Before the Blues 2-1, game one win over San Jose in the NHL Western Conference Finals on Sunday night, I made up a mental list of items I thought they needed to accomplish to win the game and the series.
For the most part, they were successful in game one. There are other things they need to do better, but being three games away from the Finals is an amazing feat for this franchise.
Here’s what I want to see the rest of the way:
1. Stay out of the penalty box. The Blues were able to kill all three Sharks power plays in game one, but the best way to avoid the danger San Jose presents is to avoid committing penalties.
The Sharks came into the series scoring on 31% of their power play chances, with thirteen goals in 42 opportunities.
They had nine power play goals against Nashville. The Blues had allowed eight goals in 39 chances coming in, a 79.5% penalty kill rate which was fourth among the remaining four teams coming in.
At the end of the day, the Sharks unit of Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture (tied for a league best four power play goals each in these playoffs), Joe Thornton and Brent Burns (each with five power play assists in these playoffs) and Patrick Marleau is going to score if given opportunities. The Blues must stay out of the box to succeed.
2. Protect home ice. San Jose won a league-best 28 road games in 2015-2016. The Blues worked hard to earn home ice advantage in the post-season, and now with the departures of Washington and Dallas, they’re the team that would enjoy home ice advantage for as long as they play. In San Jose’s seven game win over Nashville, they won each of their home games, and lost their three road games. So the Blues need to use the advantage they worked so hard for.
3. Avoid effort letdowns. This has been a particularly difficult part of the game for the Blues not only this post-season, but for many playoff years before. They avoided that letdown on Sunday. Even though the Sharks pretty much owned the second period, it wasn’t due to a lack of effort on the Blues part. San Jose played very well in outshooting the Blues 16-5 in the period, but Brian Elliott stood tall between the pipes.
The Blues need to dictate the tempo, and for the most part they did in game one. Neither team could be accused of having a stretch of play in which they didn’t give their best. A team that does in this series is destined to lose.
4. Have Brian Elliott be their best player. Elliott turned aside 26 of 27 San Jose shots. He needs to avoid another game six vs. Dallas moment.
In a 48 second spree after Jori Lehtera had given the Blues the lead, Elliott made brilliant saves against Dainius Zubrus, Justin Braun, Pavelski and then Pavelski again, which was his best save of the night.
The Sharks shook their heads after that flurry, and the Blues went on to settle down, but clearly Elliott frustrated San Jose. That was the sort of minute that would have ruined past editions of the Blues, but Elliott stole the game at that point.
5. Have the STL line step up. Obviously, when I bring this up I’m generally talking about Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz stepping up. Jori Lehtera scored the winning goal, but the Blues need their young stars to be their best players. Tarasenko is the biggest star in this series, with all due respect to Pavelski and Thornton. He wasn’t in the Chicago series, where Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are clearly more established, and against Dallas, where Jamie Benn has been more prolific and their best player, Tyler Seguin, didn’t play.
Against San Jose, Tarasenko should be the most dynamic player on the ice. Right off the bat, 1:28 into the game, he showed some jump and had an opportunity against Sharks goalie Martin Jones. But Tarasenko only had one more shot the rest of the way. Tarasenko needs to turn in a superstar performance to assure the Blues a series win. David Backes continues to be superb offensively and Lehtera made a great play on his goal. But as the series unfolds, the best offensive player on either team needs to take charge. If he does, the Blues have a great chance to win.
In game one, the Blues handled most of the chores that I would have assigned for them. If they can clean up the other aspects that they weren’t great at, they should be able to head to San Jose up 2-0, and two games away from the Finals.