ST. LOUIS -- For additional insight into the Western Conference Final between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Gary Agnew to break down the action. Agnew will be checking in throughout the series.
Agnew, 55, was an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. He also served as interim coach of the Blue Jackets for five games during the 2006-07 season, and has been coach of Syracuse of the American Hockey League and London and Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League.
Game 5 was a good game, a tight game, a game that came down to one goal, to a pair of power plays, a game that was as close as any so far in the Western Conference Final. That was why, for Agnew, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for the Blues, or exactly what the Sharks did so well, in the 6-3 San Jose win on Monday at Scottrade Center.
"They both had, it seemed anyway, that sense of desperation," Agnew said. "I thought both teams played well. I thought both teams generated. I thought both teams defended. They were leaving it on the ice, which was what they have to do in a Game 5."
But, in watching Game 5, Agnew did pick up on a few key decisions by the teams, and a few plays that ultimately made the difference in putting the Sharks up 3-2 in the best-of-7 series.
"The power-play goals obviously were a big part of it," Agnew said. "I thought San Jose's power play really gave them momentum. Just before they scored, [Joe] Pavelski missed a shot - it went over the net or something - so it looked to me like that was a little bit of a swing, and then obviously his goal early in the third."
That made it a one-goal game, with the Sharks leading 4-3 throughout most of the third period, until they scored a pair of empty-net goals in the final minute. As Agnew said, "You get that one-goal lead and now there's a sense that, OK, this thing's going to come down to a goalie-out situation. Let's make sure we stay structured, let's make sure we get pucks deep. And I think San Jose did a good job in the third of making sure that happened."
There was another strategy San Jose employed that Agnew made note of, one that might have thrown the Blues off their game a bit.
"I thought San Jose used the back of the net well," Agnew said. "So both five-on-five and five-on-four, they're making plays east-west behind the back of the net, so what you end up doing is you end up having the defensive team facing their net, which then makes it trickier to pick up on your coverages in the D zone, especially on the penalty kill, because now you're facing that and stuff's happening behind you, whereas if the puck's moving up the wall, up the boards, you can sort of peripherally see where your guy is and it's a little bit easier to keep an eye on the puck and your coverage guy.
"But when it gets behind the net, it makes it a little trickier, and I thought [the Sharks] made [the Blues] face their net a couple times, and then when they didn't use that slot, then they got it out to the point and you had two traffic goals, the screens and the tip-ins. So I thought they did a good job in the offensive zone of using the back of the net."
With St. Louis' loss, its sixth in 10 games at Scottrade Center in the playoffs, the Blues are on the brink of elimination. They will need to take Game 6 in San Jose to extend the series.
"I thought they played fine," Agnew said. "There were a couple of coverage issues, but I thought for the most part they played fine. It was just a good game. Just special teams had an effect, and having the one-goal lead changes the dynamics of it.
"I think as far as St. Louis is concerned, they just need to continue their forecheck pressure, continue to take away time and space, make sure to stay out of the box, obviously. You're going to take penalties, but the emotional control part of it is going to be critical in Game 6.
"They're an attack-north, put pucks at the net, attack the net, stop on rebounds, make things happen in the greasy areas [kind of team] and they've got to do that. That's their game."
It won't be easy, especially given the way some of the Sharks big names are playing. Agnew specifically cited Joe Thornton, Pavelski and Marc-Edouard Vlasic as having played particularly well in putting San Jose one win from the Stanley Cup Final. But it was not a one-sided domination, as it mostly was for the Blues in Game 4.
"It was one of those games where it's a one-goal game," Agnew said. "You get the empty netters and it looks bad, it's a 6-3 final, but it's a one-goal game and that's playoff hockey. It's a matter of, for both teams, just getting the energy up again. The travel makes it tough, the lengths now, we're deep, deep within the playoffs and now you've got to find energy and hide injuries and all that stuff. It's a matter of re-energizing."
by Amalie Benjamin @amaliebenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer