Jaden Schwartz makes triumphant return as St. Louis Blues top Florida Panthers

By Walter Villa, The Sports Xchange

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Get close. Now get a bit closer. Get so close you can see the goalie's eye color from underneath his mask.

To hear the St. Louis Blues tell it, all they needed was a player to get in the right position to score goals.


As it turns out, the Blues have had that player on their roster all along -- he's just been injured.

That changed on Friday night as left winger Jaden Schwartz returned from a 49-game absence and scored the go-ahead goal to lead the Blues past the first-place Florida Panthers 5-3 at the BB&T Center.

"He is an exceptional offensive player as far as awareness and making plays in really small areas," Blues associate coach Brad Shaw said of Schwartz.

"I thought his ability to step in (after such a long absence) was probably more than we could have expected. Getting a goal early in the game probably took the pressure off him."


The Panthers (32-17-6), who lead the Atlantic Division, lifted All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo after the first period. Luongo allowed three goals before he was replaced by Al Montoya.

"I just wanted to shake up the team," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "(Luongo) has been a horse for us all year, and every time we win, it's because of him. But I wasn't happy with how the team was playing."

Schwartz, a 53-goal scorer over the past two years, suffered a fractured left ankle on Oct. 23. He looked just fine, however, on his first goal of the season as he put in a rebound off a shot by defenseman Colton Parayko.

Blues goalie Brian Elliott, who made his 13th straight start, got the win for St. Louis (31-17-9), which is in third place in the Central Division.

St. Louis also got goals by center David Backes, his 13th, center Robby Fabbri, his 12th, and right winger Vladimir Tarasenko, his 27th, and left winger Alexander Steen, his 16th. Schwartz also got an assist on Tarasenko's goal, and Parayko had two assists.


Florida, which started a six-game homestand, got a goal from center Derek MacKenzie, his sixth, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, his 11th, and left winger Jonathan Huberdeau, his 11th.

The Panthers trailed 4-1 but as close as 4-3 on Huberdeau's goal with 9:13 left in the third period. Huberdeau was set up with a sweet finesse pass along the crease by defenseman Brian Campbell.

But Steen's goal crippled Florida's attempt at a rally.

"We had a bad start," Panthers right winger Jaromir Jagr said. "(The Blues) were a little faster and quicker at every loose puck in the first period. After that, we created more scoring chances."

Florida opened the scoring, getting MacKenzie's goal with 14:55 left in the first period. The goal was set up when Panthers left winger Garrett Wilson's hard hit behind the Blues net caused a turnover. The puck came out along the right boards to left winger Shawn Thornton, who fed MacKenzie in front for the score.

St. Louis tied the score with 7:44 left in the first period as Backes stole the puck, skated around Florida's defense on the left wing and scored unassisted.


After Schwartz gave St. Louis the lead, the Blues' power play clicked with 20 seconds left in the first period. The opportunity happened when Florida center Vincent Trocheck's clearing attempt when over the glass, an automatic penalty.

On the power play, center Paul Stastny tried to center the puck from behind the Panthers' net. The carom went to Fabbri, who scored from below the right circle.

"Rather than sit back, we went out and found the third one," Backes said. "That was a good sign."

Tarasenko's rebound goal with 12:00 left in the second period put the Blues up 4-1.

Ekblad scored on a slap shot with 9:16 left in the second period to cut Florida's deficit to 4-2. The play was set up by a Blues turnover, and Elliott couldn't find the puck through a screen.

The teams traded goals in the third period, and that was enough for the Blues to hold on to the win.

"They are a sound team," MacKenzie said of the Blues. "They have a lot of guys who can score.

"And when you put yourself in that (4-1 hole), it's pretty tough to get out of it."


NOTES: C Aleksander Barkov (concussion) missed his second straight game. Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said he doesn't view the injury as a "long-term thing." ... Panthers D Erik Gudbranson (shoulder) missed his fourth game in a row. ... Panthers D Willie Mitchell (lower body) hasn't played since Jan. 18. He turns 39 in April. ... Panthers C Dave Bolland (lower body) hasn't played since Dec. 12. ... Florida recalled LW John McFarland from Portland of the American Hockey League. LW Corban Knight was assigned to Portland. ... Blues G Jake Allen (knee) hasn't played since colliding with Anaheim Ducks RW Corey Perry on Jan. 8. St. Louis lost Allen's past four starts. He is 18-10-3 this season with a career-best 2.17 goals-against average. ... Blues F Steve Ott (hamstring) hasn't played since Dec. 5. ... Blues D Alex Pietrangelo (knee) hasn't played since Saturday.

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