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Blues top Stars, 1-0, enter tie for NHL lead

by Louie Korac
ST. LOUIS -- When the St. Louis Blues made a coaching change early in November and the team was floundering in 14th place in the Western Conference, the uphill climb they faced was enormous and challenging.

But in a little over two months, the Blues have arrived. They're sitting atop the NHL with some pretty impressive company.

On Monday night, T.J. Oshie and David Perron worked some third-period magic, and the young forward duo helped the St. Louis Blues move into a tie for first place in the NHL.

Oshie's backhand turned out to be the lone goal, and Jaroslav Halak earned his third shutout of the season and 19th of his career with a 22-save effort in the Blues' 1-0 victory over the Dallas Stars at Scottrade Center.

The win enabled the Blues (27-12-6) to move into first place in the League, tied on points with the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers, who are first in the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers technically hold onto the top overall spot because they have played two fewer games than the Blues, but the company in which they now find themselves says plenty about how far a team that has only one playoff berth since the 2004-05 lockout has come.

"Before the season started, if you would have told us at this point of we would be first in our conference or division, it would be really impressive," said goalie Jaroslav Halak, who improved to 9-0-3 in his last 12 starts dating back to Nov. 22. Halak has allowed only two goals in a span of 211:03.

"It feels good," said Oshie, who notched his 14th goal of the season. "It's been a hard-fought battle to get here. We've got to keep our head and feet on the ground here though. There's still a lot of season left. The standings have been changing every other night here."

It took a gutsy effort by the Blues, who earned a point in a franchise-best 13th consecutive game, going 11-0-2 in that span. St. Louis has an NHL-best 19 home wins. Ken Hitchcock, the man who took over from Davis Payne back in November, is 21-5-6.

"It'll change tomorrow or the next day, but I think it's the 60 (points)," Hitchcock said. “I've said this before: when you get into this stage where you're close to the break, plowing through the 60s and getting into the 70-point total ... when you get into the 70s, the light is at the end of the tunnel. So getting through the 60s is hard because everybody seems to be around that 50-point total at this time. Each conference has 10, 12 teams in the 50-point range. Getting into the 60s is good. And then if we can quickly plow a way and get through the 70s now, there's light at the end of the tunnel. So for me, it's about the points."

Kari Lehtonen stopped 31 shots, but the Stars (24-19-1) have dropped three of their last four.

"We worked hard against a very good club," said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. "We got into a position to have some success. We got it into a next-goal-win game and it just wasn’t us that got it."

It was the Blues, and Oshie and Perron worked a perfect give-and-go, with Perron feathering a pass into Oshie, who deked to his backhand and slid the puck past a sprawled Lehtonen 11:26 into the third period for a 1-0 Blues lead.

"It's a hard job, driving the middle, driving the net," Oshie said. "Perry's been showing he can go to the hard areas. He went there. He made a great play. I was yelling for him to throw it back. Fortunately, I just caught the goalie sliding across.

"My coach Mike Murphy in pee-wees always told me any pass down low, grab it and cut back across. Since it was on my backhand, right away when it started sliding across, I knew what I was doing."

Lehtonen, who came in 7-1 in his career against the Blues, never had a chance.

"They made a nice pass," Lehtonen said of the Blues. "I kind of felt like (Oshie) was going to shoot right away and I tried to get over. He’s a great player and he can see I’m doing that and he held on to the puck and made it look pretty easy."

The Blues moved Oshie to the top line with Perron and David Backes before the game, dropping Chris Stewart down to the second line with Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini. The move paid huge dividends. Backes won the faceoff in the Blues' zone, and Alex Pietrangelo, who extended his consecutive points streak to seven games, made the initial outlet feed to Perron.

"I just felt like we needed a different energy," Hitchcock said of the change. "I just felt like we were too focused on checking other teams' players and their top players were struggling. I thought we needed a different energy in the top six.

"I thought Stewy played well all night. I thought he could go down and play with Bergy and not miss a beat. I thought Osh could fly around and create some energy. It was a great play on the goal by all three guys. ... I just thought the line was on their heels. They were defending too much rather than attacking. Osh is an attack player and that's what he did."

Halak did the rest, and making the first big stop in the third period of the scoreless game was the initial key play that kept the Blues within one shot of winning.

When a bad hop off the boards got past the Blues' Jason Arnott and Eric Nystrom was off on a breakaway at the end of a St. Louis power play, Halak closed the pads on Nystrom's attempt with 11:58 to play to keep the game 0-0.

"We kept (Nystrom) on the outside and I think we did a great job," Halak said. "It was a tough bounce for us on the power play, but I was glad I stopped that one and I kept the score tied."

The Blues haven't been in first place this late in the season since Jan. 14, 2000. They'll savor it for a night, then get back to business as usual on Tuesday.

"We've put a lot of hard work in," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "We've kind of quietly been working our way up the standings and our team's been playing great together. Nobody's been really standing out and carrying it. It's a collective effort, so it feels that much better."
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