Blues’ potent offense slowed by Red Wings in OT heartbreaker

ST. LOUIS — The red-hot Blues offense finally met its match.

After spending most of January destroying some of the league’s worst defenses, St. Louis knew Detroit would present a tougher test Thursday night at the Scottrade Center. Only four teams have allowed fewer goals per game, and the Blues found out why in a hard-fought 3-2 overtime loss.

"I thought they made it really hard on us to try to create scoring chances," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They really checked us hard in the D-zone. We got no easy ice today, so it was a real challenge mentally and physically."

Controlling the puck and spending plenty of time in the offensive zone had been a hallmark of St. Louis’ impressive five-game win streak, during which it outscored opponents 29-10. Struggles early against Carolina appeared to be an aberration when the Blues rallied to earn two points via shootout and followed that with a 4-2 win over Edmonton on Tuesday.

They appeared to be up to the Detroit challenge early. Despite some bad D-zone turnovers, the Blues mostly controlled play and outshot the Red Wings 13-3 through the game’s first 30 minutes.

But for the first time since a 4-3 loss at Anaheim on Dec. 2, St. Louis failed to find the net in the first period against backup goaltender Petr Mrazed. The 22-year-old who recently took over for the injured Jimmy Howard outplayed Brian Elliott and made 25 saves, including a remarkable snag with his glove on David Backes’ shot from the high slot midway through the second period.

"I think he was very good for them in some key situations where one of those goes in, it’s probably pretty demoralizing the way the game was going, the momentum that we had," Backes said. "I felt I got all of that and right by his head, thought it was going in, but tip your cap to him."

Backes eventually scored a power-play goal to cut into a 2-0 deficit and spark a remarkable comeback capped off by Alexander Steen’s deflection with 47 seconds left. But St. Louis never managed to score in five-on-five play, snapping a streak of nine straight home games with at least three goals.

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The most concerning aspect of the Blues’ struggles came not when they weren’t converting solid chances in the first period, but when they got away from their game late in the second. This offense struggles when it tries to do too much, and St. Louis didn’t move forward as well or look for its shot as frustration started to build.

"In the first period, we were playing forward, we were making simple plays, we were making the play in their own end and we were getting opportunities," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who fired the shot Steen tipped in with Elliott watching from the bench. "As soon as we started making too many plays in the neutral zone and tried to play through them, their skill players took over and we were playing in our zone the whole period."

Hitchcock said it’s a good lesson for the Blues, who have made an astonishing jump from barely in the top 20 in scoring in early November to second in the league with 3.14 goals per game. They’ve reached that point thanks to a balanced lineup of talented forwards and relentless pressure on opposing defenses.

It’s a formula built to work against even the league’s best defenses, as the Blues showed in a pair of 4-3 wins earlier this season over Nashville and the New York Rangers, two of the NHL’s top six teams in terms of goals-against average. St. Louis could easily return to form in Saturday’s home matchup with Toronto, a team that has given up an average of 3.76 goals in its last 13 games.

If the Blues respond well in that game, Detroit may become merely a bump in the road for an offense speeding along the fast track to success.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter at @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.