Tonight, though, the Blues and the San Jose Sharks will play an enormously important game in their best of seven series, and it will have an even number. In a series the Blues lead two games to one, this next game has the potential to completely change the complexion of the series, for good or for ill.
Game four will be played tonight in San Jose, and it could be the biggest game of the series. No, really.
If the Blues win tonight, they take complete control of the series. A virtual death grip. Up three games to one with two more to play here in St. Louis? That's not a mortal lock, but it's a damned fine position to be in. Winning one of three game, when two are going to be played in the Scottrade Center
, shouldn't be any problem for this team whatsoever.
On the other hand, a loss in game four puts the series back even at two games apiece and ensures just the kind of drawn-out dogfight the Blues would probably prefer to avoid. They would still have home ice advantage, but knotted up at two you've essentially lost your margin for error at home. You simply can't afford to slip up again at home if you want to win the series; trying to take a potential deciding game on hostile ice is not a proposition any hockey team is comfortable with.
By that same token, the Sharks are going to come out of the gate tonight playing as if their playoff lives depend on it. Because, well, they kind of do. San Jose will do anything to avoid going into a 3-1 hole coming back to St. Louis in a must-win situation. It isn't just that the Blues would be on home ice; it's the fact that the Blues are the best home team in the NHL and would be on home ice.
Adding to the stress, at least from the Blues' point of view, is the continued absence of Jaroslav Halak. Brian Elliott has acquitted himself just fine to this point since taking over after Halak was injured in a collision with Barret Jackman, but Halak's injury means Elliott will be backed up by Jake Allen, most recently of the Peoria Rivermen. Elliott is already dealing with a nagging upper body injury; if something happens and he goes down the Blues would be faced with the spectre of a goaltender in their net, in the playoffs, who has never started a game in the NHL.
The Blues would dearly love to close this series out as quickly as possible, get their walking wounded some extra time to recuperate, and just have time in general to freshen up a bit before their next opponent finishes whatever grueling, torturous series they just finished winning. Going the distance against San Jose is the last thing the Blues want right now. The NHL playoffs are different from the postseasons of other sports due to the sheer length of the slog combined with the almost absurd physicality of the play this time of year. The NHL playoffs, more than those of any other sport, have the potential to turn into a war of attrition, with victory or defeat determined as much if not more by which team manages to survive and last the longest without serious injuries as it is the actual quality of a given team's construction.
So that's what is on the line tonight in this extremely important even-numbered game. The Blues will be looking to put their collective foot on the throat of San Jose, hoping to close the Sharks out in game five at home and gain a little time to lick their wounds. The Sharks, on the other hand, will be fighting for their lives and pulling out all the stops.
If you thought the first three games of the series were intense, just wait. This thing is about to get real.
You know, most of the time when you're talking about a seven game series, the odd-numbered games are the really big ones. Game one sets the tone for the series. Game three could put a team up 3-0 or break a 1-1 tie. Game five often breaks a 2-2 tie and puts one team on the verge of victory. Game seven...well, game sevens are just pretty awesome in general.