Ken Hitchcock warns fans that not much separates the Blues and Sharks in this series. Their effort has been similar. The game margins have been thin.
But that 3-1 series advantage looms huge as the Blues return home from Thursday night’s 2-1 victory in San Jose. They will have momentum, hot goaltending and a raucous Saturday night home crowd on their side as they try to finish off the Sharks.
Hitchcock has this team in high gear. His power play is clicking. His scoring lines are sustaining pressure, led by the explosive Andy McDonald. His checkers are creating chances too — which is how B.J. Crombeen scored his first playoff goal.
Goaltender Brian Elliott has done a fabulous job since stepping in for Jaroslav Halak. Blues defensemen are blocking shots in front of him and the forwards are clamping down on the backcheck.
In short, the Blues are sticking to the script Hitchcock wrote and polished during the regular season. They are showing the NHL — and everybody in their own dressing room — that their success during the 82-game grind was not a fluke.
Their buy-in is complete and unwavering.
Let’s break down Game 4:
STRATEGY AND TACTICS
In the early going, Hitchcock toyed with match-ups again by showing David Backes with Alex Steen and McDonald and showing Patrik Berglund with David Perron and T.J. Oshie. He played a bit of chess with counterpart Todd McLellan before settling on his familiar combinations.
McLellan, conversely, scrambled his four lines and stuck with those changes while trying to wring more offense from his group. Those changes failed to yield the desired results.
• The Blues came out skating and applying pressure. Although Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi robbed the relentless McDonald, that scoring chance energized the Note.
• We’re not saying Blues center Berglund is the second coming of Mark Messier, but the big guy has been playing big in this postseason — just as he played big for his country in the World Championships. Here is a player maturing before your eyes.
• This team needs offensive contributions from everybody to go deep into these playoffs. And “everybody” includes Crombeen, who was very busy once again.
• Elliott established himself right off the bat by thwarting Sharks forward Logan Couture, who had a clean break-in after getting an outlet pass from defenseman Brent Burns. That sent the signal that San Jose was in for another frustrating night. Later, Elliott made great saves on Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski as well.
Great team defense made Elliott’s work much easier. The Blues blocked 26 shots in front of him. Roman Polak and Kris Russell had nine blocked shots between them.
• Remember when the Blues sputtered on the power play earlier this season? That seems like a distant memory. With a full line-up available, they have converted six of 16 opportunities in this series. McDonald scored the game-clinching power-play goal in this game, converting a rebound opportunity.
• The Blues allowed San Jose to swarm in the third period and throw lots of pucks in the vicinity of the net. That tilted the ice against the visiting team.
• Barret Jackman’s cross-checking penalty on old friend Brad Winchester gave the skilled San Jose power play an opportunity to tie the game. It’s a good thing that Russell drew an interference penalty on Marleau to negate that opportunity.
• Once again the Blues struggled to finish off a victory. This time they let Jumbo Joe Thornton score a 6-on-5 goal with 67 seconds to make the final minute of the game way too interesting.
FROM THE TWEETDECK
Ray Ratto: “Crombeen makes it 1-0 after long stretch in San Jose zone. Nothing seems to have changed much.”
David Shoalts: “How the hell does the lowest scoring series - Blues vs Sharks - have Brian Elliott and Antti Niemi as goalies?”
Ray Ratto: “Elliott making extra sure Sharks get one, and only one, shot per zone entrance.”
Lou Korac: “Not only is Berglund producing offensively but doing it on defensive end there as well. Like I said before, forwards buying in.”
Ray Ratto: “A Penalty Has Been Killed In San Jose! Film At 11!”
Pierre LeBrun: “Sharks killed Blues PP but not sure how much confidence they gain from that. Blues whipped that baby around and hit a post.”
Kelly Chase: “The biggest period of hockey this Blues team has had all year is coming up. Berglund, McDonald and Steen have been scary good.”
Pierre LeBrun: “Pretty evenly played game here through 40 min in San Jose. Huge period in this series coming up.”
Ray Ratto: “Sharks bringing pressure to bear in STL end, but Elliott is easing from ‘very good’ to the outskirts of ‘standing on his head.’”
Pierre LeBrun: “Easily the most pressure the Sharks have thrown at St. Louis in this series. But Blues still amaze in way in which they defend blue paint.”
Ray Ratto: “And that's the dagger; Niemi stops first shot on Blues power play, but puck pops up behind, McDonald converts. 2-0, and drive home safely.”
Patrik Berglund: “Great game tonight, battled to the end. happy flight home tomorrow. Can't wait to play in front of our fans again Saturday.”
WHAT OTHERS ARE WRITING
Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News: “In Internet vote, Patrick Marleau won the ‘Fan Favorite’ award at the conclusion of the Sharks' regular season. He may be forcing a recall vote in the playoffs. Marleau was hardly the sole reason the Sharks lost Thursday's game . . . But he was the face of the defeat. And he probably deserved to be. Sometimes it's hard to keep reminding yourself that Marleau is the Sharks' all-time leader in game-winning playoff goals (13) as well as in career playoff points (88). For all that, the man has a habit of stringing together postseason games where he has little to no impact on anything, including beer sales. Then, when you least expect it, he pops up to score a big goal. Now would be a good time for that to happen. Because so far in four games against the Blues, Marleau is back in his non-impact mode. His well-known climate-control personality -- he never gets too excited or too angry, just stays even keel -- only multiplies the perception that he's lacking in passion to compete.”
Ray Ratto, CSN Bay Area: “the Sharks played their best 60 minutes, more or less, and they still got less out of more. They are truly down to seeds and stems now, even when it comes to hauling out silver linings to hide the dark gray skies. And for McLellan’s benefit, there are five teams who are down 3-1 in games -- San Jose, Vancouver, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Of those, Pittsburgh just won its last game by a touchdown, Vancouver won 3-1 in L.A., Chicago’s three losses have all come in overtime, and Detroit has scored eight goals against Nashville, a low but manageable total. In short, the team least likely to overcome the crushing math of the 3-1 deficit is actually San Jose. They could still beat the reaper, but the reaper looks pretty damned good right now.”
Pierre LeBrun, ESPN.com: “Take away two late-game, garbage-time goals in Game 3, and the Sharks have scored two meaningful goals in the three games since stealing Game 1 in double overtime. We'll give them Joe Thornton's late tally Thursday night because at 2-0 the game was still in reach. Counting their four regular-season games against the Blues, the Sharks have been limited to 10 goals in eight games. If that's not defensive dominance over a team, I don't know what is.”
AROUND THE RINKS: Now that Roberto Luongo has absorbed another playoff benching, is his time in Vancouver done? Is this the dawn of the Cory Schneider Era? . . . And if Luongo ends up in play, will Leafs GM Brian Burke take that plunge and put Roberto on the Toronto hot seat? . . . how about a shoutout to Daniel Sedin for coming back from a concussion and sparking his team . . . The Penguins have finally finished off a victory against Philly, but can they come back from the grave in this wild first-round series? . . . With some NHL owners worked up over all the head hunting in the sport these days, it'll be interesting to see what policies the league create for next season . . . The Blackhawks need their big scorers to resume scoring immediately. The Coyotes have them on the brink . . . Sorry, Tomas Vokoun, but it appears the Capitals have finally found a goaltender to build around.