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Recap: WCQF Game 4 - Blues 2 @ Sharks 1 - April 19, 2012

by Mike Benton / San Jose Sharks

SAN JOSE, California
– Like a savvy and battle tested bunch, the San Jose Sharks re-tooled, adjusted and prepared accordingly.

They had the home crowd. They had adjustments. They also had a familiar nemesis standing in the way – goaltending and the penalty kill. It’s now put them on the brink of elimination.

Brian Elliott supported the St. Louis Blues with 25 save effort, while Andy McDonald’s power play goal in the third period held up as the game winner to help send the San Jose Sharks to a 2-1 defeat in game four of the Western Conference Quarterfinal before a sellout crowd of 17,562 at HP Pavilion at San Jose on Thursday.

After playing in perhaps their most complete effort of the entire series, the Sharks now have no margin for error. They must find a way to rally out of a 3-1 series hole (looking to become the first squad in Sharks history to accomplish that feat) or face an end to the 2011-12 season that began with promise.

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“We didn’t get what we wanted but I thought that this was probably our best 60 minute effort in the series,” said Sharks head coach Todd McLellan. “When you look at it that way, you can’t take consolation in having a good game. Not in the playoffs. You have to find ways to win.”

It’s left the Sharks, who are 5-4 in the last nine games when facing elimination, in a state of mind that emphasizes desperation and faith.

“It’s about wins now,” said Sharks captain Joe Thornton, who scored the lone Sharks goal with 67 seconds left to spearhead another last-ditch effort rally. “Now we’ve put ourselves in a corner and now we have to fight our way back.”

The game carried a high tempo pace with both teams exchanging high quality scoring chances in the opening minutes.

The Sharks first major threat came on a Logan Couture breakaway, set up by Brent Burns’ lead pass. Couture attempted a deke to the backhand but Elliott stayed with the shot and turned it away with his left pad.

“I wish I could have it back and do something different,” said Couture. “He made a good save. (Elliott’s) quick – it was a good save by him and I wish I had another shot at it.”

B.J. Crombeen then broke through and put St. Louis ahead, 1-0 with 12:48 remaining in the first period when he converted Patrik Berglund’s centering attempt from the trapezoid.

After the Sharks failed to clear the zone on two attempts, Berglund skated behind the net and set up Crombeen in the slot, whose wrist shot eluded the glove of Antti Niemi.

After the Sharks came up short on their first power play of the game following a holding penalty to Kevin Shattenkirk, Daniel Winnik threatened to tie the game with a nifty move at his off wing and dangled around the St. Louis defense at the right circle.

Elliott closed off the right post and stopped Winnik’s finishing attempt with 3:18 left in the period to sustain St. Louis’ one goal lead.

Winnik came back on his next shift and nearly converted Torrey Mitchell’s feed at the right circle, but banged a snap shot off the post with 2:32 left.

Goaltending, along with a few near misses, were under the spotlight in the second period as both teams attempted to force their way through a tight checking affair.

Elliott foiled Patrick Marleau’s snap shot from the slot with 15:36 left in the second period and the Sharks dodged Jason Arnott’s bid for a 2-0 lead when his one-timed blast from the left point clanged off the post on St. Louis’ first power play.

Elliott then came up with a save on a turnaround wrister by Joe Pavelski from the right circle and thwarted Thornton’s two rebound attempts with 4:40 left.

Niemi then turned away a St. Louis rush when his stick thwarted Chris Stewart’s snap shot from the left circle with 57 seconds remaining.

With the Sharks battling for chances in the third period by using backdoor plays and deflections, Elliott turned them away in the opening minutes to set up the key insurance goal after a Sharks power play was negated on an interference penalty by Marleau with 9:50 left.

The Blues went to work on the man advantage and then bolstered their lead to 2-0 with eight minutes left in regulation on McDonald’s third marker of the playoffs.

David Perron fired a wrist shot from the left circle that deflected behind Niemi. Burns, defending the front of the net, tried to desperately fight off traffic for the loose puck in the crease, but McDonald’s quick tap of the rebound won the battle which put the Sharks down by a pair of goals.

With 1:07 to play, the Sharks finally broke through on Thornton’s first goal of the postseason. He converted a centering pass from the right corner, originally set up by Couture and Burns, with a wrist shot from between the circles.

The Sharks pulled Niemi for an extra attacker but fell short in the final seconds, which sets up the must-win game five on Saturday in St. Louis after the Blues pulled off perhaps the unthinkable – two wins in San Jose.

It may even maybe be unthinkable by their own standards.

“I would have never thought that in a million years,” said St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock. “This has been such a graveyard for most teams in the playoffs. We’re learning a lot.”

Now, facing the need to win twice in St. Louis, the Sharks must turn the tables to save their season.



THE BIG THREE: Three games – no goals. That’s what the big three of Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton (79 combined goals in the regular season) were held to in the first three games of the series and the Sharks responded with noticeable changes. With the trio split up, the chances were there but Elliott proved to be the backbone for St. Louis keeping the Sharks off the board until the final 1:07 of play. Thornton’s goal was his fourth point in the last two games.

NEW LINES: Game four ushered in changes for the Sharks’ four lines, as projected over the last 48 hours. Logan Couture slid up to the top line, teamed with Thornton in the middle and Pavelski on the right wing. Marleau was shifted to pivot the second line with wingers Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat.

It also marked the Sharks playoff debut for Brad Winchester – inserted to add muscle – on the fourth line with Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels. Veteran Michal Handzus also joined the corps for his first playoff game as a Shark, inserted into the middle between Daniel Winnik and Torrey Mitchell on the third line.

SPECIAL TEAMS: It was no secret that the Sharks needed a tempered effort to stay out of the penalty box and limit the chances of the Blues power play, who entered the game cashing in at 5-of-13 in the series. The Sharks were flawless in the discipline department during the opening period and evaded two Blues man advantage chances in the middle period. McDonald cashed in with the third period goal to put the Blues up 2-0, after Marleau was called for interference at the 10:10 mark which negated the Sharks’ fourth power play chance.

St. Louis ended the game at 1-of-3 on the power play, producing at a 6-of 16 clip in the series. The Sharks were held scoreless on four power play chances.

STATUS QUO: Despite Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, per media reports, remaining non-committal to announcing the same lineup from game three, the Blues moved steadfast out of the gate with the same lines and defensive pairings. For the second straight game in San Jose, they also deployed their top line of David Perron, David Backes and T.J. Oshie for the opening faceoff.

: One key to finally getting through to St. Louis goaltender Brian Elliott (who led the NHL with a1.56 goals against average this season) was traffic at the net, and the Sharks nearly came through with several screens and backdoor plays in the third period. Ironically, it was a wrist shot from the mid slot by Thornton that helped the Sharks finally get on the board. Antti Niemi kept the Sharks in the game with a 22 save effort and made his mark early in the contest when he swiftly covered the right post to stop Andy McDonald’s wrist shot off a backdoor feed.

: Antti Niemi. His 22 saves kept the Sharks within striking distance for most of the night.

71 – Faceoff winning percentage by Joe Thornton (who went 10-of-14 at the dot)
28 – Hits by the Sharks, who outmuscled St. Louis 28-19 in that category
26 – Blocked shots St. Louis, whose defense was a challenge for Sharks shots in game four

HITS: Sharks 28 – Blues 19
FACEOFF WIN PERCENTAGE: Blues 54 – Sharks 46
SHOTS: Sharks 25 – Blues 24

INJURY REPORT: There were no injuries reported before game four, with Todd McLellan electing to insert Handzus and Winchester into the lineup for T.J. Galiardi and Dominic Moore (who had played in game three with a full face after suffering a facial injury).

“We’re not going to give up, we are going to keep fighting. We have been fighting all year and we are going to keep fighting.” – Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle

The Sharks, down 3-1 in the series, aim to avoid elimination in game five at Scottrade Center and will face the Blues on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (CSN-CA, KFOX 98.5/102.1).

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