posted on December 30, 2013 08:25
The St. Louis Blues grew up this weekend.
It began Saturday night against Chicago and concluded less than 24 hours later in Dallas. With an assortment of their top players unable to participate due to injuries, the Blues fought and scrapped, finding a way to claim a pair of victories they had to have.
“We realized early on that the depth of this team was pretty strong and we’re putting it to the test right now,” defenseman Brendan Morrow said following Sunday night’s 3-2 overtime win against Dallas. “Guys are getting opportunities and pushing each other. You want to see if you can rise above and step up to those opportunities.
“So far we’re doing it against some tough competition.”
Saturday morning news arrived that forward Alexander Steen, the team’s leading scorer and offensive catalyst, was indeed concussed and had been placed on injured reserve. It was a disheartening development and one that was compounded just a few hours later when Derek Roy (flu) and Vladimir Sobotka (reaggarvated upper-body injury) were scratched from the lineup, leaving St. Louis without seven of its regular players heading into that night’s game against the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks.
“We sure do miss some great and important players for us,” forward Patrik Berglund said, “but we still have to get points [and] win games.”
Three times St. Louis fell behind by two goals, including twice in the first period alone. But after allowing Chicago to control the opening 20 minutes, the Blues began to fight back, beginning with Schwartz’s 12th goal of the season that sliced the deficit to 3-2 early in the second period. Then Dmitrij Jaskin, who was recalled from the AHL’s Chicago Wolves Friday morning, buried the equalizer with his first-career NHL goal off the rebound of Jay Bouwmeester’s shot on net.
“It was a lucky shot and I was just excited,” the 20-year-old forward explained. “I like the games like that, a full house and a lot of emotions.”
However, just as they did in the first period, the Blackhawks matched the Blues goal-for-goal, to re-establish their two-goal lead early in the third period.
The goal that pushed the score to 5-3 in the third period should have been a backbreaker. After denying Barrett Jackman’s clearing attempt from the right corner, Brent Seabrook sent a seemingly harmless wrist shot towards the St. Louis net that somehow found its way through traffic and past goalie Brian Elliott. For the third time, the Blackhawks found a way to keep the Blues at arms length. The game, for all intents and purposes, should have been over at that point.
But the Blues persevered.
“The fourth [Chicago] goal took a little wind out of our sails, but I don’t think we lost focus even when the fifth one went in,” Hitchcock said.
“We just kept playing.”
That’s exactly what his players did. They just kept playing. Rather than try match Chicago’s feverish tempo (which they had done for the majority of the first period), St. Louis’ opportunistic offense focused on getting traffic in front of goalie Antti Raanta and throwing shots on net. Late in the third period they finally broke through with goals from Vladimir Tarasenko, followed by a power play tally from Patrik Berglund that tied the game at 5.
"We knew they weren't going to quit," Kane said. "Of course it's frustrating. We'll try to improve on that and try to make sure it doesn't happen the next time. But with that being said, it's 5-3 with a couple minutes left and they've got all the momentum.”
After weathering a merciless onslaught by the Blackhawks in overtime, the Blues finally finished them off in the shootout with a goal by Kevin Shattenkirk followed by a save by goalie Brian Elliott on Brandon Saad.
Of the five goals St. Louis scored Saturday night against Chicago, three came from players aged 22 or younger, while Tarasenko, 22, tallied an assist on the fourth as part of a three-point performance.
"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,” Shattenkirk explained. “Now that he's doing that I think it's creating even more offense for him.”
Magnus Paajarvi, who was acquired from Edmonton during the offseason, has stepped up in areas that are not necessarily reflected on the scoresheet, laying down hits and battling for position in front of the net.
"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."
Immediately after Saturday’s win, the Blues flew out to Dallas, where they were greeted with some good and some bad news. The good news: Sobotka was ready to go after suffering a minor setback that held him out of Saturday’s game. The bad news: captain David Backes was unavailable with an “upper body injury” (my read—concussion).
"It wasn't good losing 'Backs,' but it was a big jump for us, a big, positive leap getting [Sobotka] back in the lineup,” Schwartz explained.
After allowing Dallas to erase their 2-goal lead in the second period, the Blues dug in, taking the game to overtime with a gutsy 3rd period performance.
“We were outplayed in the second. I felt like we had to regroup. We got caught on some changes and we looked tired,” Hitchcock said. “But for whatever reason, we made a couple of changes on the lines, we found some energy and we were able to play again... We managed the game in the third period.”
In overtime, the Blues once again found themselves on the defensive, having to kill off a two-minute penalty before a tripping call against the Stars put them on the man-advantage with about 30 seconds left in the extra session. The game appeared destined for a shootout until Sobotka slid the puck over to Pietrangelo in the middle of the ice. Pietrangelo wound up like he was going to shoot, but instead fed it to Shattenkirk who buried it in the back of the net for his second game-winner in as many nights.
The victory improved the Blues to 26-7-5 on the year and 12-0-1 against teams from the Central Division.
"I think it was a character win for us playing last night," Schwartz said. "We kind of had a good grip at the start of the game, they kind of took it to us a little bit, but we battled back and found a way to win. I think that's huge for us. We battled through a few injuries so that's a big win for us."
Schwartz and Tarasenko, who were responsible for three of the team’s eight goals over the weekend, were first round draft picks in 2010 and both have done a tremendous job at stepping up and generating on offense for the Blues.
"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."
The St. Louis Blues grew up this weekend. Led by a bevy of youngsters whose roles were significantly expanded due to injuries, the team stood strong in the face of adversity and captured four points it had to have.
“We're feeding off them,” Shattenkirk said Saturday night. “They are young guys but they are turning into leaders as well and I think that's great for our whole team."
No, Saturday’s statement against Chicago and Sunday’s OT thriller against Dallas will not accelerate the return of guys like Steen, Polak, Reaves or Backes. However, both of those games helped legitimize the hype surrounding this franchise’s depth and, more importantly, they significantly boosted the confidence for a group of young players whose impact for this team will be crucial moving forward.
Brian Haenchen is a columnist for InsideSTL. Follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen). You read more of his articles at HanksSportsBlog.com.