The Sharks finally returned home to a raucous HP Pavilion last night for Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, falling to the St. Louis Blues 4-3. They are now down 2-1 in the series after stealing Game 1 in double overtime, but don’t let last night’s score (or the series record) fool you – the Sharks rarely stood a chance in the game and haven’t looked competitive throughout.
Perhaps Ray Ratto is right – hockey spits on momentum. The Sharks came into their first round match-up hot off of a 4-game win streak, seeming to have finally turned that corner that folks had been predicting they’d turn all season. Game 1 was a thriller, but that was more about Niemi stealing a win than San Jose’s skaters winning. The first frame of overtime was like a period-long penalty kill the Sharks somehow managed to survive. The Blues would swarm any San Jose puck handler the moment they entered the zone, force an errant pass and take it the other way. Martin Havlat’s game-winning goal bordered on miraculous, and if you walked away from that win with hope for the future, well, you need a little Denny Green in your life.
The Blues are who we thought they were, and they made the most of their style. The first goal came on a puck that squeaked between Antti Niemi’s pads into the crease. San Jose fans watched in horror as Marc Edouard-Vlasic tried to backhand the puck clear and instead put a nifty shot into his own net. The next goal came in the second period, and No. 3 came on a 5-on-3 in the waning moments of the third, while the Sharks were stifled by the Blues’ stout defensive play, returning to regular season form and getting blanked at Scottrade Center. The Blues’ formula all season long was to lull teams to sleep with board play and defensive hockey, capitalizing on mistakes and winning low-scoring games. That’s exactly what they’ve done so far in this series, and the Sharks have found no way to spell it.
Last night’s tilt started out hot and heavy, as Douglas Murray leveled TJ Oshie within the first 10 seconds of the puck dropping. The Sharks showed plenty of giddy up early, finishing checks and winning the races to pucks, but that would not last. The Sharks have only found the energy to win battles for portions of games all season long, but in the playoffs — especially in a series against a young, hungry team like the Blues — that strategy is not going to work.
Patrik Berglund scored the first goal for the Blues on the power play (this would be a theme), but the Sharks managed to get one back on a beautiful solo effort from defenseman Brent Burns. Unfortunately the Sharks felt the need to fall flat on their faces to open the second period, allowing a goal to Andy McDonald just one minute in, and another power play goal to Jason Arnott at the halfway point. A third goal at the start of the third period was the nail, and although the Sharks made it interesting with 2 late goals from Colin White and Logan Couture (Couture’s came with 17 seconds left in the game), it was too little too late. With the loss, San Jose handed home ice advantage right back to the Blues, and Game 4 on Thursday will remain the most pivotal moment in this series yet.
Righting the Sharks
Ultimately, special teams has been the difference for the Sharks. In Game 3, St. Louis was 3-for-4 on the power play while the Sharks were 1-for-4. The Sharks PK units looked scattered and overmatched by the speed of the Blues power play units. There was little defensive support for Niemi, who had to set up on the outer limits of the crease in order to see shots, leaving a huge area of open net behind him for the Blues to utilize.
Although the Sharks, down 2-1, are by no means out of this series, they certainly appear on the way out with the formula they’re utilizing. The Blues are a patient team, one that waits out your first mistake and rarely misses capitalizing on it, and so far the Sharks haven’t been paying attention. They have to pass more accurately, remain defensively responsible and (for God’s sake) start making things happen on special teams if they want to emerge from this series. With the Canucks on the ropes against Los Angeles and Detroit getting all they can handle from Nashville, the Sharks may be facing their toughest test of these playoffs right now. The road to the Cup is being forged – the question is whether the Sharks have what it takes to travel it.