ST. LOUIS -- If they were overlooking the opponent, they shouldn't have.
It hasn't been the Blues' style in the past, but it was clearly evident that they didn't take the injury-ravaged Anaheim Ducks seriously.
And in the end, despite a late push, it cost the Blues two valuable points.
The Blues looked slow and out of sorts early, and despite the paltry numbers showing otherwise prior to Wednesday, the inept special teams reared its ugly head, especially on the penalty kill as the Ducks scored twice on it and held off the Blues 3-2 before 16,760 at Scottrade Center.
The Blues (17-7-1) remained in first place in the Western Conference with 35 points but have Winnipeg, which lost 3-2 in overtime at Colorado on Wednesday, nipping at their heels with 34 points and the defending conference champ Nashville Predators with 33.
The Blues got two late third-period goals from Kyle Brodziak to make the score much closer than it really was, but they showed no life and no zip in the 8:10 p.m. start time against a team that was missing regulars Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Rickard Rakell, Brandon Montour, Patrick Eaves, Jared Boll and Ondrej Kase.
"Maybe we were looking at what they were missing," Blues coach Mike Yeo said of the Ducks. "I don’t know. Obviously we talked about it and we tried to address it. We knew after their last outing that they were going to come out hard, check hard, but we didn’t match their desperation."
Not even close.
The Ducks (11-10-4), who came in losers of four games in a row (0-3-1) and outscored 17-7, rebounded well from a 7-3 thrashing at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday, and Yeo was adamant that they would come out with some purpose tonight.
The players never responded, especially early on.
"I don't think we got to our game at all tonight," Blues forward Alexander Steen said. "We lost the special teams battle, I thought we didn't play the way we had played previously and it bit us tonight.
"Obviously a winning team, you have to give them credit, (but) I think we shot ourselves pretty good in the foot tonight, too. Our execution early on, they get two power play goals, we don't get any, that's the deciding factor tonight."
If it wasn't a concern before, it better be quickly.
The Blues have been so good at 5-on-5 play (third in the league in goals for at 84 and third in the league in goals against at 38 for a plus-46 differential) and they're fifth in the league averaging 3.36 goals per game. But when the special teams are so poor (power play is 24th at 17.2 percent and penalty kill is even worse at 27th with a 75.9 percent), there are certain nights where this is a clear issue.
For the second game in a row, the penalty kill has allowed two goals.
"There's breakdowns," Steen said of the PK. "There's a couple tonight, it's the same thing that was our problem on the power play. Our minds were a little slow, so reading the play, we have chances when there are two guys on one side and we actually have more numbers than them on that side and have a chance to pressure and let them off the hook a little bit. There are a few pressure points and then reads on where guys are when shots are coming. It was one of those nights when plain and simple we weren't good enough."
The Blues hammered 13 shots in going 0-for-4 on the power-play Wednesday. They can live with getting quality chances and sustained zone time, unlike other times when it looks so paltry that they couldn't even gain the offensive zone. But the penalty kill has now given up at least one goal in 15 of 25 games, and three of those games, they were 1-for-1 twice and didn't have to kill a penalty in another game.
"If you’re minus-2 on special teams it’s going to cost you," Yeo said. "We made some progress last game, but we’ve got to stop the bleeding with our penalty kill. Every game is a different game, like every game the goals are going in a different way. You look at the Minnesota game (Saturday), you kill 1:45 and then you just don’t bear down at the end of the power play and they score a couple off the rush. Tonight, they were just broken plays. Whether you have a chance to clear or it’s just not bearing down in those situations … whether it’s focus, whether it’s desperation, we don’t have enough of it right now, and until that happens, obviously we’re going to be chasing."
So why are these things happening?
"I'm not exactly sure," Brodziak said. "We're getting scored on quite a bit all year basically. Early on we were getting scored on, and that might have hurt the confidence. It felt like we were starting to get it back together, but the last few games, same thing. We give up two more tonight. It's really the story of the game pretty much.
"... I think it's just we're not maybe being aggressive as a four-man unit as we have in the past. When you get scored on, I know it's tough not to do it, but maybe we're being a little hesitant and second-guessing a little bit. Power plays now are too good to be doing that against. They're going to find a way to beat you if you're hesitating or second-guessing at all.
"... A game like tonight, penalty kill could have found a way to win a game for us. Instead, we found a way to lose a game for us tonight."
John Gibson made 37 saves, Antoine Vermette scored two goals and Kevin Roy had a goal and an assist for the Ducks.
"When you get thumped like we did the other night in Chicago, you look for a response from your group and we knew that we could play a lot better brand of hockey and we knew we could be competitive," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "You can't go out and say your going to win every game, but we did not give ourselves a chance [Monday] and tonight, we gave ourselves a chance to do that to win a hockey game."
Gibson was pulled from a 7-3 loss at the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday after allowing four goals on 22 shots.
"It's going to happen to everybody throughout the year," Gibson said. "It's part of the game."
Jake Allen made 27 saves for the Blues, who are 2-2-0 on a five-game homestand.
Vermette scored to give the Ducks a 1-0 lead at 4:17 of the first period when the puck caromed off his body after Allen got a piece of Roy's shot off a rebound.
The play went to review and confirmed the call on the ice that it was a good goal.
The Ducks took a 3-0 lead with two power-play goals in the second period.
Roy scored with a one-timer from the right face-off circle 33 seconds into the period after Jakob Silfverberg one-touched Cam Fowler's cross-ice pass. The play was kept in the zone when Joel Edmundson lost hold of his stick, tried to throw a hand pass that was into the skates of Scottie Upshall and had another hard chance to clear but couldn't, so the puck stayed in zone.
Vermette scored his second of the night on the long rebound of a Kevin Bieksa shot from near the blue line to make it 3-0 at 3:01 after a failed clearing attempt by Jay Bouwmeester.
"We'll address it, we'll get on it and obviously we’ll look at video," Yeo said. "But for me it’s an attitude. You know what, we’re going to give up some goals. They’ve got a man-advantage for a reason and they’re going to score some goals. But if they’re going to score, I want to make sure that we’re going down swinging. And too many times I think we make it easy on them”
"... A couple of times we were caught out of position, whether it’s lack of aggression there. I think those are just not great reads. Again I think both times we had opportunities to clear the puck and we didn’t. For me, they’re broken plays. They’re not situations where they’re in an in-zone set-up. It’s not a designed play, it’s just the ability to read in a situation and recover from a situation, and I don’t think we did that well."
The penalty kill wound up 2-for-6 in the game but giving up two on the first three is unacceptable.
"After that second (goal) on the penalty kill, we had another two or three and I thought we were really good," captain Alex Pietrangelo said. "Those are something to build off, but you still can't be giving up two (penalty kill) goals a game."
Brodziak ended Gibson's shutout at 16:12 of the third period by squirting a rebound under the pad from the slot and then scored again with 16.7 seconds remaining to make it 3-2.
"We were too little, too late tonight," Brodziak said. "... We weren't quick enough right through the lineup, not making plays, not executing quick enough to get to their end. When you play against a team like that and they're structured, they do a good job, you've got to execute, you've got to be quick and you've got to find a way to get it in their zone. We just had too much troubles with that the first half of the game."