If the Blues are to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since the 1969-70 season, they’ll need to do something against the Sharks that they executed to perfection against the Blackhawks and Stars.
Brian Elliott’s play, especially in the second period when the Sharks turned up the pressure with excellent puck possession, is one of the reasons why the Blues are up 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals. The Blues’ special teams, the team’s ability to capitalize on the Sharks’ miscues, and some good fortune from the hockey gods were other key factors in the Note’s 2-1 win Sunday.
But the hockey gods aren’t going to help the Blues with Joe Pavelski. Limiting his impact in this best-of-seven series will be the biggest factor in whether or not the Blues are still playing June hockey.
The Blues have a sound defensive structure. It’s one of the biggest reasons why they’re still playing and the Stars are making vacation plans. It was the players’ execution of Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system that held Chicago’s Jonathan Toews to no goals and just five points in the opening round of the playoffs. Patrick Kane, the other Blackhawk that has been a thorn in the Blues’ side, was also held to just one goal and five points in the Note’s series win over Chicago.
The Blues held Dallas’ top players in check as well. Jamie Benn had no goals and three points in seven games, while Jason Spezza had just one goal and four points in the Blues’ second-round defeat of the Stars.
The math comes out to two goals and 17 points in 14 games for Toews, Kane, Benn and Spezza against the Blues in the first two rounds. That’s incredible defensive work by St. Louis.
Pavelski, however, has already proven to be a different animal.
He had to settle for an assist on the Tomas Hertl goal that tied the game at 1-1 in Game 1, but it was his tip-in of Brent Burns’ shot that forced the puck to ricochet off Hertl’s skate into the net. Elliott also robbed Pavelski of a goal that would have given him an league-high 10 this postseason with an incredible toe save in the second period.
That was one of 31 saves that Elliott made on the night and one of seven saves on Pavelski alone. In fact, the line of Pavelski, Hertl and Joe Thornton combined to put 12 shots on goal and direct a total of 17 at the net according to our Blues’ Insider Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. That’s a lot of action from just one line.
While Blues fans have come to admire David Backes’ abilities, there might not be a better player in the NHL than Pavelski when it comes to redirecting pucks in front of the net. He’s relentless when it comes to finding soft areas to get position in front of goaltenders and once he’s there, his hand-eye coordination is outstanding when it comes to redirecting shots.
Granted, playing on the same line as Thornton, who is an outstanding passer, certainly factors into Pavelski’s production. But Pavelski has earned the reputation for constantly studying his opponents to figure out how to put himself in position to score. He practices certain plays that he knows he’s going to be involved in so that when opportunity arises, his preparation puts him in position to produce.
So what’s the best way to limit the damage Pavelski can create? By ensuring he doesn’t have the puck.
Puck possession is one of the key reasons why the Blues have advanced this far. It’s also one of the primary reasons why the Kings have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams. Los Angeles isn’t necessarily exceptional in its own zone, the Kings simply do an excellent job of holding onto the puck once its in their possession.
With how well the top line of Pavelski, Hertl and Thornton have played for the Sharks this postseason, the Backes-Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen line, as well as the defensive pairings of Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, could determine the Blues’ fate this series.
The Blues can’t play the way they did in the second period on Sunday and expect to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They couldn’t get the puck out of their own zone and they were fortunate that Elliott was at his best in those 20 minutes or else they would have been the ones staring at a deficit heading into the third period.
The Blues like to play physical and heavy. They want to grind teams down using an aggressive forecheck to keep possession in their opponents’ zone.
That’s who the Blues are. That’s their game.
Perfect. Play that way for the next three-plus games and if Elliott out-duels Martin Jones like he did on Sunday night, then the Blues will advance. They’ve held the NHL’s biggest stars in check the previous two rounds, and they can do it again this series.
If not, then we’ll be watching either the Penguins or Lightning try to solve the Pavelski riddle next month.