Entering Thursday evening, the San Jose Sharks had many factors on their side, looking to avoid back to back losses in games three and four since bowing out in the second round to the Detroit Red Wings in 1995, via a four game sweep.
Armed with veteran experience and a new look threat up front, this mission to get the series tied at 2-2 had one possible effect: place pressure on a youthful St. Louis Blues squad that was fresh in the legs but – for the most part – new to the playoff dance.
Granted, Game Five would usher return to the Blues home confines at Scottrade Center, but a psychological wedge would be put into place. A Sharks win would perhaps signal the awakening of the giant – sending a message that an experienced and savvy squad, coming off back to back appearances in the Western Conference Final, would be hot on the Blues tail.
The Sharks fell one goal shy of that achievement last night, dropping Game Four at 2-1 and now must rally out of a 3-1 series deficit to avoid elimination.
'The Game Inside the Game' had many twists and turns en route to Thursday night’s result.
THE MATCHUP - EXPERIENCE
SHARKS: Heading into Game Four, the Sharks boasted a battle tested corps that had eight players clocking in at 60 games of playoff experience or more, not counting goaltender Antti Niemi
(43 games) and his Stanley Cup champion credential from 2010. Of those eight players, three Stanley Cup titles have been produced (Colin White
– 2, Dan Boyle
– 1). Patrick Marleau
led the Sharks with 127 games of playoff experience, White boasted 112 games and Joe Thornton
was tied at that same mark– who came off a three assist night in game three.
BLUES: The St. Louis Blues only had two players over that 60-game mark: Jamie Langenbrunner (140) and Jason Arnott (118) – both who have combined for three Stanley Cup championships in their careers. Andy McDonald adds another with Anaheim (2007). Taking Arnott and Langenbrunner out of the equation leaves the entire Blues team with 284 games of playoff experience among 21 players (13.5 games average).STRENGTHS
SHARKS: Nothing says dependability in the playoffs like experience. Their Stanley Cup championship know-how on the roster and for many returning Sharks – experience in playing through the emotional roller coasters of previous playoff runs (Detroit in 2011, anyone?) – would be useful in a goal to fight back and tie the series. Marleau and Thornton also combined for 173 points in the playoffs.
"Panic? Absolutely no," said defenseman Dan Boyle
– who won a Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 – after game three. "It's a series.”
BLUES: Langenbrunner and Arnott – two first year veteran additions to the roster – would certainly be looked upon for their championship experience as a guiding factor to handle the rigors of playoff pressure. Aside from that, the roster also possesses two former Sharks – Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins – who went through the postseason grind with San Jose in the previous two seasons. Yet, the Blues are captained by 27 year old David Backes – who had his first taste of the postseason in a 2009 sweep at the hands of Vancouver –and are anchored on the blueline by the youthful Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk.
ADVANTAGE: Blues, in a photo finish. In spite of the losing cause, Thornton came through with the San Jose’s only goal in a contest that proved challenging to get anything by Blues goaltender Brian Elliott (24 saves). “Jumbo” also won 10 of 14 faceoffs during the game. McDonald’s power play goal in the third period stood as the game winner, helping him earn the first star of the game nod. Arnott and Langenbrunner were held off the scoresheet.HEAD TO HEAD
SHARKS – JOE THORNTON
(most playoff experience): 1 G, 0 A, 3 SOG, 10 FW, +1
BLUES – JAMIE LANGENBRUNNER (most playoff experience): 0 G, 0 A, 6 SOG, 1 HT, 1 FW
THE MATCHUPLINEUP CHANGES
SHARKS: The Sharks split up their “big three” before Game Four and moved Logan Couture
to the top line, teaming with Thornton in the middle and Joe Pavelski
on the right wing. Marleau was moved to the center position on the second line, joined by Ryane Clowe
and Martin Havlat
on the wings. Michal Handzus
and Brad Winchester
made their Sharks playoff debuts – adding bulk to the third and fourth lines respectively – replacing T.J. Galiardi and Dominic Moore
BLUES: Despite St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock staying away from committing to the same lineup yesterday morning, there were no changes in the Blues personnel, In fact, their top line of Backes, David Perron and T.J. Oshie was installed for the second straight game in San Jose for the opening faceoff. STRENGTHS
SHARKS: Admitting a need for an offensive spark, Couture and Marleau swapped linemates for a new look in Game Four. Marleau moved to the pivot position – a move that implored more “all around” responsibility – perhaps opening the door for more production after being held scoreless in the first three games. Clowe and Havlat had combined for six points in the first three games of the series. Perhaps more magic was in store with Couture, after connecting on the final goal in game three with Thornton. He found “Jumbo” as his new full time set-up man.
Winchester – registering a 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds – brought an added physical presence to the fourth line to answer the Blues grinding attack. Handzus – no lightweight at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds – provided extra playoff experience (66 games) with 30 points in his postseason career.
BLUES: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as they say. The Blues suffocating pressure and special teams performance in the series, leading up to Game Four, merited no lineup changes.ADVANTAGE:
Sharks, in this category. The lineup changes helped produce what Sharks head coach Todd McLellan called their “best 60 minute effort in the series.” Thornton came through with the only San Jose goal and the Sharks earned good looks at the net in the second and third periods on Brian Elliott, using screens and backdoor plays that were foiled by rolling pucks and near-missed deflections. They edged the Blues in shots, 25-24 and blasted 14 more in the direction of Elliott that missed the net. The Sharks also responded physically, earning a 28-19 edge in hits over the Blues.
Ultimately, the Sharks now have their backs against the wall for the remainder of the series and must solve the Blues goaltending (.940 combined save percentage between Elliott and Jaroslav Halak), special teams (6-of-16 on the power play) and forechecking efforts to stay alive. HEAD TO HEAD:
SHARKS: 25 SHOTS, 14 MISSED SHOTS, 28 HITS
BLUES: 24 SHOTS, 7 MISSED SHOTS, 19 HITS