The St. Louis Blues are on the brink of elimination. However, as the captain David Backes so eloquently put it after Game 5’s heartbreak, “(They’re) also just 60 minutes away from a Game 7.”
This isn’t the first time the Note have been in a do-or-die situation this season, or this playoffs, however it is the first time it’s not in a Game 7. If the final game of the series against the Dallas Stars says anything, the Blues will bring their best game possible Wednesday night in San Jose. In order to cool down the red hot Sharks offense the Blues will need to play defense first, take away all the Sharks time and space for the game’s entirety, and will need contributions from their stars.
Blues’ Stars Need to Shine Bright in Game Six
It’s no secret that to experience success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs your team’s best players need to show up regularly. Just look at the Sharks, who have managed to keep a 3.41 goals per game (GPG) ratio throughout the postseason, with four of the league’s top 10 players in points leading the charge (Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, & Brent Burns). In order for the Blues to claw their way back into this one their leaders will need to lead by example.
Though standout Vladimir Tarasenko is obviously below 100%, he will need to find a way to help his team win in every zone to force a Game 7 as he still doesn’t have a point in this series (& is a minus-4, wow). In addition, his linemate, Jaden Schwartz, will need to dig deeper for every inch of ice to create more time and space for the Note’s top line to push the pace in Game 6. Lastly, captain David Backes and longtime teammates Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, and Kevin Shattenkirk will need to play a composed, focused game to guide the boys in Blue to victory Wednesday night.
The aforementioned players will be successful offensively in Game 6 by focusing on defense first. This is something that head coach Ken Hitchcock always preaches, and why it’s become the Blues’ ‘standard’ of play during his reign. However, recently the team has fallen away from composed, purposeful plays in their own end and seem to have far too many miscues that lead to high danger scoring chances for the opposition. Fixing this starts with foot movement and supporting the play, not just the puck but extends to on-ice communication as well.
If the Blues can manage to take away San Jose’s time and space (control their gaps) and can communicate efficiently, so they don’t lose any Sharks forwards in their own zone, they should be able to catch San Jose in transition for some high quality scoring chances of their own. This will be the difference in the game Wednesday evening, and the series overall.
So far in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Sharks have managed to create 12.1 high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes (HSCF60), while the Note have only averaged 10.4. However these stats are skewed slightly as the Blues have only averaged 9.2 HSCF60 and have allowed 37 more scoring chances against the Sharks than they’ve created for themselves through this Western Conference Final (104 scoring chances for STL, 141 for SJ).
This is why playing a composed game in their own end is such a big sticking point for the Blues this series. If they can find a way to keep the Sharks’ shots to the outside, by boxing out in front and giving Brian Elliott clear sight lines, they will experience great success in San Jose once again (in Game 6).
It all comes down to resiliency and heart, and thank goodness the Blues have already shown a ton of these characteristics throughout this season and playoff run. They will need to prove (through their on-ice play) that they want this more than the Sharks do. They will accomplish this through fighting for every inch, hitting anything that moves, and not forcing plays that aren’t there, in every zone. Though the Blues are likely the most ‘beat up’ team remaining in this year’s postseason none of that matters.
The only thing that does is the next shift, the next pass, the next shot, and that’s it. Every year after the season ends, Cup Champions and runners up speak about the plethora of injuries they fought through, and this is simply the Blues’ time to follow suit. Good thing players like Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri are on the roster, because they have the heart and drive the rest of the team needs to feed off of in Game 6 and beyond.
Though the Note lost Game 5, they did get some fuel from both of these key cogs, and hopefully that will help motivate the team in Wednesday’s elimination game out West. Yes, the season may already be a success on many levels, however the Blues are so close to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970 that anything less seems like a let down at this point. Especially after knocking off arguably two of the best teams in the league this season. It’s time to leave it all on the line and bring the series back to St. Louis, one more time, to close it out.
Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.