With one win separating his team from its first-ever Stanley Cup Final berth, San Jose Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has a simple message for his troops ahead of Game 6: Finish off the St. Louis Blues tonight.
"We worked hard for the opportunity," DeBoer said of this chance to close out the Blues at home. "We want to make sure we take advantage of it. "
The Sharks are coming off an impressive win in Game 5 that afforded them a 3-2 series lead. The forecheck was going. The power play was clicking. And when they needed it most, they got some timely goaltending.
It's a blueprint they hope to follow again.
"These guys are experienced guys," DeBoer said. "They've had all kinds of experiences over the years here, despite not getting to a Stanley Cup. They know. They know to stay in the moment. They're a battle-hardened group."
The Blues are experienced, too. And they've picked up a few important lessons in a pair of seven-game series on the way to the Western Conference Finals.
"What we've learned over time is that the game is a two-and-a-half-hour game, it's 60 minutes, it's a long evening," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "If we play it like a long evening, good things are going to happen. It took us 53 minutes to get Chicago to crack [in Game 7 of the first round]. I said this last night. If we extend this game as a one-goal game either way long into the night, I like our chances. But you don't want to get cranked up too early and then start giving up a bunch of scoring chances or trading chances because it usually doesn't work for the visiting team."
Here are a few points to ponder ahead of Game 6:
• With their season on the line, the Blues are making a change in net. Hitchcock announced on Tuesday that Brian Elliott would start in place of Jake Allen.
“We got the jolt we needed from Jake,” Hitchcock told reporters, which is a very polite way of saying that he doesn't trust Allen in a must-win game. That's the right call. The youngster split his two starts, but posted an .881 save percentage and never seemed comfortable.
Elliott has shown he can rise to the occasion. He's already won a pair of Game 7s against the Blackhawks and Stars and has the trust of his teammates.
Now he just needs them to provide him with a couple goals of support. The Blues were blanked in his past two losses.
And if St. Louis extends this to Game 7, or beyond? The net belongs to Elliott the rest of the way.
“These are Brian's playoffs,” Hitchcock said. “We'd like to see him finish the job. I think he's going to be great.”
• While it's Elliott-or-bust for the Blues, you have to wonder how long a leash Martin Jones will be on tonight.
The Sharks netminder is coming off a pair of sub-par performances. He was yanked midway through Game 4 after allowing four goals on just 19 shots, then coughed up three on the first 13 shots he faced in Game 5. That's a .781 save percentage over a very important stretch of hockey.
To his credit, he shut the door the rest of the way, buying time for his teammates to tear into Allen at the other end of the ice. That perseverance counts for something. But he can't allow the Blues to get off to that kind of start again.
• What's left to say about Vladimir Tarasenko? St. Louis's leading scorer during the regular season with 40 goals and 74 points has zero in this series. He's been checked into the ground by defnsemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun
“What happens with goal scorers when they get frustrated is they look to hit home runs,” Hitchcock said. “We need him to just act like a worker. I know that’s a funny thing to say, but he’s looking for the home run. You can’t look for home runs. They’re not there. You just got to stay with the program and trust your work.
“They feel that anxiety to try to score and help the team, but instead of getting further away from the puck [the key is to] get closer to the puck."
In other words, instead of looking for the big moment, Tarasenko needs to create the smaller one. He doesn't need to look far for inspiration. Linemate Jaden Schwartz has had his ups and downs in the series, but what he's done well is pay attention to the details. He's hard on pucks, he fights through the traffic and he gets to the scoring areas.
Schwartz finally scored his first goal of this round in Game 5, pouncing on a rebound and throwing it quickly on net. Far from a thing of beauty, but a just reward for an honest effort.
Tarasenko is too good a player to be this ineffective this long. If he adapts his approach, he'll break through tonight.
• If you're looking for an unlikely hero tonight, keep an eye on Chris Tierney. The Sharks forward is playing some of the best hockey of his career, counting four goals in his past seven games, including one each in Games 4 and 5. Not bad for a guy who scored just seven in 79 games during the regular season.
It's not just a matter of his hands warming up at the right time, though. It's the way he's elevated his defensive game that's led to so many Grade-A scoring opportunities. He's been tenacious on the puck, creating turnovers and getting the play moving the right direction the counter attack. His line is consistently out-possessing the opposition, too, giving the Sharks a real edge in the battle of the depth lines.
• Both teams were reminded in Game 5 how quickly a lapse in discipline can turn into a goal against. Blues backliner Kevin Shattenkirk lost his cool against Tommy Wingels and was cooling his heels in the box when Joel Ward tied the score at two. Later in the second, a Roman Polak meltdown led to Robby Fabbri's go-ahead goal. The team that does the best job of turning the other cheek in this one might gain the edge it needs.