By now, unless you’ve been in a coma, you have probably heard about the controversy that ended Game 3 of the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks. A blatant hand pass led to the game-deciding goal in overtime, and it went unnoticed by the officials, who later said it was a non-reviewable play.
The Blues were justifiably upset by the result of the game, however, they are not blameless in their own demise. The controversy overshadowed their poor play toward the end of the game, which resulted in Logan Couture notching the game-tying goal with just over a minute left. The inability to put away games is a serious weakness for the Blues, and could spell the end of their season if they are not careful.
Pietrangelo’s Icing Problem
The Blues took a 4-3 lead into the third period Wednesday night and were unable to broaden the gap, squandering multiple scoring opportunities in the process. Late in the game, with about 90 seconds left, Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo iced the puck after a Justin Braun shot was blocked by Jaden Schwartz.
On the ensuing faceoff, with 1:26 left, Ryan O’Reilly won the draw to give the Blues possession. Instead of maintaining that possession and finding a clean zone exit to attack the empty net, Pietrangelo instead iced the puck again, leading to yet another faceoff in their zone.
The Sharks won that faceoff and got a shot on goal that Jordan Binnington saved and held for a fourth consecutive faceoff in the Blues’ zone. It was after that faceoff, which Tyler Bozak won, where the Sharks regained possession, Joe Pavelski tipped a shot on net, and Couture buried the rebound for the tying goal.
After the game, Couture credited the icing for giving him a chance to stay on the ice in the first place: “I was happy that they kept icing the puck. I was a little tired, I had been out there for 30 minutes. Pietrangelo kept icing it, gave me some time to catch my breath. I think a couple of us were tired so we were happy that he kept icing it.”
Pietrangelo explained his own play away: “You are just trying to make a hard play. They’ve got the extra guy. You’re hoping to get a bounce. It’s kind of hard when there are guys on you. Sometimes when you flip it up like that it spins back. Sometimes it goes forward. Again, a game of inches.”
The icing trend continued into Game 4, when the Blues iced the puck three consecutive times (kicked off by Pietrangelo himself) late in the third period. But icing isn’t the Blues’ only problem late in games.
The Blues’ Empty Net Problem
Like Pietrangelo said, hockey is a game of inches. Unfortunately, that was exactly the problem for St. Louis, as inches were the difference in scoring a fifth goal as well.
Seconds before Pietrangelo’s first icing, Jaden Schwartz, who leads the Blues in postseason goals, had the puck at center ice with an empty net in front of him. His path was blocked by a Sharks defenseman, and instead of making a play to get around him, he lobbed a puck at the empty net. It missed by inches, hitting the outside of the post or netting, and went behind for the Sharks to control.
In isolation, that would be a mistake, but a forgettable one, one of many missed opportunities in the game. But the Blues have had too many missed chances at the empty net. In fact, they have yet to score an empty-net goal in the postseason.
In Game 4, Blues’ fans saw almost the mirror image of the Schwartz play, but this time, it was defenseman Joel Edmundson missing the net. He also shot it from his own zone, so the miss doubled as yet another icing. Sharks goaltender Martin Jones was off the ice for 2:02 in Game 4, which means the Blues’ total time without an empty-net goal in the playoffs is just under 15 minutes.
Being unable to score on an empty net in almost 15 minutes of ice time is a baffling trend for a team that is otherwise good enough to reach the conference final. And as painful as it may be for the team or the fans to admit it, if they could have found one in Game 3, the hand pass never would have happened.
Put the Hand Pass in the Past
The Blues had no choice but to move on from the hand pass and focus on Game 4, which they did, narrowly escaping with a 2-1 victory and tying the series at two games apiece. With that said, the same struggles remained. With only three games remaining in the series, they cannot afford to lose again in this fashion. If they find themselves with a lead late in the third period, you can count on seeing them try to play with more possession and score on the empty net. After all, their playoff lives might depend on it.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.