Line after line after line, the Blues keep attacking with all-out effort
ST. LOUIS — All-out effort keeps proving more valuable than finesse and skill for the red-hot Blues.
A deep and balanced lineup built to wear down opponents can’t always maintain its high-energy style, and a variety of factors made it even tougher than usual against Nashville on Thursday night. But St. Louis did what it needed to for long enough to win 5-4 in a shootout, thanks to four goals in less than 10 minutes in the second period.
"When we can get the puck out of our end and get it in deep and go to work down there, that’s where all of our chances come from," said T.J. Oshie, who beat Carl Hutton to open the shootout. "That’s where all of our momentum comes from, so we were getting pucks to the net and guys were getting a second and a third wave in there."
That led to three rebound goals, including one for Oshie from the slot after Hutton denied Paul Stastny from the left side. The Predators’ backup goaltender made 31 saves and mostly played well in place of the injured Pekka Rinne, but he cracked just enough under relentless O-zone pressure.
Fourth-line forward Ryan Reaves scored the game’s most spectacular goal on a rocket of a slap shot just inside the far post to put St. Louis ahead 4-3. Still, even that play began with extraordinary effort, when Reaves stole the puck from just behind the Nashville blue line.
"I think sometimes it deflates the other team and it only grows confidence in (coach Ken Hitchcock) with us that we can roll four lines," Reaves said. "When you’re doing that, it can wear down the other team especially because we play real physical and they don’t really want to go back and get the puck."
Steve Ott added a goal as well, the first one for a Blues fourth-line forward since he scored at San Jose on Dec. 20. Their offensive production hasn’t been needed much with the more skilled players adopting a more aggressive approach, putting the pressure on opposing defensemen.
It’s not that St. Louis doesn’t have players who can make tough plays with the puck, and in fact Vladimir Tarasenko, among others, showed the Blues can win with more finesse early in the season. But the more direct style Hitchcock prefers gives the team more reliability and margin for error.
He said earlier this week the Blues were the most focused team in the NHL prior to the All-Star break, when they won seven of eight and looked nearly unstoppable on offense. So perhaps it wasn’t surprising they couldn’t match those efforts early in their first game back after a nine-day layoff.
Even All-Star goaltender Brian Elliott looked a little rusty before settling in to make 14 of his 33 saves in the third period.
"I thought the third period they showed they had one more game under their belt and that showed up," Hitchcock said. "We looked like we’d missed eight or nine days."
Although Reaves said injuries to Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera kept the other Blues more involved, they seemed to wear down as Nashville’s deep attack hammered away, finally tying the game with less than three minutes to go in regulation. Hitchcock said the two forwards will join St. Louis on its three-game road trip, but neither will be available Friday night at Carolina.
That’s the first of five straight games against Eastern Conference opponents, which could provide an entirely different kind of challenge for the Blues. Even though their 11-3-2 record against the East is the best of any team in the Western Conference, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said St. Louis sometimes tries to match the advanced skill of unfamiliar opponents.
"We can’t do that, so it’s a matter of beating them up physically, making sure that we’re putting pucks in. And these next couple games, getting on their defensemen and trying to make them play harder than they’re used to," said Shattenkirk, who scored the game-winner in the shootout. "That (strategy) seemed to really thrive and it just feeds into the rest of our game."
Keep up the energy with a little more consistency, and the Blues can only get better.