Blues stick with winning formula
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The NHL's stingiest team in the regular season is throttling the San Jose Sharks with that same suffocating game in the playoffs.
And you can forget those two late San Jose goals Monday night that made the score look respectable at 4-3. This was 4-1 when the game was still on the line.
The Blues put up a brick wall around netminder Brian Elliott and once again silenced one of the league's most dangerous attacks.
Shut out in Game 2 and only able to score once before the two meaningless tallies late Monday, the Sharks can't penetrate the slot enough to generate the kind of quality scoring chances needed to win a game. Nor do they spend enough time in the Blues' zone.
"They're very good defensively, they outnumber you quickly," said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. "They get to rebounds and they are physically strong. They battle for their ice. We can do a better job there."
It might not be sexy to watch, but it's utterly impressive. The Blues led the league with only 1.89 goals against per game this season, and it's no accident. It takes every single individual on the team to be willing to play this style. It takes a lot of unselfish people.
"It's a real commitment," veteran Blues winger Jamie Langenbrunner said, and he should know after all those years in New Jersey. "You have to sacrifice cheating [offensively] for situations. You have to sacrifice for some guys the way you're used to playing. You have to really buy in and do what's important for the team. It's been proven for us all year that when we do that, we're as good as anybody at doing it. We're pretty successful when we do that. It's a commitment to take care of your own end."
No offense to Elliott or Jaroslav Halak -- the Blues' impressive netminding duo -- but their statistics get a healthy bump from playing behind this awesome defensive juggernaut.
And while some teams adjust their styles come playoff time, tightening up their games to stand a better chance in the postseason grind, the Blues have been playing this way all season. It was a seamless transition to spring hockey, and that's another reason they stand a chance at some success this spring.
It's not the only trend continuing from the regular season. The Sharks' awful penalty killing gave up three more power-play goals Monday night, making it 11 goals on 24 penalty kills in their past five games. Their 29th-place ranking in the regular season was the lowest penalty-kill ranking of a team that made the playoffs since the 1997 New York Rangers.
When Patrik Berglund scored on the Blues' first power-play chance, it seemed to quickly deflate San Jose's penalty-killing units.
"Yes, it affects your confidence and your ability to keep going," McLellan said. "You can feel it on the bench. And it changes the way you play the game. Sometimes you're not as aggressive as you want to be because you're afraid of going to the box. There's no doubt about it, we have to look at it and fix it."
And it's not like the Blues' power play is the second coming of the 1980s Oilers, either. They were ranked 19th in the league this season -- OK, but not great. Against this Sharks penalty kill, however, they look like Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, Coffey and Lowe. The Blues whipped that puck around Monday night like nobody's business on the man advantage.
"I don't think we get enough credit," said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. "Our power play finished mid-pack but we made a heck of a climb. We were in 30th place around Christmas and everybody was laughing at us. Our power play has been a threat now for almost 40 days. We've done good things."
So now what for the Sharks? The seventh seed needs more from its top performers. In perhaps the most overwritten NHL playoff story of the past decade, first-line winger Patrick Marleau has yet to be heard from. He has zero points in three games and has barely been noticeable.
Time for McLellan to rethink his top-six formations, and it started in the third period when he mixed a few different lines.
"We just tried to find a spark, find something that works," McLellan said. "And for 200 feet, not necessarily just for the offensive zone. We'll look at it again tonight and see if we shuffle them around or inject some players in. But we have to find a group that can win."
Last spring when McLellan wanted to shake things up, he'd put Logan Couture on the wing with Joe Thornton, perhaps another option for Game 4. It might be what McLellan was already pondering when he had Couture and Thornton skate together on a few shifts in the third period Monday night.
The Blues have had some of their big guys step up. Berglund is making this series his personal coming-out party, adding a goal and an assist Monday to give him four points in a low-scoring series. He's playing an impressive 200-foot game, shutting down Couture's unit while being a dangerous offensive threat at the other end.
Berglund is turning the page on what was a disappointing regular season, at least offensively. Many had predicted a breakout offensive year for him, but he produced only 19 goals and 19 assists, down from the 22 goals and 30 assists he registered the year before.
"I think the pressure that he puts on himself during the regular season, he felt like he underachieved offensively and now he's just playing hockey," Hitchcock said. "I think he's having fun playing in this type of atmosphere, and I don't think he's looking at points or anything like that. He's competing at a high level he got off his own back and he's just starting to play."
Berglund, 23, is one of several youthful core players on the Blues who have not looked overwhelmed at all by the playoff stage nor intimidated by their more experienced opponents.
"We're learning how to win," Hitchcock said. "The win in St. Louis eased the burden on everybody -- a lot of the younger players. There's a level of confidence that's starting to grow.
"Now, we kind of fumbled things at the end tonight a little bit, but that's the learning curve. We're up 2-1, but I know we can play a lot better, we have individuals that can play better, and we will. But I like the fact we came out in a tough building and played the way we did."
It's all coming together for a young Blues team that surprised the league this season and is showing signs it intends to stick around this spring.