ST. LOUIS – The St. Louis Blues were 6-7 when coach Ken Hitchcock came aboard. They’ve been among the NHL’s best ever since.
Jamie Langenbrunner and David Perron scored in a 45-second span in the third period, and the Blues woke up in time to put away the San Jose Sharks 3-1 and wrap up their first-round series Saturday night.
“It was a frustrating two periods, obviously we wanted to come out and jump to the lead. We had to push them out of the game,” Langenbrunner said. “We just stuck with it.”
Joe Thornton scored in the final minute of the second period for San Jose, and the Sharks were seemingly in control before the flurry that ended their season.
“We competed hard, we just came up on the short end of the stick this time,” Thornton said. “Hats off to the Blues, they played great, but it’s a terrible feeling right now.”
Brian Elliott made 26 saves, and Andy McDonald ended all doubt with an empty-net goal in the final minute. St. Louis, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, won a playoff series for the first time in a decade against a franchise that reached the conference finals the previous two years. Before this series, St. Louis hadn’t won a playoff game in eight years.
“The fans have been waiting a long time and have been very patient,” said defenceman Barret Jackman, the lone holdover from the last playoff team in 2004. “It’s nice to give them a little taste of what’s to come.”
The Blues seemed a step slow most of the way in front of a sellout crowd waving white rally towels before tying it with their checking line, and getting the go-ahead goal from their top line. They were the first team to come from behind after two periods to win in the series.
“We didn’t want to go back there, obviously,” Perron said. “Knowing we didn’t want to go back there obviously made it that much bigger.”
The lightning strike rally began when Antti Niemi couldn’t handle Scott Nichol’s bouncing shot from just across the blue line and Langenbrunner tapped it home at 11:16, the first point of the series for both Nichol and Langenbrunner.
Perron deflected Alex Pietrangelo’s floater from the point on the next shot, and Elliott made the lead stand with a handful of nice saves the rest of the way. Pietrangelo aimed for the stick, not the net, on the go-ahead goal.
“He’s really smart out there,” Perron said. “When you look at the replay up top, you see I think his show was probably 6-7 feet wide, so you could tell he was aiming for someone to get a stick on it. And I did.”
The Blues had to kill off a delay-of-game penalty on McDonald in the closing minutes, and Elliott handled what could have been a tense situation calmly.
“I mean, you see a difference maker, and we’re going to concede him that,” Sharks forward Joe Pavelski said. “He’s a great goalie.”
The Sharks knew they also came up short. Marleau and Pavelski, both 30-goal scorers, had no points in the series. They were 2 for 17 on the power play in the series, including 0-for-2 in Game 5, against the Blues’ sticky defence.
“They are stifling,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “They play such a good checking game, they give you absolutely nothing. When you have only four forwards that hit the score sheet in a five-game series, odds are you’re not winning.”
The Blues were the NHL’s best home team with a franchise-record 30 wins and just six regulation losses, and won two at home and two on the road against the Sharks. Counting the regular season, they were 8-1 against San Jose.
Hitchcock is giving players Sunday off and then it’s back to work while they wait to learn their next opponent. The coach who replaced Davis Payne in early November noted that there was no sense of satisfaction in the locker room.
“There was elation and then calmness,” Hitchcock said. “There’s a real calmness about our group, they came down from the high real quick. That’s good. I think we’re going to play well the next series.”
The Blues are getting healthier, too. Hitchcock expected Jaroslav Halak, the No. 1 goalie most of the season but out with a lower body injury the last three games, would be back at practice Monday.
Thornton’s second goal of the series gave the Sharks their second lead of the series with 39 seconds to go in the second. The San Jose captain converted a pass from Daniel Winnik and beat Elliott between the legs from the left side of the net for his fifth point of the series, giving him a hand in his team’s last five goals.
Both teams appeared to be on the defensive much of the first two periods, with few big hits aside from an entertaining fight between the Blues’ Chris Stewart and Tommy Wingels in the second. There was no sustained pressure from either side and few hallmark saves before the Sharks finally capitalized when Perron was unable to clear the puck.
Notes: Thornton had 42 of his team-leading 77 points on the road during the regular season. He tied for first in the NHL in road points. … This was the first time in the series the team scoring first didn’t win.