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Blues win Central Division, defeat Blackhawks

by Louie Korac /

ST. LOUIS -- Six weeks ago, it seemed inconceivable the St. Louis Blues could catch the Nashville Predators and win the Central Division.

The Blues trailed the Predators by nine points on Feb. 24, but on Thursday clinched the Central with a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks at Scottrade Center. The win, combined with the Predators' 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild, gave the division to the Blues.

St. Louis (50-24-7) is tied with the Anaheim Ducks for the top seed in the Western Conference with one game remaining for each. The Ducks have the tiebreaker with one more regulation or overtime win (42-41).

That race will be decided Saturday when the Blues host the Wild and the Ducks play at the Arizona Coyotes.

"We've come from a long ways back to catch Nashville," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "It looks like it's going to be the toughest division in hockey for a lot of years now. Getting in the playoffs, winning the division, getting home ice is ... any advantage you can get is going to be really important.

"I think we played some of our best hockey. We've missed some of our good players to injury (forwards Alexander Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko), but we had to change the way we played and we had to really get our grind on and we did it. We had to adjust; we couldn't play the way we did before based on personnel. Guys deserve a lot of credit for being able to adjust on the fly. We had no practices, one hockey practice in changing the way we had to play, and we did a good job with it."

Last season, the Colorado Avalanche came from behind to grab the division title from the Blues, who ended with a six-game losing streak.

"We battled," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "We had a little slip-up there a week and a half, two weeks ago, but the character we've showed, guys missing with injuries, that's the type of guys we have in this dressing room.

"... It's a good feeling. It's a long year. We accomplished a lot this year. We've still got to try and clinch home ice advantage on Saturday for the rest of the playoffs. We've still got a lot to play for."

St. Louis goalie Jake Allen made 21 saves, allowing two goals or fewer for his seventh straight game. Dmitrij Jaskin and Paul Stastny scored.

It was the Blues' second home win in the past six and their second win against the Blackhawks in the past five days (2-1 on Sunday).

Chicago (48-27-6) will start the Stanley Cup Playoffs on the road. They cannot catch St. Louis or Nashville and will finish no higher than third in the Central.

"We've just got to be ready for Game 1 and take what we can to play and be ready," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

Andrew Shaw scored late in the third period, and Corey Crawford made 23 saves for Chicago.

The Blackhawks have lost three in a row and scored three goals in that stretch.

"The last three games have been close," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "It just seems to be breakdowns and rushes against at a certain point in the third period that ends up hurting us, so I guess that is the case when you're down a goal. We've got to make plays in the offensive zone, which we didn't do a whole lot tonight. It was a tough one tonight, but you keep playing well, keep building and keep preparing for the postseason."

Jaskin's first goal in 17 games came during a four-minute power play. Chicago defenseman David Rundblad was in the box for high-sticking St. Louis center Jori Lehtera.

Pietrangelo's wrist shot from the point was tipped in front by David Backes, and Jaskin was at the side of the net to tap the puck into the open net with 2:50 go in the second period. It was Pietrangelo's 10th assist in the past 10 games against the Blackhawks.

"I saw David standing in there as [Pietrangelo] was shooting so I was hoping it might get in there somewhere," Jaskin said. "You never know if it's going to end up being a rebound. It was laying right on the line, so it was good."

Allen preserved the lead when he was able to stop Bryan Bickell in alone after the right wing stripped Blues defenseman Barret Jackman from behind in the St. Louis zone with 13:41 remaining in the third period.

Stastny made it 2-0 after Kevin Shattenkirk rimmed a puck around the defensive zone boards and it got past Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. The play turned into a 3-on-1 with Jaden Schwartz feeding Stastny in the high slot for a slap shot past Crawford at 14:05.

Shaw's rebound goal of Teuvo Teravainen's shot made it 2-1 with 2:39 remaining.

"We battled; we've had our ups and downs," Stastny said. "Now we're playing good hockey.

"[Home ice] is big. You always want to start at home. You saw how loud the crowd was today. Against Winnipeg (on Tuesday, a 1-0 loss), it was another level. Today was even another level. For me being new here, you really feed off the crowd."

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