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Blues Move Into Playoff Driver’s Seat

At the end of the first period Tuesday night, the St. Louis Blues were lucky to be tied 1-1 with the Phoenix Coyotes. Coming out of the intermission, they knew what was at stake and exactly what they needed to do.

In the opening period, the action was fast on both ends with puck rushes by both teams. But the Blues were a little sluggish and for a stretch it seemed like every time the Coyotes crossed the blue line, they had a numbers advantage. A fluky goal for the Coyotes and the Blues found themselves losing and getting outplayed by an inferior team. A goal by BJ Crombeen that barely made it through the pads of Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov evened the score and allowed the Blues to regroup for the second period.

During the intermission, Crombeen admitted during an interview on KPLR-TV that the team was aware that Nashville had already lost against Chicago 4-2. In other words, Blues players knew that a win would give them a two-point edge on eighth place with just two games for each team to play. They realized the opportunity, faced it with resolve and came out flying.

The Blues played physically all over the ice. They created chances behind the net and in front. A goal by Brad Winchester, a score by Keith Tkachuk and another by Crombeen gave the Blues three in the second period and a 4-1 lead. Not even a five minute power play after Dan Hinote got called for boarding in the third period could slow the Blues down. David Perron served the major and on exiting the box after the Blues killed the entire penalty, the youngster snuck a shot past new goaltender Al Montoya on a breakaway.

At that point in the third period, the Blues were smiling and loose, the Coyotes were skating slow and going through the motions. So much for the trap game.

"This was enormous. We felt like we gave a point away in Dallas. For us to come out like we did tonight and win was great," Chris Mason said in the postgame interview on KPLR-TV. "We had a tough start there in the first period, but we really regrouped, took over the game and got the job done."

If this were baseball, we'd be talking about a magic number for the Blues of two. A combination of two Blues wins or Nashville losses and St. Louis will return to the playoffs. The overtime points make it messy, so let's leave it at that. And St. Louis could still pass Anaheim AND Columbus in the standings.

Just think about this scenario. Nashville travels to Detroit Thursday night. If the Predators can't get it done (counterpoint: the Preds do have a winning record against the Wings) and lose in regulation, the Blues would be in a position to clinch in front of the wildest home crowd in years Friday night against the Blue Jackets. Just typing that is insane.

As the Blues get down to the last two games, here are a couple of random thoughts to chew on while contemplating how big a Red Wing fan you can become for Thursday night.

I wrote earlier in the season how Andy McDonald was the most important player on the Blues. I'm not sure that's the case anymore, but he's one of the most crucial players for the team. For being a smaller guy, he's incredibly tough on the puck. He anticipates contact and has the balance and strength to keep possession. He's a nifty passer, but he also has a knack at shooting the puck when it's the right decision. A former Ivy Leaguer, he often plays like the smartest man on the ice. He's not a prototypical No.1 center, but it's still gratifying to know he'll wear the Blue Note beyond this season.

The play of Crombeen and Winchester is really nice to see. Here are two guys who hadn't gotten a true chance to have careers and make contributions on former teams. They each arrived in St. Louis differently but during the dark days of the season where it seemed like the Blues lost a different player to injury every single night.

Crombeen played eight games last year and 15 games this year for the Dallas Stars before they tried demoting him to the minors. He was placed on waivers and the Blues snatched him up. He had a hat trick early in his Blues career this season and has logged a lot of ice time. Winchester spent parts of three seasons with Edmonton and Dallas before signing with the Blues this past summer. He was assigned to Peoria to start the season and was told by Andy Murray that he was too nice of a guy to be a good hockey player. Winchester, who had five career NHL goals before this season, took those words to heart and developed an edge driving to the net almost every shift. He's had his share of collisions with the other teams' goaltenders and caused several scrums after the whistle. He also scored his 13th goal of the season Tuesday night.

Apparently Hinote has a bigger role than bringing his centerfold wife to games and growing killer facial hair. The offensively-challenged forward is an important penalty killer and more of a tempo setter than anything. And as the Blues have made their playoff drive, he's dressed in 14 straight games and 15 overall after missing nearly a month with injury. He's one of two former Stanley Cup winners on the team (McDonald is the other) and provides some intangibles that don't' show up on the score sheet. "When Danny took that five minute penalty, every guy on the bench wanted to kill that off. He's all heart and soul," Mason said after the game.

One down, two to go. Damn the torpedoes and pass the Wild Turkey.