By Lou Korac
It was the classic trap game, one in which the Blues had to guard against. What could possibly go wrong?
The Blues had just come off three emotionally draining wins against the Tampa Bay Lightning, 1-0 in overtime, to complete a successful dads trip and then back-to-back home-and-home wins over the Nashville Predators (3-2 at home Saturday and 5-4 in OT in Music City in Sunday).
Those games came in a span of three and a half days, and to come home against a sub-.500 team near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
But these Blues had the right mindset and mentality at the morning skate, and Colton Parayko said then that the Blues can’t afford to take anyone lightly and points are too previous right now.
Not only did the Blues not take the Devils lightly, they thoroughly dismantled them in scoring the most goals this season and most since 2017 with an 8-3 thrashing Tuesday before 17,509 at Enterprise Center, the Blues’ seventh win in a row.
The Blues (28-22-5) just took control of this game from the opening puck drop. They possessed the puck for what seemed like the entire first period in taking a 3-1 lead and outshooting New Jersey (21-27-8) 20-6, and the 3-1 score could have been a lot worse.
Ask Devils center Travis Zajac.
“They played a really good hockey game,” Zajac said of the Blues. “I think they came out, they moved the puck really well and executed really well and we were chasing it early. … It could have been worse than it was.”
The Blues got two goals and one assist each from Alex Pietrangelo and Ivan Barbashev, Ryan O’Reilly and Tyler Bozak each had a goal and an assist, Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko and Parayko each had two assists, and Jordan Binnington won his sixth straight start, the first Blues goalie since Brent Johnson to win at least six in a row (Johnson won seven in a row twice, Oct. 6-Nov. 18, 2000 and Nov. 29, 2000-Jan. 1, 2001).
Binnington is 10-1-1 his first 12 starts in the NHL with a 1.82 goals-against average and .927 save percentage.
Yeah, it was that kind of night for the surging Blues, who are now two points clear of Minnesota for the first wild card in the West but remained two behind Dallas for third in the Central Division.
“We know that. The big thing was getting up early,” Pietrangelo said of not having a letdown. “You feel like you build early on and get ahead of them. We just took off from there. We hit the start well, we tried to find some energy early and we did that and worked.
“It was one of those nights where things are going in. Mine goes off their guy, ‘Bozie’ goes off their guy. We got the bounces but all those opportunities that we created – eight goals – all those goals from opportunities, either on the defensive end making a play or winning a puck on the forecheck or a neutral zone forecheck. Those are the things we’ve been trying to build all year and that’s where we’re creating a lot of our offense.”
The Blues coaching staff addressed it Tuesday morning, and needless to say, the players took it to heart.
“After you come off a trip with Tampa and you have back-to-back games with Nashville, it’s three obviously really good teams in the standings,” Blues interim coach Craig Berube said. “We played hard against all those teams and competed. They were really good games, all of them were close games, heavy games.
“You have the New Jersey Devils coming in and you look at the standings and where they’re at and you can maybe say, well, we don’t have to really show up for this game. You can’t do that. They’re a good team. All teams are good in the league and we wanted to compete right away in this game and come out in the first period and dictate how we’re going to play and guys did a great job. We harped on that and made sure guys were ready and they did a good job and they were ready.”
The Blues had the Devils so flummoxed throughout, the usual mild-mannered Keith Kinkaid, left in the game as the sacrificial lamb in goal, slammed his stick over the goal on Mackenzie MacEachern’s breakaway goal to make it 5-1.
“Our team game is really solid right now,” said Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz, who finally scored a goal for the first time in 23 games and 417:37 seconds of ice time. “Obviously guys are feeling pretty good. I think you can tell in how aggressive we are. Everyone knows how the standings are and how tight it is. If you’re losing a few, you’re sitting on the outside looking in. I think we’ve done a good job of staying even-keeled and not getting too ahead of ourselves and approaching each game one at a time.”
Vladimir Tarasenko had two assists to give him an NHL career-high nine-game point streak (seven goals, seven assists).
“It was fun. It’s fun winning,” Barbashev said. “We’ve just got to keep winning.”
St. Louis, which has won seven in a row for the first time since Jan. 17-Feb. 5, 2015, has won 10 in a row against the Devils, outscoring them 37-13.
The eight goals are the first for the Blues since an 8-3 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 21, 2017.
“I just think everyone is bought in, everyone is playing a team game,” MacEachern said. “You can see, for example, the Nashville game everyone was sticking up for each other in those scrums. It’s good to see and we’ve just got to keep doing that going forward.”
The Blues took a 1-0 lead on Pietrangelo’s seventh goal at 5:08 of the first period, a shot that caromed off the stick of Jesper Bratt, then Barbashev scored 1:33 later to make it 2-0 after MacEachern forced Kinkaid into turning the puck over behind his net, Robert Thomas hit the post, but Barbashev pounced on two loose pucks before slipping it past Kinkaid and the wheels were coming off.
“It’s the fourth line. That’s what we do,” Barbashev said. “We’re just mucking out there.”
Pavel Zacha cut the Blues lead to 2-1 at 10:30 of the first after the Blues got a little careless with the puck in their zone with two turnovers, but Schwartz scored his first goal since Dec. 18 to make it 3-1 at 15:47.
“Just happy. I didn’t know if it went off ‘Bozie’ … there were a lot of guys in front of the net,” Schwartz said. “I seen the reaction of the guys on the ice. They were pretty excited for me. It was nice to see it go in.
“I wasn’t sure how the next one was going to go in, but you missed a lot of good chances, you get bounces one way or another. It was nice to see that one be a fortunate bounce for me.”
Schwartz’s teammates were as equally excited for him to finally end the drought after 72 shots on goal without a goal.
“It was priceless,” Barbashev said of the reaction. “Everybody was happy for him. He didn’t score for a long time. I think everybody was happy.”
“He’s had a lot of good looks,” Pietrangelo said of Schwartz. “It’s not like he’s not getting chances. It’s hitting a shin pad or a post, whatever.
“I’ve said it since he came, he does so many things that most people don’t see that we appreciate in this locker room. He’s such a dynamic player in so many different ways, even when he’s not scoring, I’m sure it’s a weight off his shoulders. He almost had another one but he’s going to keep rolling offensively.”
The Blues scored three times in the second. O’Reilly scored 30 seconds into the period to make it 4-1 on a beauty that went bar down past a helpless Kinkaid. MacEachern’s breakaway made it 5-1 at 6:11 and Bozak’s goal made it 6-1 at 15:20.
“I think they’re a very confident group right now,” Berube said. “We’ve done a really good job over the last little while of coming out in the first period and … maybe the Florida game we didn’t do that well … but the other games I thought we dictated how we were going to play and the pace of the game … getting it in deep and working, shooting pucks and recovering them … hard work and competitiveness.”
Pietrangelo’s first two-goal game since March 17, 2018 against the New York Rangers made it 7-1 45 seconds into the third period, a 4-on-4 goal that seemed like the Blues were dangling the puck on a string.
“That was a nice,” Pietrangelo said. “‘O’Ry’ made a heck of a play in the middle of the ice there. Not much else but to shoot, I thought I’d give it a try.”
Kyle Palmieri scored a power-play goal with a two-man advantage at 8:01 of the third to make it 7-2, but Barbashev’s shorthanded goal at 9:25 made it 8-2 on a rebound after Kinkaid made a terrific save seconds before on Alexander Steen, who now carries the longest goalless streak at 23 games.
Mirco Mueller’s first goal of the season at 12:44 of the third made it an 8-3 final, but for all intents and purposes, this one was over very early.
The seven-game winning streak came at the most opportune time that thrust the Blues into the top eight in the conference, but quite frankly, this is who everyone thought they could be at the start of the season.
“It’s an 82-game stretch,” Schwartz said. “Every team goes through ups and downs. We had a tough time early in the year. It was a lot of adversity on us. There were some tough days, but obviously we learned from it. It’s made us a lot better and right now, it’s really playing off.”
Photo courtesy of Scott Rovak/St Louis Blues