ST. LOUIS -- It wasn't a playoff game. That was down the street at Busch Stadium.
But for the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks and the 16,565 fans who opted for hockey over baseball, the early-season meeting felt like a postseason matchup.
"We've kind of been joking ... it's going to be the first playoff game of the year," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said before the game. "It's not really a joke. It's going to be a tough game, a physical game."
The "Wednesday Night Rivalry" game lived up to its billing with a fight in the opening two minutes, the captains of the teams each scoring a goal, and a knotted affair going into the third period.
All that was left was a photo finish and forward Alexander Steen obliged, scoring with 21 seconds left in regulation to lift the Blues to a 3-2 victory.
The Blues reached 3-0 for the first time since 1993-94 and for only the third time in their history. They'll have a chance to extend that to four games when they return to the ice Saturday against the New York Rangers.
"It did (feel like the playoffs) in the game, but it didn't in the post-game," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I think in the postgame, the players are looking forward to the day off (Friday) and then moving on, getting ready for New York. But it did in the actual competition, yes.
"I think everybody knows this is the third hockey game of the year, but I think the actual competition from the drop of the puck until the end of the game felt like a playoff game."
Following his shutout Saturday, Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak made 26 saves, including one that set up the winning goal. After a stop, the puck quickly was on the stick on teammate Alex Pietrangelo, who with Chicago defenseman Keith Seabrook on him immediately backhanded the puck ahead to Steen.
"We know their 'D' like to come down and pinch on the puck, so as soon as I got it, I knew I had to get it up," Pietrangelo said. "'Steener' gets the puck and he's full steam ahead."
What developed was a three-on-one situation, with Steen, David Backes and T.J. Oshie flying in on defenseman Duncan Keith.
Chicago's Patrick Kane hustled back desperately, but he was denied by Backes to get anywhere near the play.
"I figured I might get in his way," Backes said.
Steen skated just inside the left circle and teed up. Chicago goalie Corey Crawford got a piece of the puck, but it trickled past him for what ended up being the game-winner.
"I found a hole," Steen said. "I don't know if I got all of it. It's not really how hard it is. It's more where you put it."
It put the Blues on top the Central Division standings and despite their being 79 games remaining for both teams, Chicago coach Joel Quenneville called it a "brutal loss."
"We gotta get that game to overtime," Quenneville said. "I don't know what we were thinking about. We'll take one, maybe two (points). Getting none is unacceptable."
In the days leading up to the contest, Hitchcock warned about potential damage if the team began the night with another slow start.
In the early going Wednesday, Chicago held a 6-1 advantage in shots, had a pair of two-on-one rushes and a partial breakaway. But Halak kept the game scoreless.
The Blues opened the scoring on Vladimir Tarasenko's second goal in as many games.
Chicago's Marian Hossa skated through the neutral zone with the puck, but lost it to the Blues' Patrik Berglund. He fed Tarasenko at the offensive blueline and after a few steps, the Russian winger ripped a shot past Crawford.
"I just wanted to try to fake a shot and make a pass ... but the (defensemen) stayed in the middle," Tarasenko said. "The coach tells me all the time, 'Just shoot.'"
Tarasenko's second goal of the season handed the Blues a 1-0 lead with 4:16 left in the first period. But the 'Hawks responded quickly. After a boarding penalty against the Blues' Maxim Lapierre, Kane netted a power-play goal for a 1-1 score with 2:59 to play in the first period. It was the first power-play goal given up by the Blues this season, after halting the first 11.
But the Blues power play picked up the penalty-killing unit. Overcoming an inexplicable whistle after play was blown dead when the Blues had possession of the puck on the man advantage, Backes deflected a point shot from Pietrangelo past Crawford for a 2-1 lead with 11:23 left in the second period.
The Blues let Chicago back in the game with another penalty. Jaden Schwartz was nailed for hooking and Toews cleaned up a rebound in front of the net for a 2-2 tie with 10:44 left to play in the second period.
"They were fluky goals," Hitchcock said. "They were under sticks, through legs, off elbows."
There was nothing fluky about Steen's game-winner.
Almost five minutes earlier, with 5:23 left in regulation, he ripped a shot that Crawford gloved for a save.
"He had a similar shot," Pietrangelo said, "so I guess he put it in a different spot."
The right spot.
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