By LOU KORAC
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Blues, facing elimination for the first time trying to extend a series in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, will make two lineup changes going against the San Jose Sharks tonight at SAP Center (8 p.m.; NBCSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
Coach Ken Hitchcock already announced on Tuesday that goalie Brian Elliott will re-enter the lineup after missing Games 3 and 4 in favor of Jake Allen, and Scottie Upshall, who also missed Games 3 and 4 with injury, will re-enter the lineup tonight in place of Magnus Paajarvi.
"If he didn't get hurt, he's an effective player for us," Hitchcock said of Upshall. "He's healthy now. He's got speed, he's got tenacity, he's great on PK, I can play him up the lineup end of periods, game's on the line, I can play him anywhere.
"He's an invaluable player for us. He's had an excellent year for us. He's a guy that we can really use. This time off has afforded him the time to get ready to get ready to play."
Upshall has a goal and two assists in 16 games in the playoffs.
"I’ll be ready to go if I’m called upon," Upshall said. "I think we’re all ready. We’re excited for this one.
"We’ve found ourselves up against the wall twice this postseason and have been able to find our game, find it deep within what it takes to win these games and what it’s like and the pressure that goes with it. I think our team is pretty confident. We found ourselves elevating our game when we need to. This is another case. Treat this like two Game 7s and see where it goes."
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The Blues have been backed into a corner countless times throughout the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Another elimination game falls in line with many obstacles they've had to overcome.
Thursday is a little bit of a different animal since they will have to win on the road, where they're 6-3, to force another Game 7 on home ice Friday, but it's something they're accustomed to and one they're not frazzled by.
"We’re 2-for-2 in elimination games, so we’ve got to treat it basically as two Game 7s, like we’ve won the previous two series," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "So obviously you wish you were up 3-2 right now, having a chance to close out the series, but we feel confident in these elimination games, especially on the road. So we’ve got a good mindset going into tonight.
"We like the big stage. I think we’re resilient. I think the camaraderie we have in this dressing room, guys playing for each other, is something that goes a long way. I think we look beside us, at the guy next to us. We don’t want to let him down. That’s the mindset we’ve had all year. That’s the mindset we’ve had in the playoffs. I could feel that in the dressing room this morning. It’ll carry over to tonight."
The Blues were among the League leaders in man-games lost this season, so the players had no choice but to "look at the guy next us" because it could have been somebody different with as many injuries as they had to go through. And then when the playoffs came and they were put to the test, the Blues stared adversity down and won each time.
Thursday will pose another challenge.
"We’ve had two Game 7s in the past month that have been games where we’ve lost the previous Game 6 and have had to rally without the momentum in our court," Upshall said. "I believe we’re a confident group when pushed against the wall. We’re at a point in our season where everything is so huge, so magnified. We’ve been there, we know how hard it is. I think we’re up to the challenge.
"We’ve all been in big games. We’ve all dreamed of being in moments like this. It’s a chance to look across the dressing room and see guys you’ve battled with all year, see the look in their face, the determination to be at their best knowing you’re going to be at your best. You trust each other."
The past three seasons when faced with a 3-2 series deficit, the Blues went on and lost all three by a combined 11-3; they've lost six straight Game 6s, outscored 24-11, and last won a Game 6 was here in San Jose, 2-1 on April 21, 2001.
The Blues may not want to look at history, however. But knowing this team, they never look back.
"The other two elimination games we played, we came out with a lot of bite and hunger," left wing Alexander Steen said. "We’ll be looking to do the same thing tonight.
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The Blues may want to take a page out of the Pittsburgh Penguins' textbook on how to win a Game 6 elimination game on the road.
The Penguins went into Tampa and defeated the Lightning 5-2 on Tuesday and did so, in Hitchcock's terms, by having their best players be their best players.
"Sense of urgency's an overused word in sports," Hitchcock said. "To me, it's execution and your best players just have to be your best players. That to me stood out more than anything. You need someone to follow or you just wander around in the desert. Pittsburgh set the tone with the people that they needed to lead. They were the best players early in the game and then you have no choice but to follow. You need to execute at a high level. I said this before, we expect nothing but the best from San Jose and we're going to have to answer the bell back but it's going to have to be with execution and staying ahead of their pressure just like they're trying to stay ahead of our pressure. Both teams are built a certain way and there's a lot of similarities between both teams, but whatever team establishes their game on the other one usually wins the hockey game. We've gotten better as this series has gone on and we want to continue to improve and keep playing."
The Penguins, who will host Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Thursday, got the lead and imposed their will in Tampa's building, something the Blues will look to do here tonight.
"I think it's just from our game, focused on what we do well, play similar to what we did in Game 4 when we were here," Steen said.
The Blues won 6-3 in Game 4 here.
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Elliott, who started 17 straight games (20 going back to the regular season) in a span of 37 days, may have simply needed a mental breather.
He's now had five days since his last start, which is the most time he's had off since March 19.
"I think it's not just the playoffs that Brian had to play, it was everything leading into the playoffs, he had to play a lot at the end of the year a lot," Hitchcock said. "I think the break gave him a freshness and a focus that's strong. He's such a competitive guy. He's such a battler, but in order to play the way he plays, he's athletic in the net, he's acrobatic at times. You need to have a certain level of energy to play that way. We leaned on him hard at the end of the year and then it continued all the way into the playoffs.
"I felt when I put Jake in that we were doing a lot of watching in our own zone and were relying on Brian to make too many big saves. I thought it was really wearing on him and we needed to change it, we got the change. Unfortunately, we lost the next game, but we got the necessary change and now it's his series to win."
"Oh, I’m sure. Reset him a bit," Pietrangelo said of Elliott. "He’s played a lot of hockey, made some important saves for us throughout this entire playoffs. He’s played great. He’s stood on his head. Takes a lot of energy. So the opportunity for him to kind of regain that is going to benefit him."
Elliott has a 1.50 goals-against average and .954 save percentage in two Game 7 wins, stopping 62 of 65 shots. It bodes well for the Blues when he's played the elimination games.
"I’ve said it all along, it doesn’t matter who’s playing," Pietrangelo said. "'Moose' has obviously been fantastic. Tried a little bit of a change in pace there, putting Jake in. he played great. It’s up to the coaches who they want to play, but either guy, they’ve been solid all year."
"Our goaltending has been great, been solid all year," Steen said. "They've both been our most solid player all year. It's going to be good to get 'Moose' back in there."
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Center Kyle Brodziak is celebrating his 32nd birthday today, and the best present of all will be a victory tonight.
But the ultimate would be to play for a Stanley Cup, which would require the Blues win Games 6 and 7 this series and take their chances in the Final.
"You live your whole life, and you dream of the possibility just having the opportunity," Brodziak said. "To be here, to be this close, it’s exciting. It’s a little scary. It’s every emotion you can imagine."
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Hitchcock talked about the Blues' defense and how "overanxious" they were in a Game 5 loss. Calmness is the key to perhaps allow the Sharks to be overzealous and make mistakes.
But the Blues will shorten the bench tonight if need be for survival.
"We had a good video session yesterday, we showed them what we were doing right and what we needed to correct," Hitchcock said. "I think the guys are in sync and in tune there. I think the defense are like the forwards; there's a short leash.
"For us, we can't wait and hope. If we've got to shorten the bench, we've got to shorten the bench and do whatever it takes to make sure we've got the right people on the ice and we're not hoping that a guy's a worker or a guy's going to play well and execute. We're going to hope that everybody does it, but if it happens that there's somebody that isn't, we're not going to wait on it, and that goes for defense, that goes for forwards, that goes for everybody. This is the time for us that we've got to go with the guys that are going at this time. We can't waste any energy on past reputation or regular season or what you did a week ago. It's what you're going to go tonight, and that's got to be our attitude."
That might be a sign that Pietrangelo and D-partner Jay Bouwmeester will play half the game tonight.
Are the Blues nervous?
"I think a little bit of everything. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but excited at the same time," Pietrangelo said. "This is an opportunity and I’ve said that in the other Game 7s, where this is what you play for. This is the opportunity that you want to have, on the big stage. The other guys in the locker room are feeling the same way."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Robby Fabbri-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Jaden Schwartz-Patrik Berglund-David Backes
Scottie Upshall-Kyle Brodziak-Dmitrij Jaskin
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches are Robert Bortuzzo, Ryan Reaves, Steve Ott, Magnus Paajarvi, Petteri Lindbohm, Chris Butler, Peter Harrold, Ty Rattie and Anders Nilsson.
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The Sharks' projected lineup:
Tomas Hertl-Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski
Patrick Marleau-Logan Couture-Joonas Donskoi
Melker Karlsson-Chris Tierney-Joel Ward
Dainius Zubrus-Nick Spaling-Tommy Wingels
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Justin Braun
Paul Martin-Brent Burns
Brenden Dillon-Roman Polak
Martin Jones will start in goal. James Reimer will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Matt Tennyson, Dylan DeMelo and Micheal Haley. Matt Nieto (undisclosed injury) is out.