After the St. Louis Blues were shutout in their own barn on Tuesday allowing the San Jose Sharks to tie the series, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock talked about having learned to go from “furious to curious” in putting a loss behind him and moving forward. However, he was likely expressing some fury during the intermissions in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final as again the Sharks took control of the game.
It looked in the first period as though the Blues had learned their lesson, coming out strong on the forecheck; perhaps a result of the line changes Hitchcock made going into the third game. The only line he left alone was his second—Robby Fabbri, Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz. Throughout the first five minutes of the game, the Blues were putting good pressure on the Sharks overall and were outshooting them 4-1.
However, it was Hitchcock’s newly created fourth line of Magnus Paajarvi, Kyle Broziak and Dmitrij Jaskin that showed some of the strongest play for the Blues. They would see a number of shifts as a result of their efforts.
Despite the strong start, it wouldn’t last. While the Sharks struggled in the beginning to clear their zone, when they did get the puck out they often found themselves on the odd man rush in that first period. Though the shots ended up off the mark, it was clear that if they could force the Blues to turnover the puck that they could have the upper hand.
The Sharks found the back of the net at 15:53 of the first period as a result of just such a Blues’ turnover in the neutral zone exploited by Brent Burns who was able to set up Joe Thornton’s pass to Joe Pavelski who in turn got it on the stick of Tomas Hertl. Hertl’s laser shot found twine behind Blues goaltender Brian Elliott. Burns’ intercept took advantage of the Blues’ stretch pass the first clue that St. Louis was getting away from their game.
Going into the second period the Blues were down a man after Alex Pietrangelo was whistled for charging with just eight seconds remaining in the first. While the Blues made the kill, that was perhaps the only positive for them. They continued to struggle to regain the energy and control they had in the beginning of the game. Their best opportunity coming again from the fourth line, but Martin Jones was up to the challenge—continuing to look calm despite his present national arena.
Fabbri, instead of perhaps taking a shot on net or dumping it around the back of the net, sent the puck cross ice intending it for his linemate Stastny only to see Joonas Donskoi poke it out getting it up to Logan Couture. Couture showed awareness of Donskoi’s positioning and patience waiting for the right winger to get into the offensive zone. Couture’s pass to Donskoi set him up to put the Sharks up 2-0.
As the teams went off for the second intermission it was clear that the Blues, who are best known as a physical team, were anything but. In addition to being down two goals, they were also being outhit 34-16 in the first two frames. Their star players making ghostly appearances, especially Vladimir Tarasenko who managed only 2 shots on goal in the entire game and lost his battles to the puck.
On the flip side, the stars for the Sharks continued to show their focus and determination. While Burns didn’t have a point in this game, his skill with the puck and his view of the ice were responsible for that first goal though he didn’t get an assist on the stats’ sheets. And that goal seemed to tilt the ice in favor of the Sharks and they never let up.
Six minutes into the third, Hertl got his second of the game and gave the Sharks a 3-0 lead. This goal, the third of only 14 seen by the Blues net minder saw Elliott pulled and Jake Allen taking his place. However Allen wouldn’t spend too much time there. With an aggressive 5:18 remaining in the third, Hitchcock used his timeout and elected to put six players out there and sit his goaltender for the rest of the game.
The Sharks shut out the Blues in back-to-back games going up 2-1 in the series. Their decisions on the ice are forcing the Blues to turnover the puck and shed their identity. Hitchcock seems to be sending a few mixed messages in this regard as well, asking the team to play to their strength—which is a physical game—but then inserting some skill guys in his line shakeups.
The teams will see each other again on Saturday night at the Shark Tank, where clearly the Blues hope to even the series and regain some control. Of course if Jones continues his backstopping prowess along with the overall cohesiveness of his teammates in front that may not be an option.