ST. LOUIS — A small margin for error and too many turnovers led to an uncomfortably familiar result for the Blues.
St. Louis again started slow and couldn’t overcome some key mistakes against red-hot Columbus in a 4-2 loss Saturday, the fourth in five games for the Blues. They gave up two goals in transition and never led as the Blue Jackets held off a heavy offensive attack in the third period for their eighth straight road win and sixth straight overall.
"The game was in their end quite a bit, but their ability to defend was greater than our tenacity to come up with loose pucks and score," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That was the difference in the game. They scored two goals off of odd-man rushes where we made plays that were kind of hope-for plays offensively."
That included the Blue Jackets’ game-winner late in the second period, when they took advantage of a turnover to rush into the offensive zone. Cam Atkinson’s pass went off defenseman Alex Pietrangelo’s skate right to Ryan Johansen, who gladly took it and faked out goaltender Brian Elliott before making a nifty pass to Boone Jenner for a simple tap-in.
Columbus finished with just 16 shots on goal and couldn’t even take advantage of a two-on-none off a far worse turnover by Pietrangelo late in the first period. But for the most part, the Blue Jackets converted their chances far better than St. Louis and sealed the game with an empty-netter from Atkinson.
"We know that they’re a team that capitalizes on your turnovers and giveaways," goaltender Brian Elliott said. "They’ve got guys jumping and we knew that going in."
It’s something the Blues would like to do a better job of themselves, particularly in the first period, when they’ve failed to score in nine straight games. Hitchcock and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said St. Louis could never really sustain pressure in the offensive zone, and creating quality chances hasn’t come easy in recent games.
Whether the Blues can correct their mistakes could determine their fate in the Central Division race, which saw Nashville take a three-point lead with its third straight win Saturday at Washington.
• Top line limited. The Blues may have missed a rare opportunity to play with an entirely healthy lineup.
T.J. Oshie practiced Friday before coming down with an illness, but Hitchcock still expected his forward to play after the team’s morning skate. Instead, Oshie showed up on the lineup as a scratch and Chris Porter stepped in to play alongside Alexander Steen and David Backes.
Steen created one of St. Louis’ best early opportunities, only to get denied twice by goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, but one of the Blues’ hottest forwards wouldn’t get a chance for redemption. He suffered a lower-body injury on a hit in the first period and did not return. Hitchcock offered no update and said Steen will be evaluated Sunday.
• Berglund steps up. No forward responded better to the absence of Steen and Oshie than Patrik Berglund.
He evened the score by finishing a two-on-none breakaway in the second period with his first goal in 13 games off a one-timer on the right side set up by Jaden Schwartz. Then Berglund made a great pass of his own through the Columbus defense to Vladimir Tarasenko, who fired a typically impressive wrist shot that beat Bobrovsky from the left slot.
That goal came on the power play, which needed more help than usual from Berglund without two of its most valuable players. He also played alongside Backes and Porter on the top line at times, although Ryan Reaves and others took over that role in the third period.
"I just try and go out there and do the best you can and help the team (in) whatever way you can," Berglund said after playing more than 18 minutes for the first time since Nov. 18 at Boston. "So didn’t think much about (replacing Oshie and Steen), just try to go out there and play some good hockey.
• Shattenkirk shakes off rust. St. Louis’ All-Star defenseman played a predictably up-and-down game in his highly anticipated return to the Blues’ lineup.
They figured to benefit most from his presence on the power play and St. Louis certainly got its chances thanks to six Columbus penalties. But Shattenkirk struggled a bit early, even uncharacteristically botching a relatively easy play to let the puck drift out of the offensive zone.
"It’s still a work in progress," Shattenkirk said. "Early on it was a little panicky and just trying to get used to the speed of the game and making plays quickly and then from that moment on it was just trying not to overextend myself."
He showed flashes of the great puck movement that made him the leader of a unit that was the NHL’s best for the first three months of the season. Although Shattenkirk didn’t have a direct hand in it, he was on the ice for the Blues’ lone power-play goal of the night and he also made a crucial interception to break up a shorthanded two-on-one for the Blue Jackets.
Hitchcock expected Shattenkirk to play something like 16 or 17 minutes, but he reached a total of 21:34. The frequent power plays made it a little easier for him to stay fresh and he said conditioning wasn’t a problem in his first game since suffering an abdominal injury Feb. 1.