SAN JOSE -- In the first two games of the Western Conference Final, the San Jose Sharks forced the St. Louis Blues to play a game that doesn't suit their style. For St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, the difference in this series from what the Blues saw against the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars in the first two rounds is twofold.
"Their speed is in their puck movement," Hitchcock said of the Sharks entering Game 3 at SAP Center on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). "We have to have a better five-man unit doing it. They're stretching us out. They're making us play 3-and-2, and we're not at our best when we have to play 3-and-2. ... Everything we talked about was being better as a group of five because they have us stretched out into that 3-and-2 ratio, and that's not healthy. There's too many gaps, and they've jumped on some of these gaps now."
But that isn't the only concern for Hitchcock.
"This is a way more physically demanding series than the first two we played in," Hitchcock said. "They were skating series with big contact, but not a lot of grind like this is. This is a series that has a lot of grind in it, and it's going to be demanding for both teams. I just want to see us have a better disposition when the grind is on. We got frustrated [Tuesday] and we reacted the wrong way."
Those elements were evident in the Sharks' 4-0 victory in St. Louis in Game 2 on Tuesday that tied the best-of-7 series 1-1.
St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said it will be up to the Blues to not give the Sharks proper time to move the puck through three zones.
"The forwards do a lot of work in the offensive zone," Shattenkirk said. "They apply a lot of the pressure and then when they get pucks, they spread it out immediately right to their defensemen. That causes you to have to cover a lot of ground as a five-man unit in your D-zone. Again, if we can move pucks up quicker and not worry about making the perfect play out of our zone, I think it will help keep them from doing that and there's opportunities to catch their three guys on the forecheck, and guys like me jump in the rush and make those odd-man rushes and then in the D-zone, they're doing the same thing.
"They do three guys down low, they have very tight coverage, they bring their other two wingers over to try to trap you in there, but if we can spread them out, that's when we're going to see some of our lanes open up."
The Blues, expected to make multiple lineup changes that Hitchcock wouldn't disclose, know puck possession is key, and when they play with the puck more, they'll look faster than they have so far in this series.
"They're playing hard," Blues rookie forward Robby Fabbri said of the Sharks. "They're pressuring us. We know we have to do a better job of getting it in deep and getting it below the goal line and getting to work. We're a big, strong team and have to play like it."