SAN JOSE, Calif. – For a team that hadn’t won a single playoff game in eight years before last week, the St. Louis Blues sure are getting the hang of winning in the post-season.
Brian Elliott made 24 saves, B.J. Crombeen and Andy McDonald scored and the Blues moved one win away from the second round of the playoffs, beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in Game 4 on Thursday night to take a 3-1 series lead.
After losing Game 1 at home in double overtime, second-seeded St. Louis has won three straight, including back-to-back games at the Shark Tank.
“I would have never thought that in a million years,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “This has been such a graveyard for most teams in the playoffs. We’re learning a lot.”
Patrik Berglund and David Perron each assisted on both goals for the Blues, who can win a playoff series for the first time since 2002 by beating the Sharks in Game 5 at home Saturday night.
“It’s never easy,” McDonald said. “They got a good hockey team over there and they’re battling hard. I thought they even stepped up their intensity tonight. We’re handling it well I think. The inexperienced guys are learning along the way.”
San Jose played well for long stretches, especially in the second and third period, but once again struggled to score against St. Louis’ stingy defence that allowed the fewest goals ever in an 82-game season.
Joe Thornton broke the shutout with 1:07 remaining, but the Sharks couldn’t get the equalizer.
“I thought this was our best 60-minute effort in the series,” coach Todd McLellan said. “But if you look at it that way, you can’t take consolation in playing well, not in the playoffs.”
The Sharks are in danger of being knocked out in the first round after making it to the Western Conference final the previous two seasons. They need to win three straight games against a team they have beaten once in eight tries this season.
“We’ve put ourselves in a corner and now we have to fight our way out,” Thornton said. ‘We had good looks again tonight and just snaked it for whatever reason.”
St. Louis withstood a desperate charge by San Jose early in the third to preserve the lead and then took control when Patrick Marleau was called for interfering with Kris Russell in the offensive zone with San Jose on the power play.
The Blues made the Sharks pay when Berglund did a good job tipping Perron’s shot, and McDonald beat Brent Burns to the bouncing rebound in the crease to knock the puck into the empty net for St. Louis’ sixth power-play goal of the series. McDonald has three goals and four assists through four games.
“Obviously in this type of hockey, in playoff hockey, you have to be around the net and the hard areas,” McDonald said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, just get to the net.”
That goal took the life out of the Sharks and the frustrated fans in the sellout crowd who might have seen their final home game of the season.
McLellan shook things up to try to spark his team following two straight losses. He dropped Marleau, who had no points in the first three games, to the second line and moved him to centre, moving Logan Couture to the top line. McLellan also suited up Michal Handzus and Brad Winchester in place of Dominic Moore and TJ Galiardi.
It failed to turn the momentum of the series as the Blues scored first for the third straight game. Both goalies traded tough saves early with Antti Niemi stopping McDonald with a sprawling save at the side of the net and Elliott stoning Couture with his pad on a breakaway.
But Niemi couldn’t stop Crombeen’s shot from the slot off a pass from Patrick Berglund that opened the scoring midway through the first.
The Sharks started much faster in the second period but were unable to get one past Elliott, who has been outstanding since taking over when Jaroslav Halak left with a lower-body injury in the second period of Game 2. Elliott’s best save might have come after he was pushed back into his net with the Sharks on the power play but managed to make a kick save on a shot from his college teammate at Wisconsin, Joe Pavelski.
“Our goaltending has been fantastic all year,” Crombeen said. “It’s kind of our team defence. Our whole mentality is defence first and checking leads to offence. It’s something that Hitch really brought on board when he came here and it’s something we’ve had success with.”
The Sharks, who allowed three power-play goals in a Game 3 loss, killed off two penalties in the second to keep the deficit at one goal heading into the final period despite giving up a few good scoring chances late in the second.
Notes: The Sharks have won nine playoff series since St. Louis beat Chicago in the first round of the playoffs in 2002. … The Blues killed all four power-play chances and have allowed only two goals on 15 power plays for the series. … Crombeen hadn’t scored since getting his only goal of the regular season on Jan. 21 against Buffalo. … Sharks F Marty Havlat turned 31 Thursday. … Winchester played in just four of the previous 21 games, and Handzus suited up for three of the past 18.