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Halak, Blues hang on to top slumping Coyotes

by Louie Korac

ST. LOUIS -- Since Jaroslav Halak returned from a bout with the flu that forced him to miss five straight games, the St. Louis Blues goalie has posted a near-clean slate.

Halak, who was pulled after the first period in his start prior to falling ill, against the Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 28, returned to earn a shutout against the Calgary Flames last Thursday. On Tuesday night, the Phoenix Coyotes were able to beat him once, but Halak was a barrier the rest of the way and helped his team earn two points.

Halak didn't get much work, stopping 20 shots, but he stood tall in the third period and thwarted the slumping Coyotes on a number of quality scoring chances in a 2-1 victory at Scottrade Center.

The Coyotes (21-16-9) outshot St. Louis 8-2 in the third period, but Halak stood tall on each occasion, including two saves in the first two minutes, the highlight being a sprawling stop on David Moss to help preserve the victory for the Blues (32-8-5).

"I knew the guy was backdoor," Halak said. "I tried to get there. I didn't know what I was doing. I just tried to put a stick on it, and it hit me and stayed out. I think, for the most part, we did a good job except the last period. We didn't play our game.

"I had a fever that wouldn't go away, and I kept getting tired real fast. Now that the virus is gone, I'm feeling pretty good."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock gave Halak credit for the win.

"This is a game where our goalie saved us," Hitchcock said. "We wanted to play a different game than was out there, and our goalie saved us. He was terrific from the start to the finish. He made three big saves in the third period early, and this was a game probably if you look at it, we didn't deserve to win. We probably deserved a better fate in Vancouver [Friday], a much better fate, and we probably deserved a worse fate [Tuesday]. Hopefully, it equals out, but this is a game that we were looking for an easier game and we didn't get it."

Halak's teammates were equally thankful for his efforts.

"He had an unreal game. He made some big saves for us," said forward T.J. Oshie, who scored both St. Louis goals. "He made some huge saves. That game could have been easily turned the other way into a 5-2 victory for them. Big saves, and that's what we expect out of him every night."

Oshie has stepped up his name since being named to the U.S. team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics on Jan. 1. His second two-goal game since Jan. 2 provided all the offense the Blues needed to win their fifth in a row on home ice.

"He's a huge reason [for the win]," Blues captain David Backes, who had two assists, said of Halak. "We need to play better in front of him and get better as the game goes instead of tail off."

The Blues won for the seventh time in nine tries (7-1-1) against the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and sixth in seven games.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored the lone goal for the Coyotes. He also scored Monday in a 5-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. A night after seeing 38 shots, Mike Smith made 16 saves but fell to 0-5-2 in his past nine appearances.

"We gave ourselves a chance to win [Tuesday], at least," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "For a hard back-to-back, we were competitive in the game. We did a lot of little things very well and we had opportunities to get points with great chances in the third, and we couldn't capitalize. Usually when you're in a bit of a slump, you've got to earn your way out of it, and we took steps in the right direction [Tuesday]."

Oshie gave the Blues a 1-0 lead when he took an Alex Pietrangelo feed at the top of the right circle and ripped a one-timer past Smith 9:54 into the first period. It was Pietrangelo's ninth point (seven assists) during a six-game point streak.

"I was yelling from about the red line when I got on the ice," Oshie said. "[Pietrangelo] kind of put it on a tee. I didn't even see it go in. I just heard everyone started cheering."

Halak saw little action in the first, stopping four shots, but he made a nice blocker save on Ekman-Larsson with 4:42 left to preserve the Blues' slim lead.

Oshie struck again to give the Blues a 2-0 lead when his shot from the blue line found its way through traffic and past Smith, who was screened on the play by Jaden Schwartz. The power-play goal came at 12:54 of the second period.

The Coyotes finally beat Halak when Ekman-Larsson's wrister from the right circle got past Halak with 47.9 seconds left for a power-play goal. Defenseman Keith Yandle kept the play alive with a terrific stop of an attempted clear on the blue line in front of the Coyotes bench.

Ekman-Larsson's goal snapped the Blues' streak of successful penalty kills at 21.

Halak had to be sharp right off the bat in the third period, making a point-blank stop on Lauri Korpikoski 14 seconds in. Halak outdid himself with 18:18 remaining in the game, taking a sure goal away from Moss with a stick stop while sliding from left to right.

Radim Vrbata had another great chance for the Coyotes with 4:16 remaining in the game, but his wrister rang off the crossbar from the left slot.

"You have to earn it against him," Vrbata said of Halak. "We didn't play well enough to earn it, I guess, so this is the result. We have to keep working and hopefully it will change."

The Blues are 8-1-0 in their past nine games and 10-1-1 in the past 12, outscoring opponents 48-19 in that stretch.

The Blues' record held true to form when leading after the first period. They are now 19-0-2 when taking a lead into the first intermission. The Blues and Chicago Blackhawks (17-0-2) are the only teams in the NHL without a regulation loss when leading after one period. The Blues also improved to 27-1-3 when scoring first.

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