NHL playoffs: Stars vs. Blues Game 3 factors to watch
The Blues will try to build on the momentum of their overtime victory in Game 2 on Sunday and take control of their series against the Dallas Stars in Game 3 on Tuesday night in St. Louis (9:30 ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Here are some of the key talking points ahead of the contest:
• Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi?
Stars coach Lindy Ruff has been making this decision on a daily basis all season long. And to his credit, he's read his keepers pretty well. Both won 25 games during the regular campaign and were key in securing the Central Division title.
The stakes are a little higher tonight, though, and that's what makes this call his most important yet. And it's why, when he looks at the numbers, he'll likely go with Lehtonen
Ruff's 1A keeper wasn't particularly sharp in Game 2, allowing three goals on just five shots before being pulled at the end of 20 minutes. Lehtonen dodged the loss, but his numbers took a hit: He's now running with a 2.45 GAA and .906 save percentage. Not good, but somehow still better than Niemi who, despite being pretty sharp in relief, is now 1-2 with a 2.73 GAA and .892 save percentage.
Maybe more compelling: Lehtonen's postseason save percentage at five-on-five is .933. That's tied for 10th in the playoffs. Not great, but a far sight better than Niemi's .889.
Sometimes Lehtonen just needs a breather, a night where he can sit back, watch the game and try to get his head on straight. Maybe, in Ruff's mind, this is one of those times. But he also has faith in Lehtonen's ability to bounce back from a rough start, and his team's ability to rally around him in those games.
Ruff says he won't make his decision until "five minutes after warmups." We'll probably know sooner than that.
• The Blues wrested home ice away from the Stars with their OT win in Game 2, but will they do anything with it? Home hasn't always been kind to this team in the playoffs. St. Louis went 2-2 at Scottrade Center against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, dropping a pair of one-goal decisions in Games 2 and 5, and are just 9-9 at home in postseason play under coach Ken Hitchcock.
The Stars, meanwhile, took two of three at Xcel Energy Center in their first-round clash with the Minnesota Wild and have the offensive ability to score early and suck the wind out of a crowd.
The key to stopping them: More liberal use of the fourth line.
Ryan Reaves, Scottie Upshall and Kyle Brodziak made an impact in the early going of Game 2 with their heavy play along the walls. That'll be key tonight, not just in terms of establishing the physical game they want to play against the Stars, but also engaging and maintaining the energy of the crowd. Giving them a few more minutes could also mean livelier legs for the big guns in the third period. That seemed like an issue in Game 2 as Dallas took over when that fourth line was basically benched down the stretch. Look for it to play a larger role.
• David Backes and Paul Stastny were St. Louis's most obvious forwards in Game 2, but Alex Steen is the one to watch in Game 3. Steen, who missed a month of action toward the end of the season due to an upper-body injury, has just one goal and four points in the playoffs so far. But he's finally rounding back into form, starting with his top-notch defensive work. He blocked six shots Game 2 and was active on the Blues' perfect penalty kill. He also made a nice play to set up Backes for the game-winning goal in OT. Playing alongside Stastny and Troy Brouwer, he's likely to be used primarily in a defensive role to slow down the Jamie Benn line. But his ability to create on the counter-attack makes him a key player in this contest.
• We saw the best and worst of Vladimir Tarasenko in Game 2. A poor read allowed Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski to slide in from the point untouched and score the opening goal on Sunday afternoon. It was exactly the sort of lazy defensive response that led Hitchcock to limit Tarasenko's minutes against the Blackhawks.
But he made amends later in the game, drawing a penalty in OT by getting his legs moving and driving the puck down low on the attack. Later, he started the play that led to Backes' OT winner.
Still, he has yet to make a real impact in the series. He's been held off the scoresheet in both games and was –2 on Sunday. This, despite averaging better than 20 minutes TOI, much higher than during the Chicago series. The coach might revert to that pattern of careful usage tonight, taking advantage of last change to pick when and where to use Tarasenko rather than just throwing him over the boards and daring the Stars to slow him down as he did in Dallas.