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Power play propels San Jose past Blues in Game 5

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For the first time in the 2016 playoffs, the St. Louis Blues are staring elimination in the face outside the context of a winner-take-all game. Unlike the two previous elimination games for St. Louis—Game 7 victories against the Blackhawks and Stars respectively—the Blues will need to win Wednesday, and then again in another Game 7 on Friday, in order to advance to another round.

The Blues fell to the Sharks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at Scottrade Center Monday 6-3 in a game that was closer than the final score indicates. A back-and-forth battle, the score was tied three different times before the Sharks separated themselves in the third period.

The loss for St. Louis furthers two unfortunate trends in the postseason. Firstly, the Blues have now failed to win back-to-back games since taking Games 2 and 3 of their series with the Stars.

More alarming is the Blues 4-6 record in home games during the playoffs. Their inability to succeed at home the way they do on the road, where they’re 6-3 so far during the playoffs, has befuddled the locker room.

“I think each game is different in its identity,” Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock said. “The pressure to win at home is greater and so is the discouragement if you’re not doing well. (Playing) at home in the playoffs right now is either feast or famine. You either look like a million dollars, or you get frustrated.

“There have been a few times we’ve gotten frustrated because our expectations are high. We want to do well for the fans and sometimes that cocktail doesn’t mix very well.”

The Sharks opened the scoring in this game after the Blues lost a face-off in their defensive zone, a common occurrence in Game 5. When Marc-Edouard Vlasic lined up his shot from near the blue line, Jake Allen had Jay Bouwmeester and Tomas Hertl crowding his vision, fighting for positioning to the right side of the front of the net.

By the time Allen saw it, he had no time to make a play on it. Originally, Hertl was credited with a deflection, but the goal was eventually given to Vlasic, his first playoff goal in 2016, and third of his career.

The Blues didn’t wait long to strike back, as Jaden Schwartz quickly evened the score. A Patrik Berglund shot from the left wing careened off bodies in front of the net. David Backes settled the puck, and slipped it to a darting Schwartz who buried it for the early equalizer.

The Blues weren’t done there with first period scoring, as they continued to pepper Martin Jones. After the Sharks came up empty on several high-caliber chances during an extended run in the offensive zone, the Blues struck for their first lead.

Late in the period, Paul Stastny ripped a shot on Jones, who couldn’t cover the puck. The rebound popped skyward off Jones’ blocker, sailing several feet to his right. Like a clean-up hitter in baseball, Troy Brouwer batted the puck out of mid-air into the back of the net for the 2-1 lead.

At the time, the lead for the Blues was the latest in the season they held an advantage in a playoff series since beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1970 West Division Final. That year, of course, was the franchise’s most recent Stanley Cup Finals appearance. If you weren’t aware by now, the Blues have never hoisted the Cup.

That lead—as were many subsequent leads in the game—was short-lived as the Sharks took advantage of a power play chance early in the second period. Kevin Shattenkirk and Tommy Wingels were sent off for fighting. Since the second guy always gets caught, Shattenkirk also received an extra two minutes for roughing, which granted the Sharks a power play.

For a player of Shattenkirk’s caliber to get caught up in a scuffle with Wingels in such a pivotal game can only be described as a mental lapse. Whether the referees were judicious in their doling of the penalties notwithstanding, putting the zebras in a position to stick you with the blame there is something just can’t happen at this time of year.

Joel Ward took advantage of the error, scoring his third goal of the playoffs to tie things up a 2-2.

Former Blue Roman Polak then continued the Sharks’ strategy of mindless cheap-shots with a punch to the back of Dimitri Jaskin’s head midway through the second. Jaskin responded—as one tends to do after being sucker punched—by dropping the gloves with Polak.

In a bad break for St. Louis, the whistle blew to stop play due to the fight just before as Blues appeared to score a goal.

Their tough luck was forgotten moments later, as the resulting power play gave the Blues ammunition to reclaim the lead with a Robby Fabbri snipe from the point. It was Fabbri’s fourth goal in his first ever taste of playoff hockey.

The seesaw flow to the game continued with a Joe Pavelski power play goal to even the score at 3-3 toward the end of the second period. The Sharks got the man-advantage due to another Shattenkirk penalty, but this one—unlike his first period roughing—was more understandable.

Had the whistle not been blown, Shattenkirk would have been credited with the defensive play of the game for tracking down Tomas Hertl, who had a breakaway after he received an excellent outlet pass from Brent Burns. Many Blues fans considered it a phantom call, as it wasn’t clear whether Shattenkirk had even raised his stick.

Regardless of the merit of the call, it allowed the Sharks to tie the game after two periods. Anticipation for the third was palpable, until San Jose swooped in to take the air out of the arena in a flash.

Just 16 seconds into the third frame, the Sharks burned Allen for an even-strength goal, hushing the crowd before they had a chance to energize the team for the final twenty minutes. The goal that ended up being the game-winner was atypical for the Blues defense. Where the Blues usually contest every chance their opponent has, Chris Tierney had an easy time scoring the Sharks fourth goal.

“We need to make them earn everything,” David Backes said. “Whether that’s not feeding their transition in the neutral zone, whether that’s having good defensive zone coverage and blocking shots when necessary, or making them come 200 feet every time they touch to puck to try and get it in the back of our net. If you give them an easy one, they’re not gonna screw around with it. They take it, and it makes it that much harder to come back.”

The Blues scratched and clawed during the remainder of the period, but were unable to draw blood as Martin Jones stood tall to shut them out. Ultimately, St. Louis was done in by untimely—if not, questionable—penalties, as the Sharks potent power play struck twice in three chances. Hitchcock considers the rare lapse by the penalty kill unit to be a result of inexperienced players trying to do too much.

“In this series, this is the first time that we made checking errors killing penalties,” Hitchcock said. “That hurt us today. Both power plays were scored because we made checking errors. We tried to pour numbers into a battle that we should have stayed away from. A couple young guys made mistakes that a year from now, they’re not gonna make.”

A pair of empty-net goal with under a minute to play sealed the deal for the Sharks, who claim a 3-2 lead in the series. Allen was pulled for an extra attacker with nearly two minutes remaining, a questionable decision considering the Blues were not strong in their puck possession down the stretch.

After the first empty-netter, Hitchcock again kept Allen off the ice. The Sharks nabbed their second power play goal moments later to drive the dagger deeper into the hearts of Blues fans.

Hitchcock had no issue with the effort of his team in the game, a necessary distinction after the Blues didn’t show up for a couple consecutive games earlier in the series. The reality, however, is that effort isn’t going to be enough to get the job done this late in the season.

Along with effort, you need execution.

“If we could have eliminated the errors, there was a tremendous effort today,” Hitchcock said. “But we did make big errors and they came back and haunted us.”

Where Ken Hitchcock will turn with the season on the line in Game 6 in San Jose is unclear, but it would not be surprising to see Brian Elliott make his return between the pipes for the St. Louis Blues. Hitchcock certainly wasn’t giving anything away in the post-game, but said that he thought Allen played “fine.” He saved 21 of 25 shots.

Whoever Hitchcock decides should mind the net, the Blues will need a determined performance out of them to save the season, and extend this magical run for the city of St. Louis.

 

 

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