Friday, April 20, 2012

Blues look to close out Sharks in five

Team looking to feed off raucous Scottrade Center
crowd with hopes of winning first playoff series since 2002

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- As the Blues stepped off their team charter and onto familiar ground for the first time since leaving St. Louis Sunday, they come back with a chance to win a playoff series for the first time in a decade.

The Blues' two wins in San Jose put them on the brink of eliminating an experienced team that's been to the conference finals two consecutive seasons, one that had high hopes of challenging for a Stanley Cup this year.

But as the Blues, who lead the Sharks 3-1 in the best-of-seven Western Conference Quarterfinals, get set to host Game 5 Saturday night at Scottrade Center, they feel like that fourth win will be the hardest one to get against a team with an abundance of pride.

(Getty Images)
Brian Elliott (1) and David Perron celebrate the Blues' 2-1
win at San Jose in Game 4 to give St. Louis a commanding
3-1 lead in the series.

"They've been through this before," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Sharks. "They've been down 3-1 and come back and won a series. This isn't new ground to 90 percent of their hockey club.

"They're not going to panic in this situation. They've been here before. We're going to get their 'A' game. We know it. We've just got to have an A+ game."

After dropping the opener in double overtime, the second-seeded Blues have reeled off three straight wins.

How? The most glaring difference has been special teams, where the Blues are 6-for-16 on the power play while killing off 13 of San Jose's 15 power plays.

"With our unit, we've kind of come together late," said Blues veteran Andy McDonald, who had seven points in the series. "We didn't have that much time to work at it because of injuries and what not. We practice a lot. There's a lot of communication on and off the ice and we have good chemistry."

Added Hitchcock: "We've had two, distinct, different units but both very effective. For a long period of time, it was the [David] Backes unit carrying us, now it's the [Patrik] Berglund unit carrying us. We've had two units that work hard and contribute."

The cliche is that the fourth game in a playoff series is always the toughest to win. The Blues certainly expect that coming into a home game at Scottrade Center, where the team is 31-5-7 this year including the regular season.

"They're going to bring their best effort," McDonald said of the Sharks. "We've talked about it that it's going to be the hardest game of the series. We've still got some room for improvement. There are some areas we can clean up in our game.

"You're trying to win hockey games. Our mindset's still the same. I think we realize that this next game's going to be the toughest one. If we don't play our best hockey, they're going to beat us. It's going to be a challenge, but we're looking forward to it."

The Blues, whose last playoff series win came in the Western Conference Quarterfinals against Chicago in 2002, have had a 3-1 lead in a playoff series seven times in team history and closed it out six of those times. But the most recent one in 2003, they lost that lead and series in seven games against Vancouver.

They don't want a repeat this time around.

"What you want to do is take pride in playing your best game when it's a chance to close somebody out," Hitchcock said. "That's all our focus is. Play our best game. If it's not good enough, it's not good enough, but you don't want to leave it out there and say, 'Gee, we could have played better.'
(Getty Images)
Andy McDonald (left) celebrates after scoring the deciding goal
Thursday night at San Jose's HP Pavilion. McDonald has seven
points in four games in the series against the Sharks

"We want to play our best game because the play in this series has gotten better and better and better to where it's gotten to an elite level by both squads right now."

A capacity crowd of 19,500-plus is expected to help the Blues eliminate San Jose. The players know what to expect.

"We know it's going to be a great atmosphere. It has been all year," said Blues winger B.J. Crombeen, whose first-period goal Thursday opened the scoring in a 2-1 win in Game 4. "Obviously the first couple playoff games and having a chance to close out a series, it's going to be great. But we're not focusing too much on that. We know we're going to have a real tough game and we're going to have to make sure we have our best game."

Added Hitchcock: "Anybody that's watched this series realizes how close it is. There's very little difference in the games. Almost zero. The scoring chances between the two teams are even, the little bit of difference is us being able to score on the power play, and that's been the minute difference in this series so far.

"This series could be 3-1 the other way based on the even-ness of the teams, and our players recognize that. ... it's been a very well-played series, but I think San Jose has an appreciation for how hard we work and we have an appreciation for how hard they work. Both teams are still very, very hungry. We don't have anything other than three wins and a little bit of an advantage because of that."

* NOTES -- Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak, out since suffering a lower-body injury in Game 2, was not wearing a protective boot nor was walking with a limp as the team arrived back in St. Louis Friday. It's not known the extent of the injury he suffered but appears to be getting better. Halak did not speak with reporters. ... The Blues recalled a trio of players from Peoria on Friday. They recalled defenseman Danny Syvret, who cleared re-entry waivers, along with forwards Adam Cracknell and Evgeny Grachev. The Rivermen's season is over and the players can train and add depth to the roster. They are all eligible for the playoffs if needed. ... The Blues also announced that they have signed goalie Paul Karpowich to a two-year, two-way contract. Karpowich, 21, was a seventh-round pick in 2008 and spent the last four seasons at Colgate University. He will become Jake Allen's backup at Peoria next season or start at ECHL Alaska.

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