Highlight: Blues blank Predators
Blues' young players answer the call
NASHVILLE -- Maybe it didn't look like it during the offseason, but St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was throwing down the gauntlet to his young players.
Veterans Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya were gone. But instead of replacing them with free agents, Armstrong simply turned the team over to his young core of players and essentially said, 'Show me what you've got.'
In the Blues' decisive 3-0 victory in Nashville on Thursday night, the Predators' first loss in regulation this season, those young players continued to justify Armstrong's faith in spades.
"They've earned the right. There's a younger group, our core group of our team, that have earned the right to take a bigger role. To earn that right to be an option on that first or second power-play unit or that first or second penalty-kill unit. There were no veterans left now that got it automatically," Armstrong told ESPN.com after he watched his squad move to an impressive 5-1-2 on the season.
Armstrong, who took over full time this past offseason from long-time Blues GM Larry Pleau, pointed to winger Matt D'Agostini as an example of a player who has taken that opportunity and run with it. The former Montreal Canadien notched his fourth goal of this young season late in the third period to put the game out of reach for the Blues.
"I think we're seeing it now. There's competition every day in practice for ice time, there's competition every night for ice time," Armstrong said.
"More importantly the players are responding by taking that ice, when they get it they don't want to give it up and when they don't have it they want to go and get it," Armstrong said.
For the past two seasons, the Blues hit training camp with the same mantra: get out of the blocks in good shape.
And for the past two seasons all that talk amounted to a puff of smoke on a blustery day.
Through the first half of the past two seasons, the Blues stumbled to a 33-40-9 record. They then went an impressive 48-23-11 in their second-half campaigns.
Two seasons ago, the Blues made the playoffs thanks to that late surge but had nothing left and were swept by Vancouver.
Last season, a strong second half under new head coach Davis Payne, who replaced Andy Murray midway through the campaign, saw the Blues fall short.
This season, the expectations for this team are high, at least internally.
"I think we have a different mindset, a different attitude this year," defenseman Erik Johnson said after Thursday's game.
"I think we really expect to win every game we play in. We get up on teams; we've got to have that killer instinct and finish them off. But I think we knew how important the start was, especially since we got off to such a poor one last year, and we're just trying to keep that streak going," Johnson said.
Of course the one major change in personnel GM Doug Armstrong made over the summer was to add netminder Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens, and that catalyst has the Blues actually doing more than simply talking about a strong start to the season.
Halak was terrific Thursday in notching his second shutout in a row turning aside all 24 Nashville shots he faced. The stoic Slovak was especially strong through the first half of the game when he stoned Patric Hornqvist, the Predators' scoring leader last season, on a breakaway.
Halak has now beaten in succession the past two Stanley Cup champs (Chicago and Pittsburgh) and the last team without a regulation loss. Through his past three games, Halak has stopped 78 of 80 shots he's faced.
"He's such a fun goalie to watch. It looks like he's not even trying he's so effortless. I mean all his motions, there's no wasted energy with him. We feel so confident with him back there he's so cool, calm and collected," Johnson said.
"He's been a great, great asset for us," he said.
As for Halak, he remains the unflappable backstopper that became a cult figure in Montreal last spring when the Canadiens upset Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"It feels great," he said of his second straight goose egg. "But I didn't come into the game thinking about the last shutout. I was just trying to help the guys win the game."
No question Nashville head coach Barry Trotz was impressed not just with Halak but the entire Blues squad.
"It's just a little taste of what the Central Division is all about," Trotz said. "They play a really good team game. They have the lowest goals against and I think they give you the least amount of shots in the league."
NotesThe Blues were waiting for word on the condition of defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who was crunched into the end boards by Nashville forward Jordin Tootoo with less than seven minutes left in the game shortly after the Blues went up 2-0.
Tootoo was assessed a major penalty for charging as he appeared to leave his feet and hit Colaiacovo from the side. Tootoo can expect supplementary discipline from the league for the hit that left Colaiacovo woozy. It's not believed the defenseman's injuries were serious, although he has suffered at least one major concussion in his career.
While St. Louis coach Payne declined to comment on whether he thought the play warranted a suspension, Trotz insisted Tootoo did nothing wrong.
"I looked at it. Jordin didn't move his feet at all from the top of the circles in," he said. "To me, he didn't leave his feet, so I'm a little bit confused on that."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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