ST. LOUIS — An impressive weekend put the Blues back in first place and gave them the look of a team prepared to spend some quality time at the top.
That kind of success sometimes means winning games when not in top form, something St. Louis had every opportunity to do Tuesday night against Ottawa. Instead, the Senators rallied back late to send the Blues into Thanksgiving with a 3-2 shootout defeat, their most disappointing loss of the season.
To make matters worse, goaltender Brian Elliott will need to be evaluated for what appeared to be a leg injury that sent him out in the second period with the Blues leading, 2-0. Jake Allen gave up two goals in the third period, including one that he initially stopped before it got behind him and Kyle Turris put it into the net with 41 seconds to play in regulation.
"It’s definitely hard to see a teammate get hurt and not be able to finish the game, especially when you’re Brian Elliott, who cares so much about playing well," said Ian Cole, who scored his first goal of the season in the first period. "He cares so much about winning, especially against one of his old teams."
Coach Ken Hitchcock said Elliott will be evaluated Wednesday for an injury that derailed his bid for a second shutout, which would have lowered his NHL-best 1.90 goals-against average. Allen hasn’t been much worse at 2.00 goals allowed per game before Tuesday, but two losses in his last three appearances may be the first sign of trouble for the Blues’ talented rookie.
Alexander Steen called the two goaltenders "the heart and soul of our team" and they’re the biggest reason St. Louis won its first nine games when leading after two periods. That includes a 3-2 shootout win after the Avalanche erased a two-goal deficit in the third period, but the Blues hadn’t given up a lead in the final 10 minutes before missed opportunities to put Ottawa away came back to haunt them.
"We pride ourselves on being able to lock it down in the third and not allow a team to come back," Cole said. "Obviously, we pride ourselves on being good at shootouts, too, so in both those instances we failed tonight, for sure."
The Blues had won eight of their last nine games decided by one goal or a shootout, thanks largely to quality depth and strong defense in crucial moments. But Ottawa dominated the final 20 minutes with 15 shots and nearly won the game in overtime when Bobby Ryan hit the post on a hard shot before eventually scoring the only goal in the shootout.
The feeling of a missed opportunity lingered in the St. Louis locker room, even though Hitchcock said the Blues didn’t play well all night. They didn’t look re-energized following their return home and a day off, something Hitchcock says can happen after a long road trip.
"We really lacked detail in our game today and that’s what losing hockey is," Hitchcock said. "When you don’t have detail in your game, eventually you crack."
Still, St. Louis managed a point without anything close to its best effort and no points from Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz or Jori Lehtera, one of the hottest lines in hockey over the past 14 games. The three forwards still combined for seven shots, and Tarasenko had one of the best chances to make it 3-0 early in the third period.
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When Tarasenko’s line isn’t scoring highlight-reel goals, the rest of the Blues are getting better at finding ways to put the puck in the net. At least two other lines have been on the ice for full-strength goals in three straight games, something St. Louis previously hadn’t done in two consecutive games all season.
The Blues are in nearly every game thanks to a league-best 2.05 goals-against average — a notable distinction in that the team that led the NHL in GAA also won its division in six of the past seven seasons. Last year’s Los Angeles team was the only exception, and the Kings rode their dominant defense and goaltending all the way to a Stanley Cup title.
Any prolonged absence from Elliott could have serious repercussions, though the St. Louis defense should be back to full strength when Jay Bouwmeester returns Friday. Tuesday’s loss can’t become a turning point, even though Cole conceded it will be tougher to recover from than others.
"But that being said, one thing you’ve got to get good at as a professional is kind of bagging it and moving forward," Cole said. "Put it aside, move forward, practice is tomorrow, get better and then have a good Thanksgiving and win on Friday."
Hitchcock said the Blues should be able to put in a hard day’s work before facing Edmonton at home and then traveling to Minnesota on Saturday. Those two games could be pivotal as St. Louis looks to at least stay tied atop the Central Division with Nashville, who got a big shootout win at home against Los Angeles on Tuesday.
The lack of a road win in four attempts against teams in the top seven of either conference remains the most glaring weakness in the Blues’ resume more than a quarter of the way through the season. It’s certainly something that bears watching in the first week of December with games at Chicago, Nashville and the New York Islanders.
St. Louis has shown great resiliency through injuries and losses earlier this season, something it will need to continue to stay on the right track.