Blues rumble into All-Star break as hot as they’ve been all season
ST. LOUIS — Give the Blues some time to reach full speed, and they’ve proven themselves quite capable of tightening the screws.
Relatively slow first periods haven’t been nearly enough to stop St. Louis from heading into the long All-Star break on one of its hottest stretches all season. A 3-1 win over Colorado capped off seven wins and 15 points in eight games, with only one victory decided by less than two goals.
Coach Ken Hitchcock and forward Alexander Steen called it the best the Blues have played all season, particularly in a decisive second period. Jaden Schwartz scored the game-winner off his own rebound and T.J. Oshie added another rebound from right in front of the net from David Backes’ long shot to provide some breathing room.
St. Louis and goaltender Brian Elliott would hardly need it, considering Colorado got just five shots on goal in each of the final two periods. Defenseman Barret Jackman said the Blues shored up some mistakes that have allowed comebacks in the past, including a rally by the Avalanche to erase a 2-0 third-period deficit in early November.
"I think when we were getting up early, we were getting a little bit too comfortable and trying to make plays that aren’t there," Jackman said. "The last few games we’ve been just keeping it simple and really just making smart decisions at both blue lines."
The same thing happened in Saturday’s win over Toronto, when the Maple Leafs mustered only 12 more shots after getting 15 in the opening period. Although the Blues fell behind 2-0 in the second period last Thursday against Detroit, they still rallied to tie the game and force overtime.
But excluding that loss to the Red Wings, opponents have scored only four goals in the final two periods of the Blues’ last eight games, compared with seven in the first. St. Louis’ in-game improvements even led to a comeback against Carolina, which couldn’t hold onto an early 3-0 lead in the Blues’ 5-4 shootout win.
Elliott lasted only 13 minutes in that game, but he’s been critical in keeping his team afloat as it found its footing against Toronto and Colorado. Despite an early goal in traffic on a sustained attack by Matt Duchene, Elliott made several key saves to keep the Avalanche at bay.
"The last couple games we’ve kind of taken a little bit to get going," said Elliott, who improved his save percentage to .926 in January. "Your thought at the beginning of the game is try to be big in net and get us through the first little wave and the guys take care of the rest."
He made his best save of the night on Ryan O’Reilly’s point-blank shot with close to a minute remaining, when Colorado desperately attacked the net during a six-on-four following a penalty to Jori Lehtera. Otherwise, St. Louis’ six defensemen made Elliott’s job easy, keeping the Avalanche from getting too close to the net or finding open shooting lanes on their infrequent trips into the offensive zone.
Steen also credited the defense for starting many of the offensive rushes, and St. Louis’ balanced attack kept applying pressure. Unlike many of their wins early in the season, the Blues have been controlling games throughout their recent hot streak by managing the puck well and consistently sustaining possession.
As a result, they’ve earned 11 of 12 possible points during this homestand to move into second place in the Central Division, just two points behind Nashville. The Predators have two games in hand and play at Montreal on Tuesday night, but the Blues have to feel good about their chances if they maintain their high level heading into their next game against Nashville on Jan. 29.
"For us to win we have to pour a lot into it," Hitchcock said. "We need a break and what we do out of the break is going to be important because we play nine games in 15 days and we play significant opponents."
If St. Louis can finish the season like it has been finishing games, this could be a special year.