SAN JOSE – The young St. Louis Blues continued growing up before coach Ken Hitchcock's eyes Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
The Blues got goals from B.J. Crombeen and Andy McDonald as they beat the San Jose Sharks 2-1 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Quarterfinal series.
Game 5 is Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, CNBC, TSN, RDS2) at Scottrade Center, where the Blues will have a chance to win a playoff series for the first time since 2002, when they beat Chicago in the conference quarterfinals.
"We're growing up quick here, but this team is making us do it, too," Hitchcock said of the Sharks. "I don't think there's one guy in that [dressing] room that thinks we've got anything except three wins. I think every player -- you can just see the mood in the locker room. You get grounded real quick because you know that this series could be 3-1 the other way. But I like the fact that we hung in here in this building, hung in real hard."
Goaltender Brian Elliott, who combined with Jaroslav Halak to shut out the Sharks 3-0 in Game 2, stopped 24 of 25 shots, including a handful of spectacular saves. He lost his shutout bid seconds after the Sharks pulled goaltender Antti Niemi when captain Joe Thornton took a pass in the slot from Logan Couture and ripped a shot past Elliott, cutting the Blues' lead to 2-1 with 1:07 left to play.
But the Blues kept the Sharks from getting a shot on Elliott the rest of the way.
"It's huge obviously, but we still have one more win to take care of," Elliott said. "That's what they say, the fourth one's always the hardest. We're going to have to bear down and treat it like any other game, but it's a big one for us."
The Sharks have lost seven of eight games against St. Louis this season, including all four in the regular season. Now they have to beat the Blues three straight times to save their season.
Sharks coach Todd McLellan, for one, hasn't given up hope.
"We have to feel good about the way we played but [lousy] about the results," McLellan said. "How you balance that out, I guess we'll find out tomorrow. I think there's going to be a team that comes back from 3-1 down in this playoff [round], and there a number of us at it, and it may as well be us. Let's go there and play and see what happens. I think if we get this kind of effort again and this type of game we have a chance of coming out ahead."
Crombeen scored his first career playoff goal just 7:12 into the game, putting St. Louis up 1-0. McDonald scored on the power play 12 minutes into the third period.
The Blues killed all four of the Sharks' power plays, including one midway through the third period that ended when San Jose forward Patrick Marleau went to the box for interference. After a brief stretch of 4-on-4 play, the Blues went on the power play, and McDonald scored with 10 seconds left on Marleau's penalty. David Perron blasted a shot from the left circle that Niemi deflected into the air. The puck landed on the goaltender's back and dropped onto the ice, where McDonald batted it into the net.
"The goals are just around the net," McDonald said. "For me that's a focus point. With our line we have a lot of good puck movement and chemistry. Obviously in this type of hockey, in playoff hockey, you have to be around the net and the hard areas. That's what I'm trying to do, just get to the net."
Crombeen was an unlikely scorer -- he missed the first 35 games this season with a shoulder injury and scored just one goal in 40 games. He led the Blues in fighting majors with nine and has 515 career penalty minutes. He's known for his toughness, not his goal-scoring.
But he gave Blues took a 1-0 lead with his first career playoff goal and point, taking a pass from Patrik Berglund in the slot and beating Niemi with a wrist shot.
Crombeen and the Blues took advantage of a tired group of Sharks – forwards Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski and defensemen Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic – that couldn't gain control of the puck and get off the ice.
"I think that's kind of our team," said Crombeen, who came on the ice in a change with T.J. Oshie before scoring. "When we're playing real well we're getting pucks behind teams and we're controlling the puck down there. We're grinding teams down. It's things like that. Osh makes a great line change that leads to it. You get a fresh guy coming out. We keep the other two guys in there and just rolling them out. It's things like that when our team is playing well we do well. They're a similar team where that's what they're looking to do. It's hard to get the ice out there, hard to really maintain that puck. We knew it would be a battle."
When Crombeen's shot went through Niemi's legs and into the net, the Blues had the first goal for the third straight game in the series. Once again, San Jose was chasing the Blues, the NHL's stingiest defensive team, who allowed just 1.89 goals per game during the regular season and protects leads as if they were gold.
The Sharks had two great chances to score in the first period, but Elliott turned back both. He made a pad save on Couture's breakaway and a glove stop on Daniel Winnik's wrist shot from close range after a slick move to get past defenseman Barret Jackman.
"We created a lot more chances, but at the end of the day it was just a tough loss," Couture said. "They just won three in a row against us, and there's no reason why we can't do that. That's a tough building to play in, but we have to go and play our best hockey of the series. All that matters now are wins and losses. We lost this one so new we get ready for Game 5."
McLellan, searching for an offensive spark, juggled his top two lines and made lineup changes in his bottom two lines. Third-line center Michal Handzus and fourth-line wing Brad Winchester, a pair of former Blues, were in the lineup for the first time this series, replacing center Dominic Moore and wing TJ Galiardi.
Marleau, a top-line wing the first three games, swapped places with Couture, who had been the second-line center. Those changes helped the Sharks play what McLellan called their best game of the series, but it wasn't good enough to prevent the Blues from going up 3-1 in the series.
Hitchcock knows getting the fourth win won't be simple -- especially for a team that hasn't gotten past the first round in a decade.
"This is new ground for us," Hitchcock said. "I know one thing. We played well at home all year, and I know we're going to play well, but I know they're going to play well, too. They're not going quietly. There's very little difference between the two teams right now. The difference is we scored on our power play chances and they haven't on theirs, and that's been the No. 1 difference in the series, and that's been about it.
"There's not much difference, and our players recognize that. We recognize how close these games are and how hard the next one's going to be. But this is a new experience for us. When we get back home, we've never been in this situation before. We're going to have to obviously play our best, but I think dealing with the pressure of winning and closing a team out, we're going to have to work through it."