Monday, May 20, 2019

Blues won't allow distractions to interfere before potential series-clinching Game 6 of Western Conference Final

St. Louis will be abuzz leading up to one of most important games in franchise 
history with chance to clinch berth in Stanley Cup Final for first time since 1970

ST. LOUIS -- On the eve of one of the biggest, most important hockey games in team history, don't think for a second the Blues are getting wrapped up in all the hoopla.

Of course there is excitement, of course there is anxiety, of course there is anticipation. But this is not what has thrust the Blues to the cusp of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970. They can get there with a win on home ice in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday (7 p.m.; NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM).
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jaden Schwartz and the Blues can wrap up the Western Conference title
with a Game 6 win on Tuesday at Enterprise Center vs. San Jose. 

Forget the fact that the Blues blitzed the Sharks 5-0 on Sunday in San Jose to take a 3-2 series lead. There's no dwelling on the past, win or lose, and that's what makes this team's focus special, and that's what it feels will have them prepared for their first game of any kind with a chance to clinch a berth in the Cup Final since Game 7 at Calgary in 1986.

But this team has faced its fair share of adverse situations going back to the morning of January 3, when it had to climb out of last place in the league.

"I think players just think about the next game," interim coach Craig Berube said. "We won yesterday afternoon and we talk immediately about – that game's over with, we've got to move on. Our team has done a good job with that in the playoffs. I think our team has done a good job with that from January on in the regular season. Just game to game. Letting that last game go. Focusing on the next. That's what we do. We'll prepare for a game tomorrow, get our lines ready, get our focus and that's kind of how we do it."

It's simple, it's to the point, and there are no hidden agendas.

"We've pretty much done that all playoffs," Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "I mean we've had our backs against the wall and we've been up and played the same way regardless of the situation. We played well at home in these situations so we try and prepare the same way you prepare for every game. We did that against Dallas, we did that against Winnipeg, so we've had some good preparation for these moments."

But this isn't just any moment. This is the opportunity to play the Boston Bruins for the NHL's top prize. This is the chance to galvanize a city, help it explode with excitement, a feeling not felt in decades. 

With these players, it simply doesn't matter.

"With our group, I think we've done a great job of approaching things as they come," said Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, in his first season in St. Louis after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres on July 1, 2018. "Our last game was good, we found a way to take a step closer, but we have to completely reset and I think with the veterans we have, we do that. We have to up our intensity going forward and it starts with our preparation today and be focused.

"We've got to take it one shift at a time. This is obviously a very exciting time. We all know what's at stake. We have to control what we can control and that's the preparation and knowing these guys aren't going to go away easy. It's going to be a heck of a fight."

A heck of a fight is exactly what the Blues have provided the Sharks, who came out of Game 5 battered and bruised. Defenseman Erik Karlsson has been hampered by a lingering groin and leg issues since January, got better early in the playoffs, but the Blues have forechecked him hard throughout this series. Karlsson did not play in the third period Sunday. And then there's forwards Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski, who each left the game with upper-body injuries.

Hertl and Blues center Ivan Barbashev had a collision of Barbashev's right shoulder that may have caught Hertl's chin, but Barbashev was looking at the puck skating along center ice and met in Hertl's skating path and didn't make any body motion of making a hit, something the Sharks appeared to take exception to, a play that happened with 9 minutes 20 seconds left in the second. Hertl did not return for the third period. Pavelski was checked by Pietrangelo in the third period and played less than a minute and did not return after that.

All three players are questionable to play Game 6.

"That's hockey and playoff hockey, it can get tough and rough at times," Berube said. "We don't try to do anything illegal. We're playing hard and things happen. That's part of the game."

The Blues are playing hard, as are the Sharks. Brenden Dillon leveled Pietrangelo with a hard check in the second period, and Evander Kane checked Vladimir Tarasenko that slowed the Blues' leading goal scorer. That's playoff hockey. But the Blues' effective forecheck is taking a toll on San Jose's skaters, especially the Sharks' defensemen. Karlsson and minutes muncher Brent Burns are taking the brunt of it.

"I think whenever you're in a series that's as long as best-of-7, I think that's the plan," Blues center Tyler Bozak said. "You want to get in on the forecheck, you want to hit guys as much as you can, spend as much time in the offensive zone as possible and wear them down. They've got a couple 'D' that play a ton of minutes so those are guys that we want to make play defense as much as possible and hit them every chance we get. As the series goes on, you hope you're wearing them out. Everyone is in such good shape and played all year. It's hard to wear guys down and every little thing can help for the later games in the series."

Enterprise Center will be packed, it will be as electric as any hockey game witnessed since the building opened in 1994, and if the Blues can win a hockey game there on Tuesday, the roof may very well be blown into the sky.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Tyler Bozak (21) and the Blues have been a menace on the forecheck vs. 
the San Jose Sharks on the Western Conference Final.

"This organization, we've come close before, there's been a lot of people that have been around this organization for a long time," Pietrangelo said. "Those are the people that have invested a lot of time and energy to the organization, fans that have been fans for countless years and guys you're playing with right now, like 'Bouw' and 'Steener' – 'Bozie', you're up there too now – guys who have been around a long time waiting for this opportunity. You want to push forward, give your best effort to give those guys that opportunity. For someone like myself, the longer you play, the older you get, you realize that these opportunities may not come all the time and you want to make sure you take advantage of them."

* NOTES -- Vince Dunn, out since taking a shot to the mouth/jaw in the first period of Game 3, did not skate today and will not be available to play in Game 6, according to Berube. The Blues defenseman is still listed as day-to-day. 

- With a win, the Blues can clinch a berth to the Cup Final on home ice for the first time since May 3, 1968, their inaugural season when Ron Schock scored in double-overtime in a 2-1 win against the Minnesota North Stars in Game 7.

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