Thursday, May 12, 2016

Blues blast Stars 6-1, advance to conference final

Led by Elliott in goal, Stastny, Brouwer, Fabbri each 
had goal, assist in second Game 7 win this playoff season

DALLAS -- The Blues were loose in their pregame skate, and coach Ken Hitchcock said his team's best performance was on tap for Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round.

They certainly played like it in the first period and throughout the game, and as a result, earned their first trip to the conference final since 2001.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players react after Robbi fabbri (middle) scored to give the Blues a
1-0 lead in Game 7 on Wednesday. The Blues won 6-1.

The line of Paul Stastny, Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer combined for six points in the first period when the Blues took a three-goal lead, and the Blues won a Game 7 for the second straight series with a 6-1 drubbing against the Stars on Wednesday at American Airlines Center, their second Game 7 victory of these playoffs.

The Blues won all four games in the series when Brouwer has at least one point, 0-3 when he didn't register a point.

The Blues improved to 5-1 in the playoffs after a loss, 5-2 on the road, they're 8-8 all-time in Game 7s (4-6 on the road).

Hitchcock improved to 5-2 in Game 7s; Stars coach Lindy Ruff is now 0-4.

It's the second time in franchise history -- first since the inaugural season of 1967-68 -- the Blues have won multiple Game 7s in the same playoff season. They defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 in the West Division semifinals and Minnesota North Stars 2-1 in double overtime in the West Division Final before being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Blues, who have home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as long as they're alive, had four first-period goals but had a Vladimir Tarasenko goal called back because of offside.

The Stastny, Fabbri and Brouwer line combined for nine points, each with a goal and two assists; David Backes and Patrik Berglund each had a goal and an assist, and Brian Elliott rebounded after being pulled in Game 6 in the first with a 31-save performance and the Blues will host either the San Jose Sharks or Nashville Predators in Game 1 on Sunday at 7 p.m. 

The Sharks and Predators play Game 7 of their best-of-7 series Thursday night.

So keeping things light in the morning was done by design. 

"As series go on and you get later, you've got for the physical side and the mental side," Hitchcock said. "I knew we were going to be in good shape mentally based on the way we were last night, the way we were this morning. I was worried physically and we had some tired players today. We had some players that poured ... this is now 14 games for us now, and that's a lot of hockey with overtimes. That's an awful lot of time to play early, and we needed some things to go right for us early so we weren't pushing uphill again. Game 6 took a lot out of us. When you're having to play like that in Game 6 pressing everywhere, it's physically draining, and that's why we changed the pregame skate; we just tried to keep it as light as we could until the competition tonight. I thought the players did a good job in keeping it loose. We didn't bring any emotion into it until right to the end. I thought the guys did a great job with it because physically, we were down a quart today."

Through all the heartaches of past seasons in which the franchise had scintillating regular seasons only to be bounced so soon from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, this team is entering uncharted territory and feeling good.

"It’s taken a lot of hard work from these guys, it’s taken a group that has really bound together when we’ve had our back against the walls in a couple game sevens and played our best hockey when we really needed it," Backes said. "Good feeling right now. We know we’re one of the last four teams standing and we’re halfway to our ultimate goal. We have still some work to do, it’s a good feeling in this room right now, how we came out in Game 7, played a full 60 minutes."

The Blues chased Game 6 star Kari Lehtonen, who made 35 saves in a 3-2 Stars win, after one period following three goals on eight shots.

But Elliott, who was pulled from a Game 6 loss after allowing three goals on seven shots, was razor-sharp.

"He was phenomenal," Brouwer said. "That save in the second period on the PK shows his desperation, among many saves. I know in this dressing room there was no question who we were going to turn to today and he's our guy. He's phenomenal for us. We're going to have to ride him a couple more times throughout the course of these playoffs, but he's a guy that we can rely on."

Fabbri got the show started when his power play goal on a goalmouth scramble put the Blues ahead 1-0 at 5 minutes 23 seconds of the opening period. He became the youngest player in franchise history to score a goal in a Game 7 (20 years, eight months).

The Blues thought they had a 2-0 lead when Tarasenko turned and threw a shot past Lehtonen from a bad angle. But the Stars challenged that Tarasenko was offsides and video was conclusive to overturn the call, a call earily similar to the one overturned in Game 2 of the first round against Chicago when Jori Lehtera was offsides on Tarasenko's go-ahead goal in the third; the Blues lost that game 3-2.

"That dang rule," Backes joked. "We’re going to have to break some cameras at the blueline. That seems to just get called back on us."

Said Hitchcock: "This was the most bizarre hockey game I've coached in in three years. I told the guys I felt like Tom Hanks in 'A League of (There) Own.' I was trying to remain calm on the bench ... when that girl kept missing the cut-off play (in the movie), that's how I felt on the bench because it would be going north and then it was going south and then it would be going north again and it was going south ... there was no control. It looked like to me that two hockey teams that were tired physically were trying to pour everything they could and supply a knockout punch. We took advantage of some of their mistakes, when they were trying to put the knockout punch into us early. They came after us with everything early. We caught them a few times and got ice behind them and that's what we took advantage of. They were coming hard early."

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, the Blues went back on the attack and Stastny got the goal back 43 seconds later from another bad angle, beating Lehtonen short side at 18:22 of the first. 

"That was huge," Stastny said. "That's three times now we've kind of gone offsides now by a matter of inches. We responded right back. I think our line got that big goal. ... It goes from 1-0 to 3-0 in a matter of a couple minutes. It kind of shows the adversity that we've been going through all year. ... We don't let it bother us."

Berglund completed the first three-goal first period in a Game 7 in franchise history when he shot a puck from near the blue line short side from what looked like a screened Lehtonen with 3.4 seconds remaining in the first.

The goal may not have counted had the officials not put four seconds back on the clock for the waved off Tarasenko goal, so it all evened out in the end.

Instead of sitting back, the Blues kept pouring it on in the second despite being outshot 18-9.

Backes took a feather feed from Berglund and powered a wrist shot past Antti Niemi 3:50 into the second to make it 4-0, and Brouwer made it 5-0 when he beat Niemi from the right circle on a passing play with Fabbri and Stastny at 15:06 of the second. 

Patrick Eaves broke the shutout when Alex Goligoski's shot from the right circle deflected off Joel Edmundson right to Eaves at the side of the net for the empty net goal 5:05 into the third to make it 5-1.

The Blues finished 18-for-20 on the penalty kill in the series, including 3-for-3 in Game 7.

Hitchcock gave a speech to the team on the eve of game 7, and although he said the specifics will remain "private," the gist of it went something like this:
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Brian Elliott returned for the Blues and made 31 saves in a 6-1 victory in 
Game 7 against the Dallas Stars on Wednesday.

"I just said basically was Game 7, Game 107, it doesn't matter," Hitchcock said. "It's a chance of a lifetime. You can't pass it up. You just can't pass it up. To play in a conference final, I know as a coach here in Dallas, I took it for granted and it was a big mistake. I left here thinking that all you do is play in conference finals, Cup finals and went to Philadelphia and we had good early success there and that's all you do. That was 2004, never been back since. That's 12 years. Sometimes you can play your whole career and never get to play in a conference final. It's pretty impressive.

"I think for me, I'm happiest for the guys who were here before I got here, and those are the guys that did all of the bleeding to get us into position now. They were the guys that took their lumps when the team was trying to rebuild itself and those guys like Backes and Berglund and 'Petro' and those guys that have been here a while, I'm happy for them because they get a chance to strut a little bit and we get a chance to play for a trophy that's very important to get to a bigger trophy that's even more important. Those are the guys that I was really happy for because they've been through ... Alex Steen and these type of guys, they've been through so much just before I got there. I'm more new to it; five years isn't very long. These guys were here three and four years before I got there and that is a long time."

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