ST. LOUIS -- When the St. Louis Blues force teams to play their style, it makes for an awfully long night for the opposition.
Playing the Hitchcock way continues to pay dividends for the Blues.
Gritty, relentless, “200-foot hockey” is what the veteran Blues coach likes, and as he often says, "It's a hard way to play and it's not a lot of fun. But if we're effective at it, we can win some hockey games."
The Blues are winning, and that part, at least, has to be fun. St. Louis improved to 12-2-3 under Hitchcock after a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers Thursday night at Scottrade Center, winning for the eighth time in 10 games (8-1-1).
"We played a good game today," Hitchcock said. "We played very hard. Once we got up to speed after five minutes of that first period and got our legs under us, I thought we really did a lot of good things today. We moved the puck, our exits were as good as it's been all year. We were able to get out of our zone and not get hemmed in. We really established a strong forecheck in the ladder half of the first period and the second period. We were able to sustain a good quality game from start to finish. It's impressive."
The Blues are not just winning, but winning with confidence. They're getting great goaltending from both Brian Elliott -- tonight's goalie -- and Jaroslav Halak, who will start Saturday in Nashville and Sunday against Columbus. They're getting great team defense and their forwards are making a habit of back-checking with purpose. That equals an irritating night for opponents, and Hitchcock wouldn't have it any other way.
"What we're trying to do is, we're trying to get teams to play out of their comfort zone, and we did that tonight," Hitchcock said. "We got New York to play a game that they didn't want to play. We got them involved in that. Some teams want to play the way we play, but I think when we're on top of our game, we make it very uncomfortable for the opposition and we made it uncomfortable."
Alexander Steen, who had a goal and an assist tonight, added: "We've done a good job of focusing on our game. We're taking the next step as we go along and we're getting better and more confident. There's definitely work to still be done. We can always improve and I think that's what's driving the guys right now. We're feeling pretty good."
Patrik Berglund, David Perron and Jason Arnott also scored for the Blues, who saw Elliott improve to 13-2-0 on the season by stopping 25 shots. He leads the league in goals-against average (1.43) and save percentage (.947) to go with four shutouts, which is tied for the NHL-best with Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick.
"We've been playing well with leads," Elliott said. "We took the lead, put it in our back pocket and played the rest of the game. I don't think we played their game. We kept taking it to them."
The Blues (18-9-3) ended their five-game homestand with four straight wins. They also are now 13-0-0 this season when scoring three or more goals. Elliott, who has allowed two goals or less in 14 of his 15 starts, beat the Rangers for the first time in his career (1-4-1).
"It's a testament to the team," Elliott said. "When you're seeing the puck well, they're giving you an opportunity to do that. They're blocking shots I can't see and ones that I can, there's no second opportunities and they're clearing it out. That's huge for a goalie. I think both Jaro and myself can say thanks to the guys in front of us because it makes it a lot easier on us."
The Rangers (17-8-4), who dropped their second straight after going 7-1-1, got a goal from Michael Del Zotto. The Blueshirts got 32 stops from Henrik Lundqvist, who has never beaten the Blues in his career (0-3). They are one of two teams (along with Detroit) that the Swede has not beaten in his career.
"This was a game, and the way they play, it's in the trench," Rangers coach John Tortorella said of the Blues. "It's about battles. They're a hard team and they beat us at that game tonight.
"It was fed to us tonight. We didn't win enough battles. It was a game that was going to be played on the wall. They beat us at that game."
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan agreed.
"I don't think we competed hard enough tonight," Callahan said. "We weren't winning enough battles. They out-hit us, they were winning more battles than us. If you're not winning battles down low inside your zone, then you're not going to get offensive opportunities.
"Coming into the game, we knew it was going to be a tight game. They clog up the neutral zone and how good they are defensively in their own zone, to find ourselves down 2-0 early, we had a big uphill battle to go from there."
Getting good net-front traffic enabled the Blues to grab that 2-0 lead through the first period, the first time they have scored two goals in the first in 22 games, since a 4-2 win October 22 at Philadelphia.
Berglund used every bit of his 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame to make a power move off the right half wall. He curled into the right circle and fired a wrister past Lundqvist 7:06 into the game for a 1-0 Blues lead.
Perron scored his second of the season -- and first goal since scoring upon his return to the lineup on Dec. 3 -- when he was in front and tipped Carlo Colaiacovo's shot from the point past Lundqvist 11:03 into the first.
Hitchcock said it's imperative to get the Blues' second line of Berglund, Perron and Chris Stewart going. The trio accounted for two goals and an assist.
"We need that, we need that every night," Perron said. "Talking to Stewy and Bergy before the game, I told them we had to be our best line tonight. I thought we did a good job of playing as good as we could tonight. We need more of that. If we show up like that every night, we'll have success as a line and as a team."
Despite outplaying the Rangers for most of the second period, the Blues saw the Blueshirts cut the St. Louis deficit to one with 3:42 left in the period. Del Zotto's third of the season came off a transition play that led to a 3-on-2, with Del Zotto getting a pass in stride from Brandon Dubinsky and beating Elliott with a backhand play after a nifty move.
Del Zotto's goal came on the Rangers' second shot of the period, one in which they were outshot 13-5 but broke a scoreless streak of 118:30 dating back to Sunday's home victory over Florida.
The Blues did regain their two-goal edge on a Steen goal that goes down in the grit category, because it certainly wasn't one for the highlight reels.
T.J. Oshie saucered a short pass towards Steen, who flipped the puck into the air one-handed going to the net. Somehow, it descended and dropped in off Lundqvist's back 1:01 into the third for a 3-1 lead.
Arnott's empty-netter with 2:17 sealed it. It was Arnott's 28th career point in 39 games against the Rangers.
The Blues, who are 7-0-1 against the Eastern Conference, improved to 14-0-1 when leading after two periods.
"It's attention to detail," Elliott said. "Once we come in the dressing room after two and we've got a lead, it's 20 minutes and we're done. Guys have good sticks and good legs and they just keep working hard. We hardly give up any good chances in the third. You make a couple saves and they're pulling the goalie at the other end. That's what we've got to keep doing."