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Blues beat Lightning 3-1 to clinch playoff berth

by Lonnie Herman
TAMPA -- It was a special night for Jaden Schwartz, and a memorable one for the rest of the St. Louis Blues as well.

Schwartz, making his NHL debut after signing with the Blues earlier in the week, scored on his first NHL shot during a power play late in the first period. It wound up being the game-winner as the Blues beat Tampa Bay 3-1 on Saturday night to become the first team to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The win also gave the Blues 100 points, five more than the New York Rangers in the race for the top spot in the NHL.

The Blues made the postseason only once in the previous six seasons and started 2011-12 with a 6-7-0 mark before firing coach David Payne on Nov. 6 and giving the job to Ken Hitchcock. Less than five months later, they're already assured of a playoff berth.

"It's the first step," Hitchcock said. "We're proud of that. We're organizationally proud of it. It's the first step of what we want to do. It's been two or three months of really good hockey."

Schwartz, the Blues' top pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, made his NHL debut after joining the team on Thursday after his Colorado College season came  to a close. He pushed a rebound through traffic and past Dwayne Roloson on a power play in the final minute of the first period to give the Blues a 2-0 lead.

"It was pretty special," Schwartz said. "It's something you dream about. I was happy I could come in and help get the win. Getting the first goal was exciting."

Patrik Berglund opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal at the 15-minute mark of the opening period. It was his 17th goal of the season and the fifth shorthanded goal by the Blues this season; the Lightning have allowed 10.

David Perron finished the scoring for the Blues when he blasted the puck past Roloson on a breakaway for his 15th of the season.

"We needed the lead, we got it, and we're tough with a lead," Hitchcock said. "We got a power-play goal, we got a shorty, and we got a 5-on-5 goal, and when you do that on the road that's good stuff."

Jaroslav Halak stopped 22 of the 23 shots he faced to earn his 25th win -- and praise from his coach.

"He's good," Hitchcock said. "He needed to be because Tampa Bay had their chances – some very easy ones, too.

"We were really good for two periods. We were really relentless and didn't give up much. We're a tough team when we have the lead and when we check the way we can check. We're grinders and not fun to play against."

The loss put another nail in Tampa Bay's playoff hopes -- not that Lighting coach Guy Boucher thinks the situation changes anything.

"My message to the team was never about the playoffs," Boucher said. "It never has been. The message is "get better every day". Defensively, we're getting better and better. The players have not stopped fighting."

The Lightning had been pointing to this seven-game homestand as the central component in what was hoped to be their playoff push, but after Saturday night the Lightning have dropped three of the first four games.

They barely escaped being shut out by St. Louis for the second time this season, finally getting a goal with 4:11 remaining in regulation when Brendan Mikkelson converted a cross-ice pass from Adam Hall. Mickkelson, a defenseman, was skating as a forward in place of Ryan Shannon, who left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury. It was his first NHL goal and came in the 116th game of his career.

"We hurt ourselves giving up a shorthanded goal on our power play and they scored on their power play," Boucher said. "They get a breakaway and score; we get a breakaway and don't score. They get a 2-on-1 and score; we get a 2-on-1 and don't score. Five-on-five the game is 1-1."

Unfortunately for the Lightning, the game is not always played 5-on-5, and against the Blues their power play was unsuccessful on three attempts, producing just two shots.

"We lost 3-1 to the best team in the League," Boucher said. "With that team, if you start the game behind the eight-ball, it's a tough hill to climb. "

For the Lightning (32-32-7), seven points out of the final playoff slot with 11 games remaining, it's almost an impossible hill to climb now.

"It's tough to fight the reality of our situation," forward Teddy Purcell said. "It's never going to be easy but we're not giving up. It's easy to get down on ourselves and easy to fold the tent in, but you really show who you are when you have some adversity and a really tough hill to climb. Going through this will hopefully make us better in the end."
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