Ottawa Senators\' Antoine Vermette slips the puck through the legs of St. Louis Blues\' Hannu Toivonen, of Finland, during the first period of NHL hockey action at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Thursday March 20, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
OTTAWA - The St. Louis Blues did Ottawa a favour a Monday night by beating the Montreal Canadiens.
The Senators were keen not to return any favours when they faced the Blues on Thursday.
"To see them beat a team in our division that's playing well right now ... we watch hockey, too, as players and they played a good, hard game," Senators centre Jason Spezza said of the Blues' 4-3 win over Ottawa's Northeast Division rival earlier this week. "And I think it made sure that we were aware this morning they were a hard team to play against and we didn't take them lightly."
The Senators kept up the chase on the Canadiens, who beat the Boston Bruins 4-2 Thursday, for top spot in the division with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Blues and it was Spezza's goal in the second period that provided the difference in a tight-checking game played before a sold-out crowd of 20,027 at Scotiabank Place.
Ottawa (41-26-7) trails Montreal by three points in the standings and, with eight game remaining in the regular season, couldn't afford to drop a point like the Canadiens did versus the struggling Blues (30-33-11) on Monday.
"In this league at this time of year, you're not going to blow anybody out and if you do, the other team's had a horrible night," said Spezza, who notched his 31st goal of the season by batting the puck out of the air in front of Blues goaltender Hannu Toivonen to complete a nice give-and-go play with Dany Heatley.
"We expected it to be close. These guys beat Montreal the other night. Everybody's playing well. The teams that are in (the playoffs) are fighting in the standings, the team's that aren't are playing pressure-free hockey. This time of year, it's pick your poison."
Antoine Vermette and Christoph Schubert also scored for the Senators, who rebounded from a 5-1 loss to the Hurricanes at Carolina in its last game out to win for the fourth time in their past five contests and improve to 5-5 since Bryan Murray took over from the fired John Paddock behind the bench last month.
Martin Gerber, making his ninth straight start for the Senators, finished with 24 saves.
"I told our guys before the game, they're going to play you hard, they've got nothing to lose," Ottawa general manager and coach Bryan Murray said. "Andy Murray's teams usually battle hard ... and tonight they gave us our fill." Jamal Mayers and Jeff Woywitka replied for the Blues, who lost for the seventh time in their past eight games and 13th time in their past 15 (2-11-2).
Toivonen, who hasn't won a game since beating the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 7, stopped 21 shots for the Blues, who were missing defenceman Jay McKee because of a sore foot.
The Blues, playing the eighth game of a nine-game road trip that started in Detroit before heading for the West Coast and back, had won for the first time on their swing when they beat the Canadiens. However, they fell behind early Thursday and recovered to take the lead before allowing it to slip away.
Their previous longest road trip had been a four-game swing in January.
"It's getting long," St. Louis centre Brad Boyes said of the Blues' current journey. "But it's part of our schedule, so I don't think anybody's really complaining about it. We haven't had too many road trips this season, just some quick ones, so we're kind of making up for it now. We felt all right today. At the end, we were pressing and had some chances."
They had a chance to tie the game with a late man advantage, but their power play failed to produce on its way to an 0-for-3 night. The Senators went 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
"We didn't come out as strong as we did in Montreal and I don't think we were as physical as we could have been," Boyes said. "But we battled back, got the lead, then relinquished it. They've got some skilled guys, some good players over there, and you've got to play tight against them. We had a few chances later and our power play wasn't there for us."
It was the Blues' first visit to Ottawa since Feb. 10, 2004, and they hadn't won here since Jan. 26, 2000.
It took the Senators little more than two minutes to open the scoring when Paul Kariya was beaten to the puck in the neutral zone and Chris Kelly fed Vermette to cap off a 2-on-1 break.
However, Mayers, left alone at the side on Gerber's net, tipped in a point shot from Barret Jackman to tie the game near the midway point of the period.
The Blues took the lead less than three minutes later after Woywitka was set up by Keith Tkachuk, but Schubert made it 2-2 before the intermission with a one-timer from the slot.
Notes: The Senators assigned rookie left-winger Nick Foligno to Binghamton of the AHL earlier Thursday. ... Ottawa's next game is at home Saturday versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. ... The Blues wrap up their road trip Sunday at Chicago.