The Blues’ list of things to do in Game 3 at San Jose isn’t complicated. If you watched the first two games of the Western Conference finals, the flaws were evident. And the problems for St. Louis were acute in Game 2, when the Sharks all but set up a tent and a campfire and heated up some hot chocolate in the Blues’ zone during the first two periods. If Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski insist on spending so much time in the St. Louis end, they’ll have to pay rent.
The Sharks’ forceful 4-0 victory over the disorganized Blues leveled the series 1-1. All things considered — especially San Jose’s significant edge in possession time — the Blues are fortunate. They could easily be down 2-0 and facing the saddest finish to a season in San Jose since the feds arrested Mike Danton.
There’s been a bit of a debate in St. Louis over the last couple of days. Were the Blues guilty of slothful, sloppy play in Game 2? Or was this a matter of San Jose playing impossibly good?
The answer, of course, this: both things were true.
The Sharks, with their size and speed, are a tough matchup for the Blues. No question. But let’s not get carried away here. If the Sharks were so damned invincible, then why did the Predators win all three home games against San Jose in Nashville during the team’s second-round series?
The Blues were awful in Game 2.
And the savvy Sharks had the savvy and the firepower to make them pay.
“That game was so bad you pretty much have to throw it out,” said NHL Network analyst Dave Reid, a winger on Stanley Cup champions during his 10 NHL seasons.”To a man this was a bad game. There wasn’t a (Blues) player on the ice that really competed hard enough in battles or took pucks to the net or created any sort of emotion for the St. Louis Blues. That’s what they’ve got to find.”
The Blues have gone to Northern California to find their game.
The Blues can regroup now. They’re back on the road, where they’ve gone 5-2 this postseason. The Blues have staged better road performances than Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. If the Blues can win the next two in San Jose — we can dream, right? — then they should just insist on staying there for Game 5 instead of returning to The Lou.
This itinerary figures to be more difficult. The Shark Tank is a dangerous place for visitors this postseason. San Jose inexplicably had a losing home record during the regular season. But after losing the first home game to the Kings in their first-round series, the Sharks have won five in a row at SAP Center, outscoring the overwhelmed Kings and Predators 21-7. The imposing San Jose power play is downright scary, converting an absurd 60 percent (9 of 15) of its PP opportunities during the five-game home winning streak. Too bad that Sheriff Martin Brody is unavailable to help the Blues blow up these Sharks.
Still, the Blues can win there … emphasis on the word CAN.
Which is different from saying the Blues WILL win at San Jose.
But if the Blues can fulfill certain objectives, they’ll have a chance But they can’t skate like San Jose native Peggy Fleming. Nope. Gold-medal caliber figure skating won’t do in this competition. The Blues have to compete a helluva lot harder than they did in Game 2.
Here’s the check list — presented by your correspondent, the faux Toe Blake:
— Brian Elliott has to do the Jim Craig at Lake Placid 1980 thing again.
— Get back on the aggressive forecheck and quit giving San Jose easy passage from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. The Blues, evidently fearful of getting burned on long break-out passes, retreated in Game 2. They backed up and let the Sharks speed-skate through the neutral zone without pause. This is a big deal. According to a study of 300 NHL games presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a team that carries the puck into the offensive zone — instead of dumping it in, then battling to retrieve it — generated about twice as many shots, scoring chances, and goals. The Blues have to set up a road block, and a brawny forecheck is the best way to do it.
— On the other side of this equation, the Blues have to stop hesitating when they’re pressured by San Jose’s forecheckers. The Sharks had the Blues’ heads spinning in Game 2. They Sharks set up two-man traps that frequently snared the confused Blues, who frequently skated into the waiting ambush. And then the Blues’ skaters compounded the problem by panicking and making hurried, off-target passes that became turnovers. Keep the wheels moving. Avoid the traps.
— Shoot the damn puck. In the first two games, we saw the Blues look to make extra passes at even strength and on the power play instead of firing away. Yeah, the Sharks were in the shooting lanes. They can block shots. But that doesn’t mean you should hold off on squeezing the trigger. Shots will go through — to be redirected, deflected, directly find the goal, or create rebound attempts.
— Screens. The Blues need to get bodies in front of Sharks goaltender Martin Jones. He played very well in his Game 2 shutout but the Blues could have made him work harder. “St. Louis made it an easy night (in Game 2) for Martin Jones,” Reid said. “St. Louis had nobody in his vision. There was no challenge to the goaltender whatsoever by the St. Louis Blues.”
— Get in the way of Brent Burns. This is so obvious that I feel ridiculous for even writing it. But not after Game 2, when the Blues were scampering around like feral cats, forgetting to pay attention to the most dangerous shooter on the San Jose side. Burns ripped two power play goals — sizzling one-timers — past Elliott. No one was near Burns, who fired up to free shots at 90 mph. How can you fail to account for him? Burns wears No. 88. He’s tall. He has a beard that J.E.B. Stuart would be proud of. Including the postseason Burns has shot-gunned 33 goals this season. The Blues have to cover the shooter. This would be like leaving Golden State’s Steph Curry completely unguarded to sharp-shoot easy 3-pointers. If Burns is going to score more goals in this series, then he’d better have a Blue hanging from his beard when he cranks a shot.
— Enough, already, with the stupid rodeo-clown penalties. The Blues can’t have any more of these irresponsible tantrums that lead to gratuitous penalties and the activation of the San Jose power play.
Thanks for reading …