Youngest Blues players get confidence boost after battling it out for win over Chicago
ST. LOUIS — The future of the St. Louis Blues was on display against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night. On this night, it needed to be more so than ever.
The Blues took the ice against their rivals without leading scorer Alexander Steen, Derek Roy, Ryan Reaves, Vladimir Sobotka, Roman Polak and Jordan Leopold — and then lost David Backes (upper body) late.
But St. Louis emerged, thanks to its youngsters, with a remarkable 6-5 come-from-behind victory in a shootout before a standing room-only crowd of 20,082 at Scottrade Center.
"We got really good performances, especially from guys like (Vladimir) Tarasenko, who was just outstanding," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "(Jaden) Schwartz was outstanding again. A lot of our younger players really came to play today."
The Blues improved to 25-7-5, with 55 points in 37 games, but this is a team that, despite its successes, still has plenty of blemishes — slow starts, a power-play conversion rate trending downward, goaltending concerns and a growing injured reserve list — that will need to be remedied over the next few months before the playoffs.
But it’s also a team that has plenty of room for growth thanks to guys like Schwartz, Tarasenko, Magnus Paajarvi and newcomer Dmitrij Jaskin, who are all 22 years old or younger.
"We know that the depth of our team is one of the biggest strengths we have here and I think a lot of young guys today stepped up," said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who came through with the winning tally in the shootout. "Tarasenko, Schwartz and Jaskin had a great game. They filled roles that maybe they are not used to, so down the line there are going to be more injuries and they are going to have to do the same thing and I think that’s important that we get that kind of experience now."
That’s the silver lining in all this, when that injured reserve list seems to be growing on a daily basis during the dog days of December and every crushing defeat seems like it might just derail the whole thing.
Saturday started off on a bad note as the Blues announced that Steen, the team’s leading scorer, would go on the injured reserve list with concussion-like symptoms.
Roy, the team’s fourth-leading scorer, was scratched with the flu. Then Sobotka was expected to return but suffered a late setback that kept him out of the lineup.
Then the news went from bad to wrose when the Blackhawks (27-7-7, 61 points) opened the game with two goals and led 3-1 after the first period. It looked like Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp might turn the 289th meeting between the two teams into a laugher.
But the Blues kept fighting.
Schwartz scored his 12th goal of the season, and fourth in four games, early in the second period. Jaskin followed with his first NHL goal, in just his fourth career game, to tie the score and breathe new life into the home crowd.
Chicago led 5-3 late in the third period but Tarasenko and Patrik Berglund answered with late goals to tie it. The Blues never quit.
After a scoreless overtime period, it was T.J. Oshie, Tarasenko and Shattenkirk who beat Antti Raanta in the shootout. When Brian Elliot stopped Brandon Saad’s wrist shot, the building erupted.
Schwartz (one goal), Berglund (one goal, one assist, two points) and Tarasenko (one goal, two assists, three points) earned the three stars.
"Schwartzy and Tarasenko have been playing great hockey for us," Berglund said. "They are really dangerous goal scorers and they work really hard all over the ice and obviously have been contributing a whole lot to this team."
Schwartz, who played a career-high 23:52, now has 12 goals and 27 points. Tarasenko, who tied his career high with three points Saturday, now has 12 goals and 20 points.
Schwartz and Tarasenko, both first round draft picks in 2010, are quickly establishing themselves not only as key building blocks for the future but also clutch contributors now when they are needed most.
"They have those young legs right now," Shattenkirk said. "I think the one thing with Vladdy is he’s starting to work away from the puck a lot and work in the right ways and it’s nice to see that. Now that he’s doing that I think it’s creating even more offense for him. Jaden always plays the right way. He plays hard and creates a tremendous amount of offense down low. We’re feeding off them. They are young guys but they are turning into leaders as well and I think that’s great for our whole team."
This is the kind of game you might be able to point to in a few months as a key turning point for the Blues.
Yes, they’re more than happy to take the two points as they head out on the road for games in Dallas and Minnesota before the new year. But it could mean much more in the development of the Blues’ youngsters.
Those kids grew up Saturday night under the microscope of playing the defending Stanley Cup champions before a packed house.
"I think what this does is give younger players confidence," Hitchcock said. "I think Paajarvi being able to play in this game, Tarasenko being as good as he was, Schwartz being as good as he was, Berglund stepping up again. Those guys, that’s the confidence that those guys needed to play in these type of conditions to find out if they could keep up with some of their top players and they did."
The Blues will need similar performances in a few months if they are finally going hoist a Stanley Cup of their own.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.