In a week with one showdown after another against the top teams in the Western Conference, the Blues have proved that they are definitely one of them.
The Blues won their fifth game in a row Friday, seizing on a series of Anaheim turnovers for a 5-2 win over the Ducks before a sellout crowd at Scottrade Center. The win, coupled with Dallas’ 5-2 win over Chicago, sets up a showdown for first place in the Central Division on Saturday night in Dallas against the Stars. The win jumped the Blues over the Blackhawks and into second place in the division, and a regulation win over the Stars would give the Blues sole possession of first in the Central with 12 games to play. The last time the Blues were alone in first was Oct. 19, six games into the season, right about when the team’s plague of injuries was starting to reach biblical proportions.
“With everything we’ve gone through, we wake up (Saturday) morning in a hockey game for first place,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Nobody would have thought of that because of everything these guys have been through. That’s a real feather in their cap. This is 3-0 against top teams and a chance to go 4-0 tomorrow. A tough opponent, but it’s pretty impressive that we’ve been able to maintain a competitive level despite missing key guys all year.”
The Blues started the week with a 4-2 win over a resurgent Minnesota team, then beat Chicago in a shootout 3-2. Anaheim came in with an 8-1-1 record in its past 10 games and was a point out of first in the Pacific Division. Now come the Stars at the start of a five-game, 11-day road trip. The Blues won’t play again in St. Louis until March 25.
“We got a couple of big goals at the start (of the third period), buried our chances,” said goalie Jake Allen. “It was a great sign, a good start to this trip we’re about to embark on.”
It’s the second five-game winning streak of the season for the Blues, and the other one was just a few weeks ago. That one quickly turned into a three-game losing streak when Alexander Steen got hurt. But just when it looked like the volume of injuries may have finally buried the Blues, they turned it around at a pivotal point of the season.
The talk in the room after the game, though, wasn’t about first place, but about the team’s level of play and the need to keep it going.
“I think we’ve kind of found a niche and found line combinations,” said Paul Stastny, who scored the tying goal in the second period. “We’re all playing well together. We’ve all had the same continuity with each other. Different nights we’ve had different people step up. When the team’s playing well, that’s always a good pick-me-up. It happened so fast, it’s hard to notice it’s five in a row for us. Today was winning the first of a back-to-back for us and it’s right back to work tomorrow.”
“We have to beat all these teams to get where we want to go,” Allen said. “First place is great, yeah, but at the end of the day what matters is wins. I don’t think (first place is) a focal point now. I think we’re focused on wins and trying to get better.”
“I think that’s why we’ve had success,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve played with no memory and no rear-view mirror, but I think there will be extra juice for everybody (against Dallas). That’s a fun game to play.”
The Blues did it Friday by coming from behind against one of the league’s best defenses and then putting a game away for a change. Stastny scored to tie the game late in the second and then Jori Lehtera and Patrik Berglund scored 64 seconds apart early in the third to put the Blues ahead. Vladimir Tarasenko scored two goals late in the third period after Anaheim had cut the lead to 3-2, pouncing on a turnover to score with 2:38 to play and then scoring into an empty net with 1:22 to play.
Three of the Blues’ goals were unassisted, and goals two through four were the direct result of Anaheim turnovers. On the final goal by Tarasenko, he got the puck in his own slot and fired it 145 feet for his 32nd goal. (“Not many guys shoot from there,” said Allen, who wasn’t that far behind Tarasenko, “but he’s pretty confident in his abilities and so are we. I was glad he took it.”) The Blues had allowed goals two of the past three times an opponent had pulled its goalie, but this time they got the job done.
“We have a lot of lessons this year,” Tarasenko said. “Some of them were really bad, some of them were really good. We need to decide what’s wrong and move forward. We talk a lot about 6 on 5 and we’re happy to get these two points. It’s really important for us.”
On the go-ahead goal, Tarasenko broke up an Anaheim clearance and Jaden Schwartz fed Lehtera for his second goal in three games since returning from a head injury. Sixty-four seconds later, Anaheim’s Josh Manson tried to flip the puck out from behind his net and put it right on the tape of Berglund in the slot, and he one-timed it past Frederik Andersen for his second goal in three games.
Anaheim got within a goal with 4:33 to play when the Blues put the puck in their own net. Troy Brouwer went to clear a rebound in front of Allen but his clearance hit the skate of Stastny and went into the open side of the net. (“Brou owes me a beer,” Allen said.) But then Tarasenko stole a pass and scored to get the goal back and then sealed the win 76 seconds later with his first multi-goal game since Nov. 14.
“We created goals by our checking,” Hitchcock said. “We did a really good job of creating turnovers. We didn’t need our power play for the first time and we created so many scoring chances off our checking and that’s a good sign. When you’re willing to work for your chances, that’s a good sign that your team’s got a good work ethic and a good focus.”
The Blues got their first goal on a deflection from Stastny of a pass by Carl Gunnarsson, who signed a three-year contract extension Friday afternoon. “He didn’t tell anyone,” Allen said. “Everyone had to find out on their phones before he told anyone. That’s just Carl for you.”