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Sharks outworked, outexecuted in Game 4 loss

Failure to match Blues' desperation leaves Western Conference Final tied 2-2

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Peter DeBoer was not in the mood to talk X's and O's.

His San Jose Sharks lost 6-3 to the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday. Instead of taking a 3-1 series lead, setting the team record for Stanley Cup Playoff wins in a single season and coming within a victory of their first Cup Final, they let the Blues tie the series 2-2. They assured this best-of-7 will go at least six games.

But it wasn't because DeBoer was outfoxed by his counterpart, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who changed his goalie, changed his lineup and changed his lines, looking for anything and everything to spark a team that had been outplayed for three games and went 156:59 without a goal.

So when DeBoer was asked if the Blues had changed anything on the forecheck to make it more effective, he had enough.

"I'm sure Hitch will tell you he made all kinds of great adjustments and every one of them worked tonight," DeBoer said at his postgame news conference. "Hats off to him."

Video: DeBoer shares his thoughts on Game 4 loss

With that, DeBoer stormed off stage left. No further questions.

What happened was not complex, not that it was acceptable for the Sharks.

The Blues were a better team than they had shown; the Sharks were due for a letdown. The Blues were facing a desperate situation; the Sharks had a cushion. The Blues did to the Sharks what the Sharks had done to them: breaking out of their zone, generating speed through the neutral zone, establishing their forecheck, forcing turnovers.

"They came out harder and outworked us tonight," Sharks forward Chris Tierney said. "We were lazy. They were beating us inside, at their net, along the walls. It seemed like we got outbattled early, and we could never really recover from it."

Video: Hitchcock on effort, goaltending in Game 4 win

On top of that, the Blues went 2-for-4 on the power play and 5-for-5 on the penalty kill with a shorthanded goal.

The difference, Sharks center Joe Thornton said, was "probably special teams."

Hitchcock is a great coach. He has won the Stanley Cup (with the Dallas Stars in 1999). For St. Louis, his moves mattered. But for San Jose, this was more about the execution of the X's and O's than the X's and O's themselves.

"We got what we deserved because of our execution," DeBoer said.

The way the first three games went, it was easy to forget that the Blues had 107 points during the regular season, second in the Western Conference, and the Sharks had 98, sixth-most in the West. Or that in the first round, the Blues defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and in the second, they defeated the Dallas Stars, who finished first in the West.

Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic called the Blues "the best team in the West" after Game 4 to emphasize the point. It was probably unreasonable to expect the Blues would continue to play as poorly as they had been.

"They're a good team," Vlasic said. "They're not going to go away."

If the Sharks knew that, then why weren't they ready? Why didn't they match the Blues' desperation?

Human nature. The nature of hockey.

"In the regular season, if you lose one, you always come out stronger the next one, and in playoffs, it's even more desperate," Vlasic said. "We wanted to go up 3-1, but they didn't want to go down 3-1, so they came out and they were better than us."

That's not a satisfying explanation. That's not an excuse. But that's the truth, or at least part of it.

"It's tough to manufacture that edge, and that's on our group to manufacture that edge," DeBoer said. "I'm sure going forward here we'll have that."

The good news for the Sharks is that there is no need to manufacture that edge now.

"If you take a night off, you're one game from elimination," Tierney said. "We're going to bring it next game."

There is no need for DeBoer to make major changes like Hitchcock did, either.

He pulled goaltender Martin Jones midway through Game 4 after Jones allowed four goals on 19 shots, but Jones had made 65 straight saves and not allowed a goal in 153:57 before that. There is no doubt that Jones will start Game 5 on Monday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

DeBoer might make a tweak here or there. But the top line of Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski and Thornton isn't changing. The top power-play unit of Pavelski, Thornton, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns isn't changing.

The only "X" DeBoer needs to draw is on the cover of this game tape before he throws it in the garbage, and the only "O" he needs to draw is around the results of the first three games. Forget this one. Remember those.

"You play three games one way and one game the wrong way," forward Tommy Wingels said. "It's easy to look at and see which one works and which one doesn't. So we know which one works. We can watch video of it, but I don't think we need to."

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