Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Blues battling Blackhawks for Central lead
(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)
By R.B. FALLSTROM
AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS -- Alexander Steen's production is back, even though he's not close to 100 percent from a concussion complicated by a lower-body injury that's kept him from practicing lately with the St. Louis Blues.
"I'm trying to do what I can to stay in it," Steen said. "It's not the first time with an injury and you learn from experience. I'm starting to feel better and better."
Getting their star back has been a big plus for the Blues. They are out of a lull and again among the NHL's best teams, dueling the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks for the Central Division lead. After Tuesday's games, St. Louis and Chicago were tied for first in the division and for second overall in the NHL with 77 points apiece.
The point total is a franchise best through 52 games for a team known for grinding down opponents with four relentless lines, stingy defense and strong goaltending.
The Blues have won three in a row since an embarrassing 7-1 loss at New Jersey. They rid that bad taste Tuesday with a 3-0 win over the Devils, with Steen getting the scoring started and Jaroslav Halak taking it from there with his fourth shutout of the season.
"Obviously, it's a big blip on the radar and we want to recover and prove to ourselves and them that we're a better team than what we showed in Jersey, for sure," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We're trying to build a good team here."
Steen was the NHL's No. 2 goal-scorer before missing 11 games with a concussion in late December. He's been back for six games and has a point in the last five with three goals and four assists to regain the team scoring lead. But there's no sense of satisfaction from a player who was the Blues' best two-way forward before he developed his scoring touch.
"To be honest, I'm expecting more of myself," Steen said. "I think there's a few notches left to get to where I was. I just feel there's more to my game than what I'm doing right now."
On the game's first goal Tuesday, Steen jumped in for an odd-man rush and got his 27th goal of the season and 100th in six seasons with St. Louis. He looked comfortable. Other times, he's searching for balance.
"He had an unbelievable balance of reward and risk going before he got hurt, and if he can find that balance for the whole game he's going to be really good," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He always finds it when the game is on the line."
Steen has 45 points in 41 games and Tuesday's goal was his seventh game-winner of the season. He totaled six game-winners in 83 games the previous two seasons.
He's already topped his previous career best of 24 goals in 2009-10 and wasn't slowed by what was believed to be a foot injury against New Jersey, playing more than 20 minutes. Steen was hurt ridden into the boards by the Rangers' Dan Girardi.
"There are some times right now he's trying stuff because he wants to create," Hitchcock said. "He knows the right balance; he'll find it."
Halak and Brian Elliott have combined for an NHL-leading seven shutouts this season. Halak has won four straight starts with two shutouts this month, perhaps quieting talk the Blues might be interested in acquiring Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Halak is 7-1-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage his last nine starts.
"All around we were better," forward Brenden Morrow said after the Devils win. "Jaro made some big saves for us early until we found our game."