Saturday, May 21, 2016

Blues double up Sharks 6-3, even series 2-2

Goalie switch to Allen pays off; Brodziak, Brouwer each 
score twice as series shifts back to St. Louis for Game 5 Monday

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Blues made a goalie change in the midst of a goal drought.

It posed the question of what could replacing Brian Elliott with Jake Allen possibly do for the goal-starved Blues in arguably the biggest game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs thus far?

Apparently plenty.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jori Lehtera (left) scores for the Blues in the first period of Game 4 against
San Jose in a 6-3 St. Louis victory.

Coach Ken Hitchcock made the bold move of taking out arguably his best player throughout the playoffs for Allen, who made hi first start since April 3 and it turned out to be a stroke of genius as the Blues evened the best-of-7 series at two games apiece with a 6-3 win against the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final Saturday at SAP Center.

Troy Brouwer and fourth-line center Kyle Brodziak each scored two goals, the Blues, who host Game 5 on Monday at Scottrade Center, jumped out to a 4-0 lead after two periods and got back to the game they thought they were missing, got back to the level they needed to reach to match the Sharks.

Oh, and Allen made 31 saves, including a 10-beller right pad save on Joe Thornton in the third period.

Hitchcock surprised the media throng at the team hotel when he declared Allen the starter after Elliott had given the Blues some terrific performances, especially against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round and Dallas Stars in the second round as well as stealing Game 1 of this series (2-1).

But Hitchcock wanted to alter the momentum the Sharks had built up from back-to-back shutout wins in Games 2 and 3. He got it, and Allen was prepared.

"Yeah, you know, found out right after the game, Game 3," Allen said. "I had a day to prepare. Got on the ice a little bit yesterday. Got some more pucks at me.

"I've been ready. I've been trying to practice as hard as I can. I keep my focus throughout the course of the playoffs. If called upon, give the boys a chance. It was nice to have a four-goal lead when I haven't played in a couple months. A little comforting."

Allen had made two cameo appearances when Elliott was pulled, including Game 3 of this series after allowing three goals on 14 shots.

"He only let one goal in," Hitchcock said of Allen. "Any time your goalie lets one goal in, that's a really good sign. He only really let one in.

"He gave us exactly what we needed.  He's a competitive son of a gun.  We needed a battler in there."

Hitchcock claimed the second Sharks goal by Chris Tierney was what he called "blatant interference," and defenseman Joel Edmundson inadvertently knocked a puck through Allen's wickets.

But the Blues, who felt they lacked a proper forecheck and proper puck support, found their game early and forced the Sharks into unforced turnovers.

"I thought we went back to our roots, what made us successful all throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs," said Brouwer. "We were able to get pucks deep, we were able to create chances from below the goal line rather than creating stuff off the rush.

"We watched a lot of video after the last couple games. They do a great job coming back, supporting their 'D.' There wasn't a whole lot to be made through the middle of the ice.  We wanted to get around the net, be resilient. You saw it on (Jori) Lehtera's goal. We had a couple whacks at it. We were able to get (Sharks goalie Martin Jones) out of position a few times for some goals. I thought collectively and individually, guys really brought a great game tonight. Brodziak's line with (Dmitrij) Jaskin and (Magnus) Paajarvi were probably our most consistent line tonight. Getting pucks down low. His second goal. 'Jasky' doing a great job behind the net, able to find Brodziak in a soft area. Just doing what we're comfortable with and what works for us."

The Blues had to absorb a couple of injuries, to captain David Backes and rookie left wing Robby Fabbri, who was a force in the first period, to undisclosed injuries.

Backes, who twice in the second period found himself in predicable positions, missed the final 5:14 of the second period and last two periods after losing an edge and possibly hitting a rut in the ice trying to forecheck on a play in the San Jose zone on Sharks right wing Joe Pavelski. Backes stayed on the ice long enough to go to the net but gingerly skated off as the Sharks made a rush up the ice. 

Fabbri, who had an assist on the first of Brouwer's goals and leads the Blues with 14 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, took a hard, high hit from San Jose's Tommy Wingels next to the Blues bench in the first period. Fabbri was a bit wobbly getting to the bench but remained in the game; he played 9:21 but only 52 seconds of ice time in the third period.

Hitchcock said both should be OK.

"We'll let you know in a couple days," Hitchcock said. "Both guys should be good to go." 

Backes came out for the second and third periods with his teammates but remained on the bench. He finished with eight shifts and 5:34 of ice time.

"He had pom poms out," Hitchcock joked. "He was cheerleading. He was doing a good job.

"We got tired of his voice, so we put him down."

Having their captain on the bench was uplifting for the Blues.

"Obviously a big part of our room, big part of our team," Blues left wing Alexander Steen said of Backes. "We'll see how he feels in the next coming days, but obviously it's still great having him on the bench."

The Blues got off to the start they were looking for. And Fabbri was a catalyst in helping them jump out to a 2-0 lead.

Brouwer's sixth of the playoffs -- the Blues are 6-0 when he scores -- came on a power play 6 minutes 14 seconds into the first that broke the Blues' shutout streak at 156:59 off a quick passing play with Paul Stastny finding Fabbri on the goal line. Fabbri's quick pass to Brouwer in the slot resulted in a quick one-timer for a 1-0 lead.

The Blues were able to forecheck and offer the puck support needed to sustain zone time, and it was a Backes check on Brent Burns and Fabbri interception of a Paul Martin clear that resulted in the second goal.

Lehtera finished off a play after Fabbri kept a play alive when he picked off Martin's pass, but not before Martin Jones made a remarkable paddle save on Fabbri, but the rookie stuck with the play and was able to poke the puck into the crease before Lehtera finished after a bit of a scramble at 10:11 of the first for a 2-0 Blues lead.

"We got a great start again, and obviously I thought when we get the first couple to go in, it's a different game," left wing Alexander Steen said. "Throughout the whole game, I thought we stuck with the plan, made a few adjustments to our game and made it work."

Some of those adjustments included Hitchcock moving pieces around the top three lines, only keeping the fourth line of Brodziak, Paajarvi and Jaskin in tact.

Steen played with Stastny and Brouwer, Fabbri moved up to play with Lehtera and Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz played with Patrik Berglund and Backes to start.

Hitchcock was asked if he felt like a mad scientist with all the different moves.

"Well, I hope not, or else I'd be a golf instructor," Hitchcock said to a room full of laughter. "I mean, I don't know. I kind of think I know what I'm doing. I mean, I know this is harsh to say, but I don't really care what you did for me yesterday, I just care about what you're going to do for me today, and I don't care about tomorrow.

"I think the players recognize that. I feel for some of the players that didn't get to play today. But I’ve got to do what's best to help us win hockey games. When I see something that's going, I hang onto it. When I see something that I know will work, I hang onto it. We had an idea of what we needed. We put those players in. We challenged them. They did the job today again."

Brodziak, who came in with three career postseason goals in 44 games, nearly doubled that total in a four-minute span.

He made it 3-0 off a shorthanded effort, a 2-on-1 with Schwartz that beat Jones top shelf at 6:09, then scored from the hash marks after Jaskin slipped a backhand pass into the slot at 10:11 to make it 4-0.

That was the end of the night for Jones, who was replaced by James Reimer.

"Thornton had the puck on the wall. He threw it across ice, missed his pass, got a good bounce off the wall," Brodziak said of the shorthanded goal. "Went right to Schwartz. We skated up the ice 2-on-1. I was a little worried for a second. Thought I might have went off-side. Fortunately didn't. Made a great pass over to me. Yeah, fortunately I was able to put it in the net.

"I think just as a group, you know, we weren't obviously happy with the way the last few games went. Had a good talk of what we felt, not necessarily adjustments, but maybe more of a style of play we needed to give ourselves a chance. I think guys did a really good job of coming out with the mindset of we know there's not going to be any easy opportunities, there's not going to be any odd?man rushes.  We're going to have to get pucks deep, go to work, and hopefully that's how we're going to create our offense. We did a good job starting the game.  But I think what's even more important is we stuck with it and we got rewarded for it."

The game got a little chippy in the third period, and the Blues did surrender three goals by Joe Pavelski, Tierney and Melker Karlsson, but all-in-all, it was a well-rounded game and now the Blues head home in a best-of-3 and a chance to make amends on home ice, where they're just 4-5 in the postseason.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Troy Brouwer (top) celebrates with teammates Paul Stastny and Robby
Fabbri after scoring in the first period of the Blues' 6-3 win at San Jose.

Brouwer scored a second power play goal in the third and Alex Pietrangelo added an empty-netter, a rarity, it seems, for the Blues.

"For us to win, they have to be different. We have to play a lot of the way we played today if we expect to win," Hitchcock said. "We played fast. We played physical. We created turnovers. We have to play like that. If we do it like that, continue down this path, I like our chances. I like our chances to win. That's the path we’ve got to continue to play on for us to be successful.

"Doesn't matter if it's San Jose, Chicago, Dallas. We have a method to our game. We have to get to it. Today was a day we got to it. So hopefully we can continue and progress from here."

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