ST. LOUIS -- This was in-your-face hockey. You knew it in the first period Sunday, when the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks established themselves in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Blues captain David Backes grabbed Sharks center Joe Thornton's big, bushy, beautiful beard and yanked it while Thornton tried to tug at Backes' relative stubble.
"Yeah, just seeing whose was real and making sure they weren't glued-on," Backes said. "It seemed like both checked out."
But in the hairiest moments, it was Blues goaltender Brian Elliott who checked out most. There are no razors in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only razor-thin margins, and Elliott made the difference in a 2-1 St. Louis victory.
The Blues were outshot 32-23, including 16-5 in the second period, but there was Elliott, stoning the team with the highest-scoring offense and second-ranked power play in these playoffs.
The only goal Elliott allowed came on a double deflection in the first period, when a point shot by Sharks defenseman Brent Burns went off two San Jose forwards: Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl.
The key moment came in the second period, when Elliott got his right pad on a one-timer from the left hash marks by Pavelski, his old University of Wisconsin teammate, shortly after Sharks goaltender Martin Jones allowed a soft goal to Blues forward Jori Lehtera. The score remained 2-1.
"When a guy like Jori goes down and gets you the lead," Elliott said, "you just want to keep it."
Pavelski didn't credit Elliott. He said the puck "hit" the goaltender. He blamed his stick.
There might be some truth to that, and, yes, Elliott was a little lucky. Late in the second period, the puck skidded toward him. He appeared to cover it up as Sharks forward Joel Ward crashed the net, and a referee lost sight of it and whistled the play dead, not realizing the puck had leaked into the crease. Elliott ended up kicking the puck across the goal line, but it didn't count.
But bottom line, the Sharks couldn't cash in on their chances in the second period despite their domination, and Elliott had a lot to do with that.
"The tragedy of the second period was, we spent the whole period in their end and lost the period 1-0," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "That was basically the game."
Basically. Not completely, though.
On a power play in the third period, Thornton cut toward the net and dished to Patrick Marleau. The puck went off Marleau's skate. Elliott made the save. The Sharks power play finished 0-for-3.
Late in regulation, with Jones pulled for the extra attacker, Pavelski ripped another one on net. Elliott got his glove on it.
"When your goalie's your best player, it gives you a great chance of winning, and that was the case tonight," Backes said. "It was that way for the first two rounds, and nothing's changed in Game 1 of the third round."
It's funny and inspiring to hear Backes speak of Elliott like that, as if he were a sure thing. Elliott has never been considered a sure thing. He has had to prove himself his entire career.
The Ottawa Senators selected him in the ninth round (No. 291) in the 2003 NHL Draft. He spent four years in college. He spent a season in the minors and split another season between the minors and the NHL. He spent two seasons with the Senators, got traded to the Colorado Avalanche and signed a two-way contract with the Blues in 2011, not knowing if he would play in the minors or the NHL.
He ended up setting the modern records for goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940) in 2011-12, only to battle with Jaroslav Halak, Jake Allen, Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur afterward, even going back to the minors for a couple of games on a conditioning assignment.
Over the past four seasons with the Blues, Elliott played 15 playoff games, starting 13 of them.
Well, he has started all of the Blues' 15 games in these playoffs and has a 2.20 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He stopped 62 of 65 shots in Game 7 wins against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and the Dallas Stars in the second round.
At this point, he might be the Blues' leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.