Another strong performance by an opposing goaltender overshadowed what was a valiant effort from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Brendan Mikkelson scored the first goal of his NHL career late in the third period, and the Lightning outshot the league’s stingiest defensive team, but in a 3-1 loss at the hands of Jaroslav Halak and the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night.
“It’s more of a relief than anything,” Mikkelson said of his first career NHL goal. “It has taken me way too long to get that first one. It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to turn that into a little more of a rally down the stretch.”
Patrik Berglund and Jaden Schwartz scored in a two-goal first period for St. Louis, which held off the hard-charging Lightning to become the NHL’s first team this season to reach 100 points, and just the sixth to clinch a postseason berth in the upcoming 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Halak made 23 saves.
“It’s the first step,” Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We’re proud of that. It’s the first step in what we want to do and it’s taken two or three months of really good hockey to get us here.”
The 100-point mark reached by the Blues is just the first occurrence since the team last did so in 2000-01, while the team’s playoff berth is just its second since the lockout.
David Perron had the other goal for St. Louis, which snapped a two-game skid. The Blues are now 40-12-7 since Hitchcock took over responsibilities behind the bench on Nov. 6.
The Lightning, meanwhile, fell into a tie with Carolina and now sit in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference standings with 71 points.
“It’s tough,” Lightning forward Teddy Purcell said. “It’s never going to be easy, but we’re not giving up. It’s easy to get down on ourselves and pull the tent in, but you really show who you are when you have some adversity and a tough hill to climb.”
St. Louis came in averaging the fewest shots against per game of any team in the league, allowing just 26.3.
It showed as the Blues outshot the Lightning 13-6 in the first, only to have Tampa Bay reverse the trend through the final 40 minutes. The Lightning held an 8-3 advantage in the second period, and nearly doubled St. Louis’ attempts in the third.
But it wasn’t the quantity of stops made by Halak as much as it was the quality that proved to be the difference.
Halak first-made a stop from in-close on league goal-scoring leader Steven Stamkos in the first, then denied rookie Brett Connolly with the glove on a breakaway scoring opportunity in the second period.
“You’re going to need your goalie to be good at times,” Hitchcock added. “When you can do what he did on the road, that’s good stuff.”
Schwartz, the Blues’ first-round draft pick in 2010 who signed with the team just this week, scored a power-play goal to put St. Louis up 2-0 just before the first period ended. He pounced on a rebound out in front and wristed one past Dwayne Roloson, which accounted for the first of his NHL career.
It came just 4:24 after Berglund opened the scoring 15 minutes into the opening frame, as he finished off a 2-on-1 rush with Alex Pietrangelo while shorthanded.
“It was pretty special,” Schwartz said. “It’s something you dream about. I was happy I could come in and help get the win, but getting that first one was exciting.”
The Blues then went up 3-0 when Perron’s 15th of the season beat Roloson off a rush 2:47 into the second, before Mikkelson spoiled Halak’s shutout bid at 15:49 of the final period.
Roloson, making his first career start since Feb. 25, made 18 saves on 21 shots.