Monday May 16th, 2016

Get all of Allan Muir’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

Blues forward Jori Lehtera took advantage of a Brent Burns turnover and rifled a shot under the arm of Martin Jones midway through the second period to lead St. Louis to a 2–1 win over the San Jose Sharks in the opener of the NHL’s Western Conference final Sunday night.

Brian Elliott was sensational between the pipes for the Blues, making 31 saves. He robbed former Wisconsin Badgers teammate Joe Pavelski twice, including a spectacular toe save in the second and a slick glove stop as the Sharks pressed for the equalizer with the extra attacker.

"You know, he's obviously a good player, the guy that leads their team," Elliott said of Pavelski. "It's really nothing more than just trying to stop every puck. It's not who is shooting it that really matters. It's just trying to get in the way."

NHL
NHL Playoffs: Analytics predict Sharks-Blues West final

The Blues opened the scoring at 15:04 of the first. Jaden Schwartz stole the puck on an attempted zone exit and set a play in motion that ended with David Backes deflecting a Kevin Shattenkirk snapper on the power play.

Just 34 seconds later, the Sharks responded. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock matched the Backes line against the Joe Thornton line all night, but had them on the bench after the goal. San Jose took advantage of the opportunity when Brent Burns wired one from the point that was deflected out front by Tomas Hertl.

St. Louis had an apparent goal by Patrik Berglund goal waved off in the first when it was ruled that the Blues forward made incidental contact with Jones on the play, preventing him from making the stop.

The Blues caught a break of their own with 1:14 left in the second when a quick whistle negated an apparent tying goal for the Sharks. Elliott failed to control a Melker Karlsson shot, but officials lost sight of the puck and blew the play dead just before keeper kicked it into his own net.

With the win, the Blues take a 1–0 series lead. Game 2 is set for Tuesday night in St. Louis.

Turning Point

Burns was exiting the Sharks zone under no pressure midway through the second when he put the puck directly on the stick of Lehtera. Sharks forward Chris Tierney picked up the check, marking Lehtera as he entered the San Jose end and allowing Burns to retreat to the slot. But when Lehtera released his shot from the left circle, Burns stepped out of the way rather than attempt to block it.

NHL
Pierre McGuire's road goes on forever

The goal itself is on Jones. Lehtera got a lot on it, but it’s one the rookie has to stop. But Burns, having coughed it up, has to make amends by getting a piece of it before it ever gets to Jones.

Burns is about the farthest thing you’ll see from a structured player, and there are nights when the risk in his game will outweigh the reward. This was one of those nights, and it cost the Sharks.

Gotta See It

Face washes have always been a part of hockey, but beard pulling? This is a new one:

No, sorry, this is it:

What It Means

We all wanted to see how St. Louis’s penalty kill would hold up against San Jose’s devastating power play. It ended up being the difference tonight.

NHL
Brent Burns of the Sharks is lucky, charmed ... and good

The Blues were the NHL’s third-most penalized team during the regular season and are averaging nearly 12 minutes a night in the box the playoffs. They cut that in half in Game 1, which is a good start when going up against the deadliest power play in the postseason (31%, coming into the WCF).

St. Louis was rock steady when it went a man down, negating all three of San Jose chances with an aggressive kill that allowed the Sharks zone time, but took away the passing lanes and kept them from any real quality chances. They also scored on one of their two chances on the power play, giving them the edge they needed in this one.

And they got some terrific work from Elliott. The Blues were outplayed in each of the three periods, spending most of the second and the second half of the third on their heels.

"He was really good in the second period when we needed him," Hitchcock said. "That's what happens. You're going to need him sometimes. I thought he made big saves in the second and helped us."

He did more than help. He stole this win for them. They owe him a better effort in Game 2.

The result aside, there was a lot for the the Sharks to like in Game 1. They controlled the bulk of the play. They generated more high-quality scoring chances (9–4, by my count). And maybe most important, the Thornton line was dominant despite the tight checking of the Backes unit. Both Thornton and Pavelski were +15 in shot attempts and Hertl was +13. They’d like to see a couple of those chances in the back of the net the next time, but they’ll take their chances if that’s the way this match-up plays out.

Highlights 

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.