The St. Louis Blues have cooled off lately after their hot play once Ken Hitchcock took over, and have even suffered a three-game winless streak -- their longest of the season. The losing ended Tuesday night in a dominating performance against the Phoenix Coyotes, winning at home, 4-1, thanks to a relentless forecheck and good goaltending from Jaroslav Halak.
Mike Smith returned to action Tuesday evening after missing six games being placed on IR. Smith appeared to be a bit rusty in his return against the Blues.
Smith's troubles began when the Blues kept the puck in after a failed clearing attempt by the Coyotes, and keeping their cycle alive. David Backes shot a one-timer from David Perron, which was stopped. But a rebound came right out to Chris Stewart, whose patience with the puck got Phoenix scrambling and Smith to commit a bit too early, giving St. Louis the 1-0 lead early in the game.
The second goal by St. Louis, a Jamie Langenbrunner tip-in from Barret Jackman's blast from the point after a play off of the boards, did not leave much for the Coyotes players to blame Smith. Smith, in fact, came up big, stopping a shorthanded opportunity from Backes. Following the save, the Coyotes reset on the power play, and a give-and-go between Radim Vrbata and Keith Yandle resulted in Vrbata bringing the game within one late in the second period.
Still, the Blues continued to press for more goals, despite still having a 2-1 lead going into the third period. A series of shots on a St. Louis power play led to Smith challenging the Blues a bit too much, leaving just enough space for T.J. Oshie to easily backhand in the puck before Smith could return to his position.
An empty-netter from Patrik Berglund with 37.9 seconds remaining in the game sealed the deal for the 4-1 win over the Coyotes.
Overall, the Coyotes have struggled defensively in more recent games, even though they began the year well. With Smith struggling as well even before the injury, it hasn't helped that the team has not tightened up on the back end to help ease their starting goaltender in the game.
On the flip side, the Blues have begun to trust Halak more in games, giving him the go ahead to start more recently, which is in contrast to the way the season began for him. He has returned the favor for them through his performance in those games, holding St. Louis' leads and keeping the momentum on his squad's side and posting consecutive .971% save percentages.
St. Louis may have slipped a bit in the Western Conference and Central Division standings during their mini-skid, but they're still not too far behind, They are only two points behind the Detroit Red Wings and three points behind the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks -- the Blues will be all right.