The Blue Jackets look to snap a three-game losing streak Friday night when they face the red-hot St. Louis Blues. The Blues sit second in the Central Division, two points from the conference lead. They’ve won six games in a row and are 11-0-1 in their last twelve.
It will be the second half of a back-to-back for the Blues when they roll into Columbus, spending Thursday night in Buffalo. With a win or an overtime loss, they will set a new franchise record for points in consecutive games with 13. The Blues are 5-3-0 in the second half of back-to-backs this season. Those games have all been played on the road.
The Blues have the best goal differential in hockey, with two of the best young defenders in the game and a balanced attack. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk are two of the game’s best blue liners. Pietrangelo has only seven points and no goals since Dec. 27 but is a plus-10 over that span. Shattenkirk is having another great offensive season, his 40 points tied for second in the league amongst defenseman. He won’t be available in Columbus, however, and is expected to undergo abdominal surgery after an injury on Sunday.
Vladmir Tarasenko, who is having a breakout third season in the NHL, has been the Blues' catalyst offensively. The Russian sniper ranks in the top-10 in goals and points and has a lethal combination of speed and skill. On his line is another breakout star, Jaden Schwartz. After a very solid 25-goal/53-point campaign last season, Schwartz has kicked it up another notch and is playing at nearly a point-per-game pace (18-23-41).
Beyond those two contributors, the Blues have mainstays like Olympic stars TJ Oshie and David Backes, both reliable, two-way players. Also on their line is Alexander Steen, who surprised many last season with 33-29-62 in 68 games. Steen is proving that was no fluke, with 17 goals and 43 points so far this year.
The Blues took down the Blue Jackets last season on Jan. 4 in a 6-2 decision at Scottrade Center. The Jackets held a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period on goals from Artem Anisimov and Mark Letestu, but it was all Blues after that. St. Louis scored three times in the second and beat Curtis McElhinney for three more in the third to put Columbus away, out-shooting the Jackets 37-24 in the process. Patrik Berglund scored twice for the Blues.
It was the Blues’ second win over the Jackets last year, having defeated them at Nationwide Arena in overtime the month before. It was a run for the Blues that is remarkably similar to that of the current squad. The win was the Blues’ eighth straight game with a point (7-0-1) in a streak that would reach 10 games (9-0-1). The Jackets hope to feed on last years’ vibes as well, as they won eight in a row after their loss in St. Louis.
Perhaps more responsible than anyone for the Blues’ success this year is goaltender Brian Elliot, a feel-good story that keeps re-writing itself. Elliot’s injury trouble and a rough 2013 campaign drove the Blues to bring in Ryan Miller last spring. Coming into this season, many thought it was time for Jake Allen to take over the starting role in St. Louis. Instead, Elliot has once again emerged as the Blues' leading man; his 1.95 goals-against average is the best in the league among goalies with more than 12 starts, and his .929 save percentage ranks third behind Pekka Rinne and Carey Price. Elliot was they key in the Blues’ win over Tampa Bay, stopping 30 shots as his team was out-shot 31-18.
Jaden Schwartz has been putting up some big numbers, and he’s done a lot of that damage during the Blues’ recent hot streak. Schwartz scored the overtime winner for the Blues on Tuesday - and it was a beautiful goal at that - during a game in which his team didn’t generate a whole lot offensively against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was his third game-winning goal in the last eight games. Schwartz has three goals and six points in the past five games and, looking back further, he has eight goals and 16 points in the last 13 games. Schwartz had a streak during that run in which he scored a goal in five of six games between Dec. 16-Jan. 13.
“Show Up On Time”
Brandon Dubinsky did not have an explanation, nor did coach Todd Richards. For some reason, the Blue Jackets have had considerable difficulty getting out of the gates strong in the first period of hockey games, and it cost them against the Coyotes. If the Coyotes can take advantage of that head start, the Blues can quite possibly run away with it. The Blues’ 43 first period goals are eighth most in the league. More troubling for the Jackets is that the Blues get stronger as the game progresses. Their goal differential of +7 in the first period improves to +12 in the second and +16 in the third. With the NHL’s second-ranked power play to boot, an undisciplined lethargic start may doom the Blue Jackets.