NHL playoffs: Blues vs. Sharks Game 3 points to ponder
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock hinted at roster changes ahead of Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday night in San Jose (9:00 pm ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).
“I think changing your lineup has a real impact,” he said. “You have to do what's best for your team. One of the greatest things we've had going through [a series of regular-season] injuries is flexibility. That's really helped us in the playoffs.
“You put the numbers up on the board and guys haven't gotten all shook up because they're on different lines because they've played on those lines before. We've made adjustments all playoffs and every one of them has worked. We're probably going to have to make a few more [Thursday] and hopefully they work.”
It's a good bet that one of those changes affects the fourth line. Steve Ott took brought some energy in Game 2, but also took an undisciplined penalty that clearly angered the coaching staff. Ryan Reaves has alternated with Ott in that spot, but his physical presence isn't necessarily what this team needs. It makes more sense to add Dmitrij Jaskin. The rookie brings size, but also net presence and scoring touch. He could also go back to Robert Bortuzzo on defense.
It's also possible that Hitchcock will shake up some of his lines. Robby Fabbri has shown some versatility and can be a pick-me-up on any line. A little shuffling, at least to start, might go a long way toward breaking the Blues out of the lethargy that doomed them in Tuesday's 4–0 loss.
UPDATE: Going by today's practice, it looks like Bortuzzo is in, replacing Joel Edmundsson. He'll likely skate on the second pair, which forces Kevin Shattenkirk to move over to left D. It also appears that Magnus Paajarvi will make his NHL playoff debut in place of Ott. An interesting choice (alright, inexplicable is more accurate) that might be predicated on the need for more speed. Or maybe just Hitch's way of shaking up the room.
"I've never played playoffs, so that would be cool if that would happen," Paajarvi said. "I would not think too much. I would try to keep it as simple as I can, if I get in and give them hell."
Here are a few other talking points ahead of tonight's contest:
• Job 1 for the Blues: Stay out of the box. St. Louis will not win this series if it continues to take penalties the way it did in Game 2.
Both teams took five minors in that one, but timing and motivation made those taken by St. Louis seem much worse. So did the fact that San Jose capitalized twice on the power play.
It's in this team's DNA to try to intimidate opponents, but that's not going to work Sharks. The Blues are not going to get under their skin and goad them into retaliation. Physical is good, but physical and smart is better. That's the line the Blues have to toe in this one.
• Does home ice matter? The Sharks were grim death at SAP during the regular season, going 18-20-3, the worst record of any team to make the playoffs. They've turned that around though, winning their five at home, including a pair of lopsided victories over the Predators in Games 5 and 7 of their second-round series.
Hard to pinpoint a reason why things have gone their way. Coach Pete DeBoer is hardly an obsessive line-matcher, so it's not like he's working last change to his advantage. And while the building can get loud, it's not exactly an intimidating environment. Still, the Sharks are comfortable coming home for Game 3 ... but not too comfortable, especially given how well the Blues have played on the road.
“Well, they're 5-1 on the road, we're 5-1 at home,” said Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “In the playoffs, you need to win at home and on the road. I mean, we're coming back home, we feel confident, so that's a good thing.”
• This series won't make it back to San Jose if Hitchcock can't figure out how to slow down the Sharks top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl.
Alex Steen, David Backes and Patrick Berglund were an effective counter to Patrick Kane and Jamie Benn through the first two rounds, but they're getting dummied by Thornton and friends. To be fair, they've held the line to just one goal at even strength in the series, but the Sharks trio has camped out in St. Louis's end in each of the first two games. They're just as big as the Blues' checkers, but they're faster and more skilled. And going by the first two games, they're hungrier. That's allowed them to dominate the boards and moving the puck quickly, setting up repeat scoring chances down low. If not for the strong play of goaltender Brian Elliott in the opener, the Sharks might be eyeing a sweep.
Hitchcock won't have last change in San Jose, which means he won't necessarily get the match-ups he wants. That might not be a bad thing. Giving one of his first two lines a chance to go up against Thornton occasionally might buy them a bit more time on the attack ... or at least, it might help them cut back on all the time they're spending chasing the puck around their own end.
• Of course, everything changes if Thornton is less than 100%. That's a possibility after he was slashed in the hand late in Game 2. "He looked fine today walking around," said DeBoer, which would be a lot more reassuring to Sharks fans if Thornton had a problem with his leg.
We'll have to wait and see if he shows any ill effects. His hands feed the wolf, so this bears watching.
• The Blues desperately need something out of Vladimir Tarasenko in this one. The superstar winger landed six shots on net in Game 2, but only two came at even strength, and one came from the neutral zone. Credit to Vlasic and Justin Braun, who've teamed to effectively bottle up that top line before it gains the San Jose line, but Tarasenko is a special player. He has the size, and more important, the speed, to create space for himself. There has to be a bit less "settle" in his game.
He's not alone, of course. As a team, the Blues were held to 23 shots in Game 1 and 26 in Game 2. That suggests they need more from all of their top players. But Tarasenko is their game breaker. Time to break one.