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Red-hot Blues handle Avalanche to start road trip

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- If the St. Louis Blues have any weaknesses, they have yet to show many while running up an 18-3-3 record and challenging for first place in the hotly contested Central Division.

The Blues were solid in all aspects of the game Wednesday in a 4-1 win against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center that opened a three-game road trip.

The Blues are as hot as any team in the NHL. They've won five consecutive games and are 10-1-1 in their past 12.

"We are sticking to the way we play," said left wing Alexander Steen, who scored his 20th goal in the first period to tie Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead. "Pucks are bouncing our way and we are taking care in our own end and our goaltending has been phenomenal. We have been getting our chances, and our power play has been clicking, and it helps that we are playing sound offensively."

The win was the second for the Blues in two games this season against the Avalanche (17-6-0), whose winning streak ended at three. The Blues had lost eight consecutive games here since a 1-0 win April 12, 2009.

"We haven't had good history in this building the past few years, so we needed to set the tone," said Blues captain David Backes, who had a goal and an assist in the first period when St. Louis took a 3-1 lead. "We wanted to make sure we were playing the right way and going to the net with sticks on the ice."

Avalanche center Matt Duchene returned to the lineup after missing three games because of an oblique injury; he played because center Paul Stastny was scratched after experiencing back spasms.

Duchene hasn't had a full practice since he was injured Nov. 16 against the Florida Panthers and wasn't expected to play until Friday against the Minnesota Wild.

"I was going to take two more days, but when Paulie went down it was one of those situations where I need to step in and I felt good enough to do so," Duchene said. "At that point it wasn't precautionary anymore and we just went with it. I'm just thankful to get out of that game without anything more in terms of being hurt. I feel great and I'm looking forward to playing on the weekend."

The Blues scored at even strength, on a power play and while shorthanded in the first period. Chris Stewart closed the scoring with an empty-net goal with 1:44 to play.

Backes opened the scoring at 2:46 when he redirected T.J. Oshie's pass behind goalie Semyon Varlamov, who on Saturday posted a 1-0 overtime win against the Los Angeles Kings.

"To tell you the truth, I didn’t see the goalie," Backes said. "I saw the pass coming across and had defenders on me and just had my stick out there and [Oshie] made a great play. So I don’t think I can take much credit for putting it in the right spot, just making the hard play and finding some luck.”

Steen made it 2-0 at 6:10 on a power play. It took the Blues 36 seconds to convert after Avalanche defenseman Jan Hejda tripped Oshie. Backes slid the puck through the slot to Steen, who had inside position on defenseman Nate Guenin for a chip shot past Varlamov.

"I just came down the back side," Steen said. "The last time we played them we had a couple shots from the slot. They were sitting a little bit on it, but that opened up a back-door pass."

Avalanche coach Patrick Roy used his timeout immediately after Steen's goal to settle the team, which at that point was being outshot 9-1.

"I told the guys let's try to get one and go into the second in a one-goal game," Roy said.

The Avalanche pulled within 2-1 at 8:24 when Patrick Bordeleau scored his third goal, a career high. Brad Malone took a shot while skating along the right-wing boards that goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped. The rebound went to the Blues' Maxim Lapierre, but Hejda stole the puck for a shot on goal and Bordeleau jammed it in.

Colorado had a chance to tie the game on a power play when Ian Cole went off for holding Duchene. Instead, Blues forward Jaden Schwartz scooped up the puck in his zone after the Avalanche misfired on a pass. Schwartz went end-to-end before firing the puck by Varlamov's glove at 18:12 for a shorthanded goal and a 3-1 lead.

"They had some momentum going with the puck in their end, so it was nice to put us back up by a couple of goals," Schwartz said.

Roy said, "That hurt a lot. We didn't have a good first period."

The Blues killed all four Avalanche power plays and have killed 20 of 21 penalties in the past seven games.

"Our power play was brutal," Duchene said. "It felt like at times we didn't want the puck, we were kind of shoveling off the problem to the next guy. When you're on the power play, you have to want the thing. We have to execute better and we didn't do that and that let us down for sure.

"We lost the game in the first 10 minutes. I think if we play a little bit better in the first 10, if we go into the second with a 2-1 deficit, I think maybe it's a different game. They're a good team and we've got a lot to learn before we can beat a team like that consistently. They do a lot of really good things and we can learn from them. We also can't give them too much respect. They're in our head a little bit probably, and we have to get rid of that and keep moving on here."

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