ST. LOUIS – The penalty kill unit has been the quiet standout in the St. Louis Blues’ rise this season.
The Blues ran their string of consecutive kills to 32 in a row and also got a short-handed goal in a 5-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night that lifted the franchise into a tie for the most points in the league.
“We take real pride in that,” centre Scott Nichol, who stripped Marian Hossa of the puck to set up the short-handed goal. “We’re not on the power play, so that’s kind of like our baby. We want to see it keep climbing.”
Jaroslav Halak won his sixth straight start to match a career best, but coach Ken Hitchcock said strong goaltending is second behind the penalty kill in terms of importance.
“I think the penalty killing has discouraged a lot of the teams lately,” Hitchcock said. “When you kill penalties, you take out the top players and they don’t get a beat on the game, and I think the team loses energy.”
Andy McDonald scored two goals and Vladimir Sobotka had a short-handed score for the Blues, who are tied with the New York Rangers with a league-best 91 points pending Vancouver’s late home game against Dallas.
St. Louis is 27-4-4 at home for an NHL-best 58 points and retained momentum from a season-best 5-1 trip that established it’s now a road presence, too.
“Personally I’ve only been here a short while, but the guys have battled hard all year long,” said McDonald, who played in just his 16th game after being out with a concussion. “It’s a good feeling, but we realize there’s some hockey left to play and we certainly want to keep on this roll.”
Drawing Chicago the first game back from the trip got the Blues’ attention. The Blackhawks had won the previous two meetings 3-1 and 5-2.
“We know we’ve got to play extra hard against a team like that,” said defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who had two assists. “They’re certainly a pretty strong team, we know that. I thought we dominated pretty much the whole game.”
Andrew Brunette scored his 10th goal and first since Jan. 2 for the Blackhawks, who had won their previous three games but failed to get off a shot during three of their power plays. Goalie Ray Emery lost to the Blues for the first time in four career starts.
“Every game is different,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Certain guys didn’t have that pace on the power play or that intensity that you need. You’ve got to work harder when you’re on the power play, it’s not a given.”
Halak has seized the starting role after a season-long job share with All-Star Brian Elliott. He has started six of the past seven games and had to make just 19 saves.
Hitchcock joked that he checks in with goalie coach Corey Hirsch, who tells him he can’t go wrong with either candidate, before making his pick.
“So I just flip a coin and away we go,” Hitchcock said. “It’s a pretty easy decision.”
The Blues took a 2-0 lead in the first on goals by T.J. Oshie and McDonald.
Oshie’s long-distance deflection from the left circle went between David Backes’ legs before trickling between Emery’s pads early in the game. The Blues then scored on the power play for the sixth time in 15 games with 38 seconds to go on a bad-angled backhand by McDonald that deflected off defenceman Dylan Olsen’s skate.
Nichol stripped Hossa in the neutral zone and then threaded a pass to Sobotka, who drew Emery out of the net and scored on a backhand at 1:46 of the second, extending the lead to 3-0.
Chicago got on the board early in the third when Carlo Colaiacovo failed to clear the puck, with Brunette deflecting a wrist shot from the point by Brent Seabrook. St. Louis restored its three-goal edge on McDonald’s fifth goal in four games, on a rush with Pietrangelo, with 4:44 to go and Jason Arnott scored in the final minute.
Halak was fortunate on the Blackhawks’ best chance in the first. Patrick Sharp’s shot hit the left post and instead of banking off the goalie’s backside and into the net the puck got trapped under Halak’s body and eventually squirted out.
“We didn’t get enough shots on Halak, not that many quality shots,” Hossa said. “It just wasn’t good enough.”
The Blues have outscored the opposition 29-13 in the first period over the past 13 games.
NOTES: The Blues are 34-0 when scoring three or more goals. … Blackhawks C Jonathon Toews missed his eighth straight game with concussion-like symptoms. … Pietrangelo has 29 points in his past 29 games, including five goals. Fellow defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk also had two assists.