St. Louis Blues Ryan Reaves keeps an eye on the action in the first period against the New Jersey Devils at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on December 15, 2016. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
ST. LOUIS -- For the second consecutive game, the St. Louis Blues switched their forward lines, trying to find an offensive spark.
No matter how much the lines change, however, it always seems that right winger Vladimir Tarasenko is leading the attack.
He did it again on Thursday night, scoring a power-play goal and assisting on two other goals to lead the Blues to a 5-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils.
The three-point game gave Tarasenko 10 points in his last five games, on two goals and eight assists. He has 15 goals and 22 assists this season, and his 37 points (in 31 games) is the second-highest total in the NHL
In the opinion of his coach, Ken Hitchcock, Tarasenko is close to becoming the best player in the league.
"He has the ability to be that because he has five tools," Hitchcock said. "He's one of the best passers in the game; he doesn't get enough credit for it. He's in a position where if he continues to progress like he is now, from an all-around play standpoint, he's got a real chance to be the top guy.
"His all-around game offensively is starting to show up now. He makes as many good plays as he does shooting opportunities. The part that was good for me was in the third period he competed defensively. That's a big step. He was willing to work for his next goal if it came and I think that's just the maturity in the player. That's a really good sign."
Tarasenko was on the ice for both New Jersey's goals in the first period, which gave the Devils a 2-0 lead. The first was a shorthanded goal by Adam Henrique which came after Tarasenko whiffed on a shot, sending the Devils in the other direction. A goal by Miles Wood then made it 2-0.
"He was not feeling great, but to get one back on the power-play kind of brought us back," Hitchcock said. "We were off and running after that goal. It brought him back into the game and made him feel good about himself."
The power-play goal, with 2:54 left in the period, cut the lead to 2-1 and the Blues tied the game when Jori Lehtera deflected a shot by Robby Fabbri into the net at 2:05 of the second period. A pass from Tarasenko to Fabbri earned him his first assist of the night.
Tarasenko then earned his second assist with a perfect pass to defenseman Alex Pietrangelo at the side of the net for the go-ahead goal 7:45 into the second period.
"We have really good players like Alex and he can read the game well so if he gets open it's easier to get the puck to him," Tarasenko said.
Pietrangelo was expecting the pass, but still almost messed up the play.
"Great pass," Pietrangelo said. "I almost missed the net. Shocked that he passed it that hard. I had to shoot it as hard as I could to make sure it went in.
"When you shoot the way he does, goalies and D-men have to respect it and it really opens up a lot of seams. Not many guys can score like he did tonight, that's just a prime example of what he can do. He's one of the best in the world."
Devils' coach John Hynes agreed. He saw Tarasenko earn five assists in his last two games against his team in the last week.
"He's a world-class player and I think you see that," Hynes said. "Tonight he made some great plays and he was definitely a factor in the game."
The Blues carried the 3-2 lead into the third period, then got an insurance goal from Nail Yakupov and an empty-net goal from Patrik Berglund as they improved their home record to 11-0-3 in their last 14 games. They defeated the Devils for the seventh consecutive time.
The loss was the fourth in a row for the Devils, who have been outscored 19-5 over that stretch.
"It's not like we've been playing really well," defenseman Andy Greene said. "I think tonight was a step in the right direction. We played a little bit better, played a little bit tougher, but we've got to take it up another notch and continue to play harder and not feel sorry for ourselves."
NOTES: C Pavel Zacha returned to the Devils' lineup after missing four games. He was hit in the mouth by a puck Dec. 3. ... LW Luke Gazdic made his Devils' debut after being recalled from Albany of the AHL. He broke his left foot in the first preseason game this season. ... RW P.A. Parenteau and RW Beau Bennett were healthy scratches for New Jersey. ... After leaving Tuesday night's game because of a lower/mid-body injury, RW Ryan Reaves missed the Blues' morning skate Thursday but remained in the lineup. ... Work began to install the ice surface at Busch Stadium for the Winter Classic game between the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 2. ... The Blues host the Blackhawks on Saturday night while the Devils play at Ottawa.