Monday, May 23, 2016

Sharks double up Blues 6-3, grab 3-2 series lead

St. Louis comes up empty again on home ice, on cusp of elimination

ST. LOUIS -- Not often does a team get the opportunity to redeem itself in a Game 5 of a Stanley Cup Playoff series in what amounts to being a best-of-3.

The Blues failed the previous three tries and were given a fourth chance in the Western Conference Final on Monday against the San Jose Sharks.

There were 19,372 on hand to witness it, to finally see the Blues override past heartaches against the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, Chicago Blackhawks in 2014 and Minnesota Wild last season, all games in which ended in disappointment for the Blues and their fans before the season ended in Game 6 on each occasion.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen can't come up with Marc-Edouard Vlasic's shot
that gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead in Game 5 on Monday night.

Seeing it once was bad, twice was not-so-nice, thrice was torture, but a fourth time? Yes, history could repeat itself for incredibly a fourth time after the Blues once again succumbed on home ice, this time to the San Jose Sharks 6-3 at Scottrade Center.

Instead of building off the momentum grabbed from a Game 4 win at SAP Center, also known as 'The Shark Tank,' the Blues now will have to go back there Wednesday to try and save their season.

And for two teams that exorcised previous playoff demons, it's the Sharks on the cusp of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

Joe Pavelski scored twice, including the go-ahead goal 16 seconds into the third period, Joel Ward scored twice, Joe Thornton had three assists and Marc-Edouard Vlasic had a goal and an assist for the Sharks. Chris Tierney had an empty-net goal and Martin Jones made 18 saves. 

Jaden Schwartz, Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri scored for St. Louis. Jake Allen made 21 saves, but coach Ken HItchcock, who called Allen's play "fine," did not commit to him for Game 6. 

Even worse, the Blues fell to 4-6 at home in the playoffs. They're the only team remaining in the final four with a below-.500 record on home ice in the playoffs.

But it comes back to the day-old -- or in the Blues' case, years-old -- question: why can't this team win in the playoffs on home ice? The typical answers from players and coach Ken Hitchcock tend to be they play cuter at home, wanting to please the home fans and they play a simpler game on the road.

"I said we're a little cuter at home than we are on the road," Backes said. "We've just got to stay simple and stay on the page and get a task done. I don't know if that's a trend in Game 5s; I don't keep track of that." 

"We get on the road, we play that simple game and it seems to be the most effective for us," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "If I had the magic answer, I'd give it to you. I'm not too sure. It's something that we really need to take a hard look at and figure out why we're doing that. That's on us players."

Ding. Ding. Ding. We have a winner.

But it still doesn't seem to resonate.

Hitchcock didn't think cuteness was the reason tonight.

"I don't think we were too cute," he said. "I don't think that was it at all. We made some puck errors under pressure. They get to play, too. Both teams played really hard today. We were the ones that made the defending mistakes that ended up in our net. I think we made a few more defending mistakes than they did, and that hurt us tonight.

"From an effort standpoint and from a cute standpoint, it's not really cute, it's wanting to do the extra to make the next play. I don't think we were guilty of that today. If we're guilty of anything, we made puck errors at the wrong time."

And the biggest puck error came at the beginning of the third period, tie game 3-3, and what does veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester do? After a clean faceoff win by Patrik Berglund, he tries to force a pass towards Jaden Schwartz off the boards, ices the puck instead, the Sharks get an offensive zone draw, Pavelski wins it, gets to the net and scores what turned out to be the game-winner 16 seconds in.

Pavelski, who has a six-game point streak (four goals,  five assists), tipped a right point shot past Brent Burns to break the tie.

Pietrangelo said the goal didn't deflate the Blues, although they went from competing in a tie game to down a goal in relatively short fashion.

"We've come back too, in the third," Pietrangelo said. "I still think there's a feeling on the bench that we've got an opportunity to come back and score a goal and win the hockey game. It's obviously frustrating to give that one up that early, but at the same time it's on us to do what we've done all playoffs. That's be resilient and come back, now we're going to have to do that next game."

Hitchcock also said the fourth goal wasn't the one that deflated the Blues but rather Pavelski's power play goal with 1 minute 27 seconds left in the second period that tied the game 3-3.

"I thought the killer goal was the third one," Hitchcock said. "We had the lead, we built some good shifts. They caught us on a little bit of a change, took a penalty and we were really doing well killing the penalty, but we made two mistakes. We got stuck behind the net, and I thought the energy on our bench, which was excellent, really dropped a little bit after the third goal, not the fourth one to me. That was the difference."

The Blues had the early pressure, but the Sharks grabbed a 1-0 lead after winning a faceoff in the Blues zone, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic's first goal of the postseason, a shot from the left point got past a screened Allen 3:51 into the game. 

St. Louis responded fairly quickly when Schwartz scored his first in 14 games on a rebound. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk took the initial shot that Jones saved, then Berglund threw the puck into the slot, it caromed off Backes and Schwartz was there to collect the loose puck at 7:04 to tie the game. 

Brouwer's baseball-style goal, his eighth in 19 playoff games with the Blues after having seven in his first 78 playoff games, came off a rebound of a Paul Stastny shot at 15:08 of the first to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead. 

The Sharks got their power play going in the second period, and Ward tied it at 4:37 after Vlasic's initial shot from the left circle hit the near post, caromed off Allen's back in the crease and Ward batted the puck in. 

Fabbri put the Blues ahead 3-2 after he scored when his slap shot from the point beat a screened Jones near side at 11:58 of the period, but Pavelski tied it with the Sharks' second power-play goal in as many opportunities when he converted from the slot with 1:27 remaining in the second.

But then the Blues lost the lead, and are on the cusp of losing the series and ending their season.

And it's worth mentioning that the Blues' most impactful player and leading scorer throughout the regular season, Vladimir Tarasenko, continues to be a non-factor in this series. 

Tarasenko, who came in without a point in four games, was held off the scoresheet again. He had one shot on goal and three attempts blocked and was a minus-2.

Tierney scored an empty-net goal with 53.9 seconds remaining and Ward scored another one with 31.6 seconds left to give the Sharks their franchise-best fifth road victory of the playoffs. 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues rookie Robby Fabbri (right) passes the puck with Sharks forward
Joel Ward trying to defend in Game 5 on Monday.

The Blues entered Monday uncertain whether Backes and Fabbri, each injured in Game 4, would be available, but they were able to play.

"There's a reason I don't play in the second and third (periods in Game 4), but this is the Western Conference Final and if you're humanly possible to play, you're in the lineup trying to help your team out," Backes said. "That's what we tried to do tonight."

Added Fabbri: "I felt fine. I had a day and a bit there to rest and I felt good."

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