OTTAWA, Ontario — Winning the games you’re supposed to win is a sure sign of a good team. In the highly unpredictable world of the National Hockey League, that’s easier said than done.
But the Blues took care of business Tuesday, defeating the Ottawa Senators 5-2 in their first game at the Canadian Tire Center in 28 months. Vladimir Tarasenko scored twice, Brayden Schenn stayed hot, the fourth line chipped in. And Ville Husso? He continues to just win, baby, stopping 20 shots in pushing his record to 11-3-1.
The Blues have stubbed their toes against some lesser teams lately, most notably New Jersey last week. But that wasn’t the case Tuesday. The Senators got the Blues’ full attention.
“They’re a team that sticks around. They make every game a hard game,” said Robert Thomas, who finished with a goal and two assists. “They work extremely hard and they got a lot of skill.”
The same could be said for the Blues, who improved to 28-14-5 — exceeding their victory total from last season (27) in what was a COVID shortened 56-game season. With 61 points, the Blues moved ahead of Nashville, which lost 4-1 Tuesday to Washington, into third place in the Central Division.
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But it took one minute 14 seconds of a 5-on-3 penalty kill to help make it so in the third period with the Blues clinging to a 3-2 lead.
“They’re game-changers, that’s for sure,” coach Craig Berube said. “That’s a big turning point in the game.”
First, Ivan Barbashev went off for hooking just 2:20 into the period, and then the Blues were whistled for too many men on the ice just 46 seconds later. But with the help of one Ottawa shot off the post, the Blues’ fourth-ranked PK unit got out of the jam unscathed.
“It’s unreal to see when a guy tries to block a shot with every part of his body,” Tarasenko said. “It’s a huge credit to those guys. They might not share some spotlight from the media, but inside the team we know it’s insane — and makes us proud for our teammates and makes us work hard.”
After surviving the 5-on-3 scare, the Blues got some cushion at the exact midpoint of the final period when Oskar Sundqvist banged in a net-front rebound for his fourth goal of the season and a 4-2 lead. Tarasenko later added an empty-netter for the final goal.
Sundqvist has struggled some in his comeback from offseason hip and knee surgeries but he’s perking up lately. He has goals in successive games, points in three straight contests, and has three goals and six assists over his last 13 games.
“I’ve been through this (multiple surgeries), and it’s very exciting for me especially to see guys coming out from long-term injuries and start having success,” Tarasenko said. “It’s hard work recovering after those surgeries. I’m really excited for him.
“If you look back on the ’19 season, fourth line was a major factor to our success. And the guys playing now have done a very good job.”
Sundqvist’s score made it goals in three straight games for the fourth line — the first time that has happened this season.
Other than that, there was Schenn’s eighth goal in nine games since returning from the COVID list Jan. 17. That got the scoring started. Then came plenty of the Pavel Buchnevich-Thomas-Tarasenko line. All told, they combined for three goals and six assists and peppered Ottawa goalies Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg with 11 shots on goal and 23 overall attempts.
Murray was shaken up on the Sundqvist goal — Sundqvist fell on him — and was replaced by Forsberg.
“With the Thomas line, you have a puck possession guy (Thomas) but you have two of them — Buchy, too,” Berube said. “And he’s got great composure with the puck. I think what makes it work is Thomas — his cutbacks and working the back of the net.
“He either finds Vladi for a shot, or he gets it to Buchy. And Buchy has composure with it and hangs onto it and does some good things with it. So the puck possession is real high with that line … and you got a finisher on the line.”
The finisher, of course, would be Tarasenko, who has now tied Jordan Kyrou for the team goal-scoring lead with 18 and is on pace for the sixth 30-goal season of his career.
“I thought we read off each other well,” Thomas said. “I thought we were working really hard for each other and getting open. Playing with those two guys is pretty easy, they put the puck on your stick in shooting areas and they get open in shooting areas.”
Berube has been encouraging Thomas to shoot more almost since he showed up at Enterprise Center as a rookie. On Tuesday, Thomas had a season-high nine attempts, one of which hit the post. He was on the receiving end of a room-service pass from Tarasenko early in the second period for his goal, which gave the Blues’ a 3-1 lead.
Headlined by the Buchnevich-Thomas-Tarasenko line, the Blues got their cycle game going leading to plenty of offensive zone time. They won a lot of puck battles along the wall. And grinded their way to a victory that wasn’t as easy as the final score might indicate.
“It was just about not being too fancy at the right times,” Thomas said. “Working hard for each other and winning those battles. Those are the things, even on the power play, that create all the chances. … I can’t say it enough; it was our key tonight.”