By Lou Korac
After they emerged from a 23-minute closed-door meeting following a discouraging loss on Thursday, the Blues said they weren’t going to make excuses, they said they weren’t going to look for any, and they said they needed to play better, plain and simple.
It’s only one game, but it has to start somewhere, and a 7-3 statement win on Saturday night against the rival Chicago Blackhawks was certainly a good place to begin moving forward.
The Blues (3-4-3) weren’t perfect by any stretch, but they were able to play with a purpose and do it for a sustained period of time.
Zach Sanford, who was called up on Oct. 15 from San Antonio of the American Hockey League, led the charge with a goal and two assists and got the Bobby Plager Gloves as selected by the players as the player of the game.
Sanford and linemates Ryan O’Reilly, who also had a goal and two assists, and David Perron (one assist) have been scorching hot, and the trio paved the way for the Blues in the second of a seven-game homestand and quieted the doubters at least for one night, and quiet those that want coach Mike Yeo fired.
“It was nice. We played a much more complete game,” said O’Reilly, who extended his point streak to five games (three goals, seven assists). “When they gained momentum, we didn’t break. We stuck with it. Obviously they’re trying to score, too, and weathered their storm. We stuck with it tonight. It’s nice to see and I thought we played a much more complete game, that’s for sure.”
The Blues got a goal and two assists from Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, one of the outspoken players after Thursday’s 7-4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, scored twice in the Blues’ best offensive output since a 7-2 win at the Los Angeles Kings on March 10, 2018.
“This is really emotional for us,” Tarasenko said. “Everyone understands how important this game was. The most important thing now is don’t think it’s over. It’s not the end of the season, so now we have stuff to build on. I told you two days ago guys are going to put 100 percent out there [Saturday].”
The Blues did get 16 saves on 19 shots from Jake Allen, including a clutch right pad save on Brandon Saad with 1:01 remaining in the second period, but Allen collided with Sanford on the play and after a few moments of laying on the ice, Allen would leave the game in favor of Chad Johnson, who stopped all five shots he would face the rest of the game.
“It’s part of the game. Injuries happen,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to be ready throughout the game. Stuff like that can happen pretty quick. Sometimes when a guy gets pulled for the score, you can prepare a little bit more. You can see it a little bit, but this one was a surprise. Jake made a big save and a little bit of traffic hit him. Just part of the game.
“It was a tight game, a big game really for us, too. I got in the game a couple days ago, which was nice. I felt more comfortable than I did a couple nights ago. I felt a lot better and obviously the guys battled and competed. We got the result we wanted.”
Sanford, who lost all of last season in the NHL (he did play 20 games with San Antonio) because of a shoulder injury sustained in training camp with ex-teammate Dmitrij Jaskin and missed a week of camp this season with the sudden and tragic death of his father Michael, has seemed to find his comfort zone. He has six points (three goals, three assists) in five games since his recall.
“I didn’t know exactly how it would go,” Sanford said. “I came in and tried to play with confidence. I got a great opportunity and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of taking advantage of it for now. My linemates have been a great help, the whole team as well. Hopefully, I can keep playing this way.
“Last year was pretty tough being out. The older guys helped with that a lot giving me the motivation, keeping me focused on how to get back. Coming back in this year, I felt great. I still feel really good, so I feel happy about that.”
Tarasenko gave the Blues a 3-2 lead at 1:39 of the second period on the power play when he used Pat Maroon as a pylon in front of Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, and Tyler Bozak made it 4-2 at 5:14, scoring into an open net from the slot after a good forecheck.
But the Tarasenko goal was created by Sanford, who picked off a Brent Seabrook pass at the blue line, sent O’Reilly in alone before O’Reilly drew a hooking penalty on Erik Gustafsson.
“I knew he was going to try and pinch me off,” Sanford said of Seabrook. “He had his stick the other way, so I figured I’d try and cut back. I didn’t have as much speed as ‘O’Ry’ so it was great support from him. A great chance and a penalty call and we end up scoring, which was huge for us.
“That’s another thing our team’s been talking about, blocking shots, good changes, no turnovers. It’s the little things like that, drawing penalties. Those are what helps us win these type of games.”
The Blues have allowed a league-worst 18 goals in the third period, so something needed to change on that end, and with a 4-3 lead, fans were nervous with every opportunity coming at them. But the Blues stayed on their toes and continued to attack.
Tarasenko scored at 15:40 of the third period to make it 5-3 on a rebound in front by crashing the net on a Pietrangelo shot from the point, and Pietrangelo scored an empty-net goal at 18:02 to extend the lead to 6-3. Jay Bouwmeester got an assist on Pietrangelo’s goal to give him 400 points in the NHL and 100 with the Blues.
Alexander Steen scored a power-play goal with 15.4 seconds remaining on a one-timer from the slot to make it 7-3.
“We had questions about this before last game on how [Tarasenko] needs to score more goals from different areas and I think he understands that,” Yeo said. “He’s buying into that. He scored one below the goal line last game and tonight he gets one from an area that we all know that he’s very dangerous from with great net front on that goal and then he scores another one from in front of the net. That’s important and he’s going to continue to have success if he continues to do those things.”
The Blues outscored the Blackhawks (6-3-2) 3-0 in the third period.
“It’d been addressed and it wasn’t deviated,” O’Reilly said. “We wanted to come out focused. We were taking it shift by shift and just kind of winning the next battle, just making the next play. They had some good chances, but we didn’t panic. We kept talking, we kept moving our feet. Some guys won some huge battles that gave us a chance to win that.”
The Blues outshot the Blackhawks 14-5 in the third.
“I think it was just the competitiveness,” Johnson said. “I think at the end of the night, the team that out-competes the other team for the majority of the game, especially in the third period usually wins the game. I think tonight you saw that competitiveness.”
O’Reilly gave the Blues a 1-0 lead 18 seconds into the game on a redirection off a cross-ice pass from Sanford and after a Patrick Kane goal, Sanford scored to make it 2-1 at 5:28 off a great pass from O’Reilly to Perron, who fed Sanford with a wide open cage.
The win felt good for the Blues.
“The players really responded today,” Yeo said. “We’re still in the process of building our game. I don’t think we can play one game and just say, ‘OK, now we’re there.’ I would probably expect that we have a couple other peaks and valleys in the next few weeks, but we’re getting closer. I still believe that. We have a much better idea of what our game looks like. We’ve got more guys playing it more consistently and so we have to stay on that.”