ST. LOUIS — Injuries and sickness could have doomed the Blues during a daunting opening month of the season.
That was the easy narrative after a 2-3-1 start during which Paul Stastny went down and an contagious infection invaded the locker room that continues to ravage most of the St. Louis roster. Five straight games against 2014 playoff teams figured to put the Blues in a deep hole, and a home meeting with the Western Conference leaders from Anaheim looked to be the toughest test yet.
Instead, Ken Hitchcock’s team rose to the challenge and won three straight, including its most impressive performance to date in a 2-0 win over the red-hot Ducks on Thursday night to avenge a 3-0 loss at Anaheim. Hitchcock continues to emphasize keeping it simple and refuses to make excuses for injuries, even though he conceded Thursday morning St. Louis is in "scramble mode" rather than running smoothly.
"I think the players feel comfortable playing this way," Hitchcock said. "It’s not the high octane and high level that we maybe had before based on personnel, but I think until we get the big boys back we’ve got to play this way, and this is adjustments we have to make."
Stastny missed his fifth straight game with an upper-body injury, and St. Louis forward Joakim Lindstrom became just the latest player to miss a game due to the infection that won’t seem to leave the Blues alone. But perhaps the two most concerning injuries were the ones that dealt a huge blow to the team’s starting forward line.
Captain David Backes hasn’t returned to the ice since suffering a concussion from a hard fall early in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime win at Dallas, and a period later T.J. Oshie slid face-first into the right goalpost. He played the rest of that game but was diagnosed with a concussion the next day and is believed to be dealing with some other complications, according to Hitchcock.
But it was the player who has missed the most time this season who created the critical opening goal against the Ducks. Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson returned from a hip injury when he played in limited action Tuesday night, and his shot from near the blue line on the left side deflected off the leg of Alexander Steen less than five minutes into the game.
After erasing one-goal deficits in wins against Chicago and Dallas, St. Louis led nearly the entire game in its first victory without overtime against Anaheim in their last nine meetings. Another unlikely hero, Ryan Reaves, simply took advantage of a bad turnover by Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler to slot home a third-period goal on an assist from Maxim Lapierre.
The new starting forward line of Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin created a few opportunities but didn’t need to do anything flashy to stop Anaheim’s top line, led by Corey Perry, the NHL’s leading scorer. He finally got free for Anaheim’s best opportunity of the night in front of the net off a rebound on a five-on-three power play in the third period, only to be denied by goaltender Jake Allen.
"We got back to playing our style and I thought (Berglund’s) line played an incredible game," Steen said. "They were matched up against Perry’s line quite a bit, and then of course Jake was great in the net."
He saved all 24 shots on goal to notch his first shutout of the season, again demonstrating why Hitchcock has so much faith in his two goalies. Both Allen and starting goaltender Brian Elliott have been consistent enough to post goals-against averages below two goals per game, and no opponent has scored more than four.
Allen said he wasn’t sure when he’d get another start with Elliott’s success, but Hitchcock certainly hasn’t had any reason to change his strategy of giving Allen one start each week. The play of the two goaltenders has seemed to inspire spectacular defensive plays with everyone willing to give up their bodies to stop the puck, and Lapierre even saved a puck off the line late to preserve the shutout.
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"Every team in the league is going to have losses all season long, and unfortunately, we have them right now," Allen said. "So just to see everyone step up and stick together — they are one of the best teams in the league with so much firepower — guys were sacrificing themselves tonight and it was a big win."
Hitchcock says the Blues have shown significant progress since a 4-1 loss to Vancouver a week ago, when he left wondering how to correct some serious flaws in their game plan. Suddenly, they find themselves on an unlikely hot streak heading into Saturday’s game against visiting Colorado, which got out of last place in the Central Division with a 5-0 win over the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
Lindstrom looks to be the only player with a chance of returning the next time St. Louis takes the ice, and salary cap issues will keep the team from bringing up any new players. Amazingly, that doesn’t seem so troubling now that the Blues have proven their current roster can beat just about anyone.