Blues Take 2-1 Lead With Brilliance in San Jose

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click to enlarge Patrik Berglund, this postseason's breakout player, back on draft day. He was in the middle of what is commonly known as his Duran Duran phase at the time. 
Patrik Berglund, this postseason's breakout player, back on draft day. He was in the middle of what is commonly known as his Duran Duran phase at the time. 
In the first game, the Blues dominated most of the way, minus occasional lapses, but were unable to solve Antti Niemi. They lost in double overtime 3-2. 

In the second game, the Sharks dominated the first period but put one in their own net. Jaroslav Halak stood on his head early, then was forced out of the game by injury just as the Blues turned it on and locked down a victory from the second period on. 

In the third game, played last night, the Blues put together their most complete performance so far, beating San Jose 4-3 in a game that was nowhere near that close for most of the way. They scored a goal early in the third period that made the score 4-1 and nearly iced the game, then held on as the Sharks pulled their goalie and made a furious charge to make it close at the end. 

So far in the first three games, the Blues look like the clearly dominant team. The Sharks got a great goaltending performance in the first and stole the win, but in three games the Blues have dictated the pace and dominated the middle of the ice. I'm not done worrying quite yet; this is the Blues and the playoffs we're talking about here, after all. But, it should be clear to anyone watching these games the Blues are just a better team, period. They should win this series. And I'm beginning to believe they might. 

The best part of the Blues' attack last night was its balance; five players picked up multiple points in the effort. Carlo Colaiacovo had one of those games, with three assists on the night, that was almost good enough to make you forget how uneven his play has been for most of the season. Alex Steen and Jason Arnott both tallied a goal and an assist on the night, with both of their goals coming on the power play. 

Speaking of the power play, it has suddenly become one of the Blues' biggest weapons. Sure, they were going against San Jose's absolutely dreadful penalty kill, but even so it's incredibly exciting to see the power play's sudden potency. 

The two biggest stars of the night, though, had to be Andy McDonald and Patrik Berglund. McDonald went off for a goal and two assists, including a beautiful setup on Arnott's goal that qualifies as one of the single prettiest plays I've ever seen on a sheet of ice. Berglund, meanwhile, continued his breakout series, knocking home another goal and picking up an assist on McDonald's score. He played in the tough areas all night, holding his own on the doorstep of the goal and just generally making his presence felt for every second of the 14:59 he was on the ice. 

We've seen McDonald have those kinds of games before, of course; his skill with the puck is well known throughout the game. But Berglund is a surprise. He's never played this skilled and this big for any appreciable amount of time in his NHL career to date, and seeing it now just confirms what kind of player he really should be. The Berglund/McDonald/Steen line has been an absolute revelation in this series so far, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. 

However, I do feel a need to defend the top line for the Blues as well. The David Backes/T.J. Oshie/David Perron line has taken some abuse from fans, whether via Twitter, website comments sections, or just good old sports talk radio, and I think that's short-sighted. The Blues' top line hasn't been particularly productive in terms of points, to be sure, leaving the bulk of the scoring for the second and even third lines, but that first line has also done more than their part to virtually neutralize the Sharks' top line to this point. The San Jose line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski has been nearly invisible through the first three games, with only Thornton picking up significant points, mostly late in last night's game. 

Which brings us to the one and only real negative of the night. The last handful of minutes. After the Blues went up 4-1, it looked like the game was well in hand. I went so far as to text a friend of mine that, "If the Blues play their game, I don't see any way the Sharks can make up three goals the rest of the way." Obviously, I'm counting my blessings this morning the game ended when it did, otherwise I might be forced to admit I was the guy who jinxed the team and queered the whole deal. 

After building that three goal lead, the Blues did the absolute last thing you want to see a hockey team do in the playoffs: they let up. Took their collective foot off the gas pedal. And it very nearly cost them. 

I understand going into prevent mode. All teams in all sports do it. Football teams play prevent defense, basketball teams go into painfully slow halfcourt sets, hockey teams play dump-and-chase keepaway hockey. I may not like it, but for the most part I understand it. But what the Blues did last night went a step further. They dumped the puck and tried to eat up the clock, but they also let their guards down and the intensity slipped. You can win running out the clock clearing the puck into the opponents' zone, but when you let up instead of stepping on your opponents' throat, you have only yourself to blame when things suddenly get dicey. 

Luckily, the Blues had just enough of a lead, and little enough time left on the clock, to hold on. Going forward, though, I hope Ken Hitchcock takes advantage of the last six minutes of last night's game and makes it a teaching moment for what is still a very, very young team. The Blues let the Sharks back into a game they had dominated for most of the way, and nearly undid 54 minutes' worth of brilliance in the process. That can't happen going forward. 

As it stands now, the Blues are in a good position. They have a 2-1 series lead, and they have home ice advantage back. That's not to say winning will be a cakewalk, obviously, but the Blues put themselves in the driver's seat with their victory last night. The next game isn't until Thursday night; plenty of time for the players to rest and the coaching staff to get them ready. Game four will be huge; for the Sharks it's a near must-win game. It will be up to our boys in blue to match the intensity of San Jose if they want to avoid dragging this series out any longer than necessary. 

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