What we learned from critical Game 4 victories by New Jersey, St. Louis
• It was no sure thing, not after he was pulled from Game 3 after giving up three goals on 12 shots, but the premise for the Devils going into Game 4 Thursday night was simple: if Brodeur was Brodeur, they would even their series with the Panthers. Twenty-six saves later, New Jersey skated away with convincing 4-0 victory, and Martin Brodeur had erased one more mention of Patrick Roy from the record book with his 24th career playoff shutout.
This was classic late-era Brodeur, confident, compact, comfortable. He made at least five stops that were worth a second look, including a Marcel Goc slapper that he cradled under his arm, a slick breakaway bid by Dmitri Kulikov and a glove stop made on former Devil John Madden that let everyone on the Florida bench know that they were up against it.
• Fourth time this series that a team has built a 3-0 lead. Someone out there want to figure out those odds for me?
• Outside of Brodeur, the biggest reason for New Jersey's win was the play of the fourth line. It's rarely a good sign when the pluggers are singled out (it's like having a blind date sold to you on the basis of their "nice complexion"), but they made the most of their ice time, tenderizing the Panthers during a physical first period and opening the floodgates with Steve Bernier's goal in the third. Recent call-up Stephen Gionta really stood out. He might be built like Mats Naslund, but he was working the body like Matt Martin.
• It was Brodeur who spotted Gionta breaking at center ice and hit him on the fly with a 100-foot pass that led to Bernier's goal. That was Marty's second assist of the playoffs. Currently trailing him in the points race: Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Sharp and a passel of pool killers ...
• The Devils blueline finally made an offensive contribution, chipping in with four assists. Bryce Salvador led the way with a pair, including a sweet spin pass to set up Ilya Kovalchuk's power play goal. Yep, Salvador and power play in the same sentence. One of those "I remember where I was when..." moments.
• Chicken or the egg question of the night: Did the Devils right their penalty kill, or did they just take advantage of a Panthers' power play hobbled by absence of Jason Garrison? Minus his big bomb at the point, the Cats barely scratched at Brodeur's door, averaging just one shot for each of their six power play chances and failing to score after lighting it up on six of their first 10 chances in the series. Garrison was scratched just prior to the game with a lower-body injury. His return for Game 5 is in doubt, as is that of his replacement, Keaton Ellerby, who left the contest midway through the third with an undisclosed ailment. Tyson Strachan and Colby Robak might want to sleep with their cell phones, just in case.
• It was one of those moments that gets forgotten in a four-goal game, but you wonder what might have happened if Sean Bergenheim's first-period shot hadn't hit the post after whizzing past Brodeur. He's been the best Panther all series, with points in each of the first three games, but he disappeared after that chance.
• Outside of a couple shifts -- a riveting dash to the net that drew a call and his goal, both in the third period -- Kovalchuk seemed content to play the part of Izzy Stradlin rather than Slash for most of the night. Wasn't a lot of compete in his game as he seemed willing to settle for outside bids or extra passes rather than trying to create something masterful. His stat line will deflect a cursory glance, but he wasn't as good in this game as he needs to be if the Devils are to close this series out.
• That's why the 34-year-old Scott Clemmensen had never started a playoff game before tonight. And it could have been worse. His defense aggressively kept the Devils out of the crease and clear of the rebounds he kept throwing into the slot, but he let the Panthers down with a pair of goals that were stoppable.
• Big question now for Florida: who does Kevin Dineen tap to start Game 5? Bet on Jose Theodore, if only because of the blood the Devils were smelling in the water every time they skated by Clemmensen during that third period. They just can't afford to let New Jersey come into that game feeling the same confidence.
• It's unlikely the Devils will make any lineup changes coming off a big win, but the more I watch Anton Volchenkov, the more I wonder why Pete DeBoer doesn't trust Adam Larsson to step in. Inexperienced, sure, but experience isn't exactly preventing Volchenkov from hurting his team with poor reads and undisciplined penalties.
On to San Jose ...
• Before the game, Ken Hitchcock talked about fear being the key to winning in the Shark Tank. "You're so afraid of getting blitzed that you ... play on the edge, and I think we're better when we play like that," he told NHL.com. It's a nice respectful quote, but the Blues don't play with an ounce of fear in their game. This was a team that was determined not to settle for the split, that had its eyes on finishing things off at home this weekend.
• I'd still take Kevin Dineen for the Jack Adams, simply because he had to find chemistry with so many disparate pieces. Still, watching the Blues proved Hitchcock is the best in the business. The dense layers of defense, the ability of lines one through four to read and adapt to situations. It's the triumph of smarts over skill. This is the stuff of textbooks.
• The Blues were outhit 28-19, but I liked their physical game better. They don't chase big hits, so there's no wasted energy. They channel it into relentless puck pursuit in the corners and in the slot, and their high winning percentage in those battles is what's winning them these games.
• Watching the Sharks' new line combos made me think Todd McLellan could have generated more chemistry by dropping some Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke. Over and over, San Jose failed to click on their breakouts. Credit some of that to the Blues' forecheck. The bigger issue was the gaps were stretched, forcing passes that were too long ... and too often picked off.
• Martin Havlat and Daniel Winnik both had live legs and some tremendous chances early. Neither could finish.
• Save of the night: Brian Elliott getting his pad on a Joe Pavelski bid just after being leveled by Logan Couture. Just phenomenal focus.
• Tough luck night for Antti Niemi, who was left hanging by his defense on the B.J. Crombeen goal and suffered for a bad bounce on Andy McDonald's winner. No reason for him to feel down after this one, but every time the camera caught him up close, he had that thousand-yard stare. That's not the look you want to see if you're a Sharks fan.
• The game was lost, essentially, when the Sharks failed to capitalize on a sensational shift that saw them pin the Blues down for 1:09 midway through the third. Their best forecheck of the game, combined with failed clearing attempts by Kevin Shattenkirk and Vladimir Sobotka, resulted in a single, glorious chance ... and Dan Boyle fired it 10 feet wide. The drama did end with Barret Jackman in the box after cross checking, but then ...
• "Dumb penalties lead to killer goals." That was Pat Burns, although if I remember correctly, he might have added a couple of colorful adjectives in there when he offered that insight many years ago. Anyway, Marleau donned the Chapeau of Shame when he curtailed that critical power play after being called for interference. Just as he's standing up to be released, McDonald scored the eventual game-winner, beating Brent Burns to a puck left wobbling in the crease.
• Two points here: First, the entire play was built on another failed clearing attempt, this time by Boyle. The Sharks will be spending a lot of time watching video of their botched transition game on Friday. Second, who else took McDonald in their pool? The Blues now have six power-play goals and he has a hand in each of them (two goals and four assists). He's not doing anything special. He's simply making great reads and getting to where he needs to be to either create, or finish, a play. If you have kids in the game, have them key on in McDonald this weekend. Just a smart, smart player.
• Hope Sharks fans took a good look at their heroes Thursday night. If they lose in St. Louis, this will be a very different team next fall. Not too daring a stretch to suggest that means someone new wearing No. 12 or No. 19.