ST. LOUIS – No team in the playoffs is deeper at goalie than the St. Louis Blues. It’s a big reason they are one win away from their first playoff series triumph in a decade.
Brian Elliott is more of a 1A than Jaroslav Halak’s backup. Elliott led the NHL with a 1.56 goals-against average, including nine shutouts. He’s been carrying the load since Halak was sidelined by a lower-body injury early in their first-round series against the San Jose Sharks.
Elliott, who wasn’t assured of a job in training camp, was just 1:07 shy of a shutout in Game 4. The 2-1 victory gave St. Louis a 3-1 series lead coming back home for Game 5 on Saturday night. He was far from satisfied after allowing Joe Thornton’s late goal Thursday night.
“That makes me mad, spitting a rebound out like that late in the game,” Elliott said. “Luckily we scored two and they only had one.”
Luck has had little to do with the series so far. The Blues swept the Sharks in the regular season, with Elliott and Halak each posting a shutout, and San Jose has scored only seven goals thus far.
The Blues can wrap it up in Game 5 on Saturday night in St. Louis, almost certainly with Elliott in goal given Halak was wearing a walking boot prior to Game 4. They were the NHL’s best team at home during the regular season with franchise-record 30 victories and just six regulation losses.
After dropping Game 1 at home in double-overtime, they silenced the Shark Tank with a pair of victories.
“They’re not going quietly,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “We recognize how close these games are and how hard the next one’s going to be. But this is a new experience for us. I think dealing with the pressure of winning and closing a team out, we’re going to have to work through it.”
Teams holding a 3-1 lead have won 228 of 252 NHL series, according to Stats LLC, although the underdogs have prevailed more frequently in recent years. The list of 24 teams that have scaled that mountain includes the Lightning last year over the Penguins, the Flyers over the Bruins and Canadiens over Capitals in 2010.
Defenceman Barret Jackman is the lone holdover from the Blues’ 2003 team that blew a 3-1 lead against Vancouver in the first round.
Obviously, there’s more pressure on the Sharks, who made it to the Western Conference final the last two seasons. They can’t worry about the hole they’re in, just concentrate on Game 5.
Coach Todd McLellan liked most everything about Game 4 except the score.
“I think there’s going to be a team that comes back from 3-1 down in this playoff series and there are a number of us at it and it may as well be us,” McLellan said. “Let’s go there and play and see what happens. I think if we get this kind of effort again and this type of game we have a chance of coming out ahead.”
The Blues’ last playoff win was over the Blackhawks in the first round in 2002, but they’ve hardly looked like post-season neophytes, standing up to the Sharks’ physical tactics early in the series and playing with the lead with scoring coming from everywhere. The speedy Andy McDonald has been a standout with three goals and four assists, but checking forward B.J. Crombeen, who scored the first goal in Game 4, had only one in the regular season.
The Blues have been disciplined, too, waiting for the Sharks to slip up and covering for their own mistakes with airtight penalty killing. They’ve held the Sharks’ power play to 2 for 15 and are a decisive 6 for 16 with the man advantage in the series.
Yet to fully surface for the Sharks is the playoff-tested team that closed fast in the regular season to earn the seventh seed in the Western Conference. After taking Game 1, San Jose had won 46 playoff games since the Blues beat them once in a five-game series in 2004.
Goalie Antti Niemi won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010 and has played well enough with a .912 save percentage. Joe Thornton and Logan Couture each has a goal and three assists, but Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are scoreless.
“They have to find a way to get on the score sheet, and they’ve got a game to do that,” McLellan said Friday. “For us to have success, our go-to players have to find a way.”
The Sharks won a couple of must games last year in the playoffs. If they can take Game 5, some of the pressure shifts to the Blues.
“I don’t think anybody believes we’re going to do it, which is fine,” forward Dan Boyle said. “It’s going to be a tough task. We all know that. It’s going to be a very difficult task, but it can be done. It’s not impossible.”