tying the second-highest total in franchise history.
"We played a really good hockey game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We played probably as well as we've played on the road (this season) for 50 minutes. And then when they started to chase their forwards up to the far blue line and take all the chances...then the game became a little bit of a game at the end. We had a really good game plan and guys followed through for 50 minutes and the game got to be (pick-up hockey) at the end."
With 105 points, the Blues climbed over Boston (104) to regain the top spot in the NHL standings. Each has 10 games left in the regular season.
After starting 0-2 on its four-game road trip, the club claimed the final two games for the split and now returns to Scottrade Center to host the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.
As the playoffs approach, the Blues’ performance will be nitpicked, and deservedly so lately, with the lack of even-strength offense and continued power-play struggles. But after falling behind Toronto 1-0, they looked like world-beaters Tuesday.
Following up Sunday’s impressive 1-0 win over Pittsburgh, the Blues put to rest concerns about their offense, picking up goals by T.J. Oshie and Alexander Steen besides Backes.
It was written and rewritten that Toronto was a desperate club heading into Tuesday’s matchup. The Maple Leafs had dropped five consecutive games and six of their last seven and are on the verge of blowing what was a seven-point cushion on a playoff spot coming out of the Olympic break.
“We were approaching it as we were going to get a team that was going to stomp and fly and we were going to have a fierce competition tonight,” Backes said, “and if we didn’t assert ourselves, they’ve got plenty of firepower where it can get ugly.”
Goaltending has been Toronto’s issue of late, but the Maple Leafs were getting Jonathan Bernier back in net after the starter missed five games with a groin injury. Bernier was terrific from the outset, as the visitors jumped out to a 11-1 shot advantage.
But a high-sticking penalty against the Blues’ Brenden Morrow put the Maple Leafs on the power play and Joffrey Lupul turned the momentum with his 21st goal of the season for a 1-0 lead with 8 minutes, 30 seconds left in the first period.
The Blues, however, would pick up two goals before the end of the period.
Defenseman Roman Polak fired a shot on net that was tipped by Oshie. It fell under Bernier and danced on the goal line before Oshie nudged it across for his 18th goal of the season. That gave him a career-high 55 points and he finished the night with three points, extending it to 57.
“I really haven’t been getting to the hard areas lately and that’s probably why I haven’t been scoring many goals,” Oshie said. “I tipped it, just saw it squeak behind (Bernier) and just wanted to make sure it got to the back of the net.”
Toronto is surrendering an NHL-high 36 shots on goal per game this season, and on Oshie’s goal, the Blues were outslinging the Maple Leafs 21-6. The score, however, was tied 1-1 with 4:05 left in the first period.
With 59 seconds remaining in the frame, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk was whistled for interference and Backes followed with his first goal of the game. Backes’ team-leading 10th power-play goal of the season was good for a 2-1 lead with 33 seconds left.
The Blues were on pace for 69 shots on goal after the first period. They didn’t quite reach that total, but after equaling their season high for a period with 23 to open the night, they finished with 49.
Backes added his 26th goal in the second period for a 3-1 lead, a 4-on-4 goal that he finished after a nifty feed from defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Steen, the former Maple Leaf, made it 4-1 on his team-leading 31st goal of the season with 2:25 left in the second period.
The Blues were cruising at that point, but as the third period went along, they became a little loose and paid for it. After a turnover by Pietrangelo, Carl Gunnarsson cut Toronto’s deficit to 4-2 with 15:21 remaining in regulation. Then Phil Kessel set up van Riemsdyk on the side of the net for a 4-3 game with 4:06 left.
“I would have liked to get a hold of those pucks in the third, but that’s the way it works out,” said Blues goalie Ryan Miller, who improved his career record against Toronto to 32-15-3. “I thought Kessel was going to go around the net and he dished it right back. The other one, I don’t know how that one found its way in. I’m looking to clean my game up and hopefully start make a little bit bigger difference here in the end.”