The return of starting goaltender Mike Smith to the lineup after six games on the shelf was not enough to fuel the Phoenix Coyotes to victory tonight in St. Louis. Another listless performance on the offensive end doomed the Desert Dogs to their latest worrisome defeat and they fell to the Blues 4-1 to usher in the new year. Gory details after the jump...1st Period: The question of whether or not Smith could respond to the speed of NHL hockey, after his six game layoff, was answered just 0:23 into the game. Patrik Berglund's ripper from Smith's left was turned away and the goalie's baptism by fire had begun. Just nine seconds later, however, Mikkel Boedker's hustle to chase a loose puck drew an interference penalty by Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. With the early power play, Phoenix was gifted a chance to jump on the home team early, but despite some encouraging pressure by the combo of Shane Doan, Ray Whitney and Daymond Langkow, the PP unit failed to capitalize.
Following the successful penalty kill, the Blues turned on the pressure and began peppering Smith with shots from the perimeter. Smitty was up to the task and made a couple of brilliant saves, including his rejection of David Backes' blast from the slot. Unfortunately, Smith kicked away a juicy rebound and right winger Chris Stewart was in the right place at the right time, lifting the rebound home with a nifty backhand at the 4:43 mark. The goal was created in large part to the aggressive forechecking of defenseman Barret Jackman, who kept the puck in the zone relentlessly before the lamp was finally lit.
Both teams settled down after an active first five minutes and Phoenix continued to dump the puck in deep and chase it down. With 6:33 remaining in the period, Berglund drew a dubious interference penalty on Doan that put the Coyotes in a tough spot. The Blues' 30th-ranked power play unit was in its typically forgiving mood though, and their punchless effort with the man advantage was quickly snuffed out.
Whatever momentum this penalty kill might have provided was lost shortly afterward, when a wave of 40-foot prayers from the Blues inexplicably produced a goal. Vladimir Sobotka's slapper from way out missed the net by six feet, but a fortuitous bounce off of the endboards placed the puck right in Jackman's wheelhouse. His blast from the point was tipped above Smith's glove by Jaime Langenbrunner and the Blues suddenly staked themselves to a 2-0 lead.
Rather than play it snug and take that two-goal lead into the locker room, the Blues decided to stay aggressive and that choice led to Sobotka hooking Adrian Aucoin with 2:24 left in the period. After a previous power play that was decidedly not terrible, the Coyotes were looking to push one past Halak and get on the board. Before they could even enter the offensive zone, however, a faceoff loss led to Backes breaking in alone on Smith, poised to deliver a shorthanded dagger. As he has all season, Smitty stood tall and met the challenge head on, making an incredible save on Backes to keep his team in the game.
Just 29 seconds later Radim Vrbata returned the favor and sniped his team-leading 19th goal of the season. His power play score came courtesy of a tic-tac-toe passing display by offensively-gifted defensemen Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Smith made one more sensational save to close the period, snatching a shot from T.J. Oshie right out of the air and keeping another of those crushing, late-period goals which have plagued the 'Yotes out of the net.
2nd Period: The late goal by Vrbata certainly seemed to reinvigorate the Coyotes and from puck drop forward they carried the play to begin the 2nd period. Winning faceoffs, stealing the puck from St. Louis and registering 4 quality shots on goal in the period's first four minutes, Phoenix appeared to have momentum in their corner.
A holding penalty was then assessed to Yandle after he clutched Oshie, however, and the momentum train was soon derailed by another errant rebound. The Blues last place power play unit played the role of the blind squirrel, beating Smith after a series of shots that missed the net entirely. A powerful blast from the point by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was pushed away by Smitty, but again his inability to corral the rebound resulted in an easy Blues goal. This time it was Oshie who backhanded the garbage behind Smith and the Blues reclaimed their two-goal lead at 4:28 of the period, a lead they would never relinquish. Winger David Perron collected his second assist of the game on the score.The frustration of this goal was compounded for fans and players alike because it might have easily been prevented. With his stick shattered and discarded, Michal Rozsival was rendered toothless on the penalty kill which preceded the goal, and the long line change which he was unable to make directly led to the defensive breakdown.
The rest of the 2nd period featured a heavy dose of the Coyotes' third and fourth lines, with recent callup Marc-Antoine Pouliot contributing solid minutes in his debut with the pro team. Paul Bissonnette, Kyle Chipchura and Taylor Pyatt all made their presence felt following Oshie's early goal, but Halak played confidently in net and turned away all 16 of the Phoenix shots he faced in the period.
A tripping penalty by Sobotka with just over four minutes to go gave the Coyotes a brief sense of optimism, but as has been the case all year their power play was unable to punch one in. The period ended with the Blues up by a 3-1 margin, and with defensive guru Ken Hitchcock behind the bench the Coyotes were in for a long final stanza.
3rd Period: This time it was the Blues who came out of intermission full of piss and vinegar, with the team looking to build on its impressive home record with another win at Scottrade Center. The hockey Renaissance flourishing in St. Louis since Hitchcock's ascendance was evident and the crowd was rocking from rink to rafters. The Blues responded in kind during the period's first few minutes, controlling the puck and denying the Coyotes any entrance points into the offensive zone.
Just over 3 minutes into the 3rd, Whitney was able to finesse a hooking call which was assessed to Oshie, and once more the Phoenix power play was given a chance to make a difference. The timidity and passive play which has plagued the power play reared its ugly head at the most inopportune time, and the Coyotes' predictable shots from the point were easily blocked by the Blues' PK men.
The Coyotes did have a few decent chances as they mounted an ill fated comeback bid, with a scrum in front of Halak at 9:05 producing a couple of pokes at the puck while it slid harmlessly through the crease. Pyatt, Bissonnette and Chipchura each had a go at jamming one past a prone Halak, but Blues d-man Roman Halak smartly slid the puck into the safety of his goalie's pads.
With the Blues slipping snugly into a defensive shell to protect their two-goal advantage, Smith only faced four shots on net in the period. Turning each away, the returning starter finished with 27 saves on 30 shots faced. While a few of those were of the spectacular variety, Smith's rebound control was clearly rusty and led directly to a pair of goals. One can only wonder what the recently demoted Curtis McElhinney may have done against this Blues team after his mastery of the Minnesota Wild.
The Coyotes didn't really do much to speak of during the latter stages of the period and Halak stonewalled them throughout. With the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Phoenix surrendered the final goal of the game with 0:38 remaining, an empty netter by Berglund that apparently earned the home crowd free burgers in the process. With the loss, Phoenix finds itself precariously close to falling out of the Western Conference playoff pack. Another road game against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday means the Desert Dogs will have to dig deep to find their winning ways.