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Blues put win streak on line against Blue Jackets

by Matthew Mankiewich
BLUES (9-1-2) at BLUE JACKETS (8-5-0)

TV -- FS-MW (HD), FS-O (HD)

Last 10 --
St. Louis 7-1-2; Columbus 7-3-0
Season series --
It's the first meeting of the year for these Central Division rivals. They split the series last year, even snagging an extra point in each other's overtime wins, the Jackets prevailing 3-2 on Jan. 30 and the Blues reciprocating with a 2-1 win in their final meeting on Apr. 5.

Big story -- No doubt the Blues are the hottest team in the NHL with a seven-game winning streak, their longest since a nine-game run from Oct. 15-Nov. 5, 2002, which has them right up with the Kings and Capitals atop the NHL standings with 20 points. They're doing it, however, not by smoking opponents with offense but snuffing them out with goaltending. Jaroslav Halak, the hero of the Canadiens' playoff run last year, is 8-1-1 this season with three shutouts. His backup, Ty Conklin, is no slouch either, making 27 saves and shutting out the Rangers 2-0 on Sunday. They go up against a team that's not doing too badly themselves, having won five of their last seven in similar low-scoring fashion.

Team scope:

Blues -- At 2.5 goals per game, the Blues' offensive output matches the Islanders, who have lost seven in a row. The dramatic difference between the hottest and coldest teams in the NHL is the goals allowed, which at 1.42 per game for the Blues is more than two goals fewer than the Isles' 3.50, which also separates first from last in the League.

"Our goaltenders have bailed us out in real key situations, allowed us to play with a one-goal lead, and allowed us to either build upon it or solidify a victory," coach Davis Payne said. "As much as it is a team performance, what they're bringing to the table is not going unnoticed."

Working outward from the nets, the defense has been equally tremendous despite injuries to standbys like Carlo Colaiacovo, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. In their stead go 21-year-old Ian Cole, 22-year-old Erik Johnson and downright grizzled-by-comparison Nathan Oystrick and his 56 games of NHL experience going into this season.

Blue Jackets --
The Blues are not the only ones riding hot hands in goal, as Mathieu Garon has started the last three contests in place of struggling Steve Mason, and has two shutouts to show for it. He lost 3-2 to Minnesota on Saturday, but has a 4-1-0 record, a miserly 1.28 goals-against average on the year and the NHL's second star of the week.

Only trouble is, the Jackets have been generating even less offense than those misfiring Islanders at 2.38 goals per game, which is second-from-last to the Zach Parise-less Devils. And would anyone believe this team has eight wins in 13 games without scoring more than three in a game?

So coach Scott Arniel has been devoting a lot of practice time lately towards getting pucks to the net and making the most of whatever rebounds the St. Louis defensemen allow, not to mention getting numbers on them via the odd-man rush.

"When it comes to being afraid or being worried … that's not the way I approach things," Arniel told the Columbus Dispatch. "First of all, we have to win a game against a divisional opponent that's red hot. There's no better game to be fired up for. Whatever happens, over the course of the game, whether we win by one or we win by three, I want to make sure we're the ones gaining points."

Who's hot -- More aggressive shooting has been the secret to Derick Brassard's seven-game point streak, in which he has five goals. Rick Nash has a four-game point streak going. Alex Steen has six points for the Blues in his last five games, but true to both teams' character so far, only T.J. Oshie has double-digit points with 10.

Injury report -- Blue Jackets center Andrew Murray (knee) is questionable for Wednesday. Blues left winger Brad Winchester is also nursing a knee injury and is also questionable. Forward David Perron missed Sunday's game versus the Rangers and is likely out for Wednesday due to ongoing headaches resulting from a hit by Joe Thornton last week. Jackman (sprained knee) is due for re-evaluation in three weeks, while Colaiacovo (concussion) remains on IR as well.

Stat pack --
One amazing stat for the Blues is the fact that only three players, Winchester, Cole and B.J. Crombeen, have minus-1 ratings. Everybody else is even or significantly on the plus side. The Blues' 9-1-2 record is their best start after 12 games in franchise history. Their four shutouts, three by Halak, are the fastest four shutouts they've ever recorded. They had four in their first 14 games in 2000-01.

Puck drop --
"I don't want our team thinking that all we need to do is score goals, score goals, score goals. We have to make sure we just continue to play hard, create those opportunities. Sooner or later it's got to explode. It's going to happen." -- Arniel in the Columbus Dispatch on the Jackets' barely-adequate offense

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