TORONTO — Vladimir Tarasenko strode through the neutral zone, dipped around a Maple Leafs forward, deked out another and then fired a shot past Frederik Andersen to clinch another victory for the suddenly red-hot St. Louis Blues.
The Blues improved to 4-1-0 under new head coach Mike Yeo, beating the Leafs 2-1 in overtime at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night. St. Louis has allowed only six goals in five games under Yeo — including one in the last three outings — with goaltending from Jake Allen primarily taking a big leap forward.
Allen stopped 31-of-32 shots against the Leafs after posting a 30-save shutout two nights earlier.
"I think guys are all just jumping on board, playing hard for each other and doing the little things," the 26-year-old Allen said of the energy around the group since the coaching change which saw Yeo replace Ken Hitchcock last week.
An assistant coach with the club previously, Yeo was due to take over the St. Louis bench next season, getting a head-start when the 65-year-old Hitchcock was dismissed amid a shaky first few months this season. The Blues had the third-best record in the NHL last season and went all the way to the Western Conference final, unable to hit those notes consistently this year.
"I really appreciate the mindset of our players right now," said Yeo, referring to defensive improvements. "We recognized that that was an area of our game that we needed to improve. You can see that the commitment’s there as far as how we’re blocking shots, how we’re paying a price and doing the little things.
"But I’m going to keep saying this: we’re not there yet, we’ve got a lot of work to do."
Among the better defensive clubs in hockey last year, the Blues were surrendering more than three goals per-game at the time of Hitchcock’s firing. The worst goaltending in the league — from Allen and backup Carter Hutton — was largely to blame, though players have noted an uptick in defensive details along with some strategic tweaks from Yeo, who served as the Minnesota Wild head coach for five seasons previously.
"I think just more commitment, more discipline," said Allen.
Playing their third game in four nights, the Blues persisted without Paul Stastny for much of the game, the 31-year-old centre leaving the game with a lower-body injury after one shift in the second period.
The team had no update on his status after the game.
Yeo was pleased not only with Allen’s performance but his team’s response to a "little adversity", namely losing Stastny, who leads the team’s forward group in ice-time at nearly 20 minutes per game.
Coming off back-to-back shutouts, St. Louis was dominant in the first.
The Blues outshot Toronto 17-4 over the first 20 minutes, grabbing the first goal from Patrik Berglund just over four minutes in. The club pressed for most of the opening 20 minutes, hogging the puck almost without exception in the Toronto zone. Most of their shots came from between the face-off dots, Andersen needing a sharp effort for the Leafs to keep it close.
"They were better and more competitive and stronger than us in the first period," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "We lost too many battles early and then as we got more and more competitive I thought we did a lot of really good things and got a lot better."
The Leafs eventually tied it with 64 seconds to go in the second.
Nazem Kadri drove down the right side and fired a shot at Allen, the juicy rebound trickling off William Nylander toward the weak-side where it was slammed home by Morgan Rielly.
It was only the second goal all season for the 22-year-old and first since Nov. 11, snapping a 32-game spell.
Tarasenko ended it after only 20 seconds of overtime. The Russian winger trails only Sidney Crosby and Jeff Carter with his 26 goals this season, right there among the top-10 leading scorers with 53 points in 55 games.
"Too bad it wasn’t three-on-three all the time," Allen said. "He’s pretty dangerous, especially when there’s only three guys on the ice and he gets a chance to shoot the puck in the dots there. He just does his thing. He’s a special player."
One point up on Nashville for third spot in the Central division (61 points), the Blues continue their five-game road trip with a Saturday stop in Montreal.