|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
ST. LOUIS -- A few days ago, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock sat with the assembled media and broke down his first-round opposition.
The name that got him to sit up in his chair and widen his eyes when talking about him was that of Martin Havlat.
"I've coached against Havlat [when Hitchcock coached in Philadelphia] where he was the best player in every game -- it wasn't even close," the Blues head coach said Tuesday. "He was better than [Marian] Hossa. So I know what he can do."
Regrettably for the Blues and their boisterous fans Thursday night, Hitchcock proved to be far more prescient than he would have liked.
Havlat scored twice, his second tally a knife in the heart of Blues fans 3:34 into double overtime to hand the veteran Sharks a 3-2 victory in Game 1 of their best-of-seven, first-round series.
"I just try to enjoy the time in the playoffs," Havlat said after his team's big win.
This, of course, was the point when the Sharks dealt for him last summer. While Havlat's career stagnated with the Minnesota Wild, Sharks GM Doug Wilson saw a player who still had big-game ability if surrounded with the right supporting cast. He also saw a player with 28 points (12-16) in his past 26 playoff games before this year, a player that raises his game come spring time.
"He has that reputation, that's one of the reasons why he was acquired," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said after Thursday night's game. "He lived up to it tonight."
It's no coincidence the Sharks' late-season resurgence went hand in hand with Havlat's return from injury March 15. With him out of the lineup for 39 games, San Jose's top-six forward group look unbalanced and lacked cohesiveness. With Havlat in the lineup this season, the Sharks were 25-11-3.
Mind you, Havlat was nearly the goat on this night. His ill-advised decision to trip Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak 200 feet from the Sharks net 6:31 into the third period was the kind of penalty that drives coaches crazy. And often loses games. With Havlat sitting in the box, Patrik Berglund scored his second goal of the night -- what felt at the time like the dagger goal -- to give the Blues a 2-1 lead as Scottrade Center rocked.
Luckily for Havlat, Andrew Desjardins tied it up with 5:16 to play in the third period to set up extra time.
And it was Havlat's chance to atone for that penalty.
"For sure, because that was a stupid penalty I took," Havlat said. "I can't take penalties like that."
While Havlat provided the timely goals, netminder Antti Niemi was a rock in net for San Jose. It was hard to read any series preview without hearing about the decided edge the Blues had in goal. Hard not to think that with the Blues leading the league with the fewest goals against. Halak was certainly solid on Thursday night, but Niemi looked dominant. And confident. And calm.
There is no double overtime unless Niemi stops all 14 shots he faced in the first overtime period when the Blues delivered their best pressure of the game.
"He looks comfortable, that's for sure," Sharks winger Ryane Clowe said. "He was probably our best penalty killer tonight. And definitely in the first overtime he was real sharp. We expect that from him at this time of year."
It's a funny thing about Niemi. Not a lot of people believe he's really up to the task even though he won a Cup with Chicago in 2010 and led the Sharks to the conference finals last season. That's a lot of playoff hockey the past few years and it's a time of year when Niemi appears at ease.
"Yeah, I don't know why, but yes for sure," the soft-spoken Finnish netminder said. "It's the biggest pressure but you just get excited for it."
The playoffs are all about pressure. And now that pressure really shifts to the young Blues. This was exactly what San Jose had in mind before the series, take Game 1 and see how the young favorites react. After all, the Sharks had been there many times over the years.
"We've been on the other side," Sharks blueliner Dan Boyle said. "You start at home you're expected to win Game 1 and then you don't want to go down in the hole 0-2. We've done that. It was a big win for us tonight."
The Blues can't complain much with their game. They outshot the Sharks 42-34 and handed San Jose's dangerous power play only three chances. Pretty close to what you want if you're St. Louis. But that's just it. The Blues gave their A game and the Sharks survived it.
Now the question is how the young core of the Blues reacts. This is when you really find out just how ready this team is to win at this time of year.
"We'll take it hard tonight, we'll get ready tomorrow, and come back with a better effort [on Saturday night]," Hitchcock said. "It was one game, it was a heck of a hockey game. Probably the best game of the playoffs so far, at least that I've seen. Two good teams going at it. There's not much difference between the two teams."
Maybe not much to choose from between two good hockey clubs, such is the story really in all four Western Conference series, but the contrast lies in playoff experience.
That came in handy Thursday night in overtime. The Sharks didn't panic when the Blues pressed. They've been here before. They went 5-1 in overtime last spring and understand what it's all about.
"Especially between periods, we did talk about it, a lot of us have been here before, the last few years both winning and losing in overtime," McLellan said. "I thought there was a calmness with our team. Even when they [the Blues] had a real good push in the first overtime for about 10 minutes, there was still a calmness on the bench. For me, that's a sign of veteran leadership and experience."
And that's why the Sharks have a shot in this series.