A record-setting defence carried the St. Louis Blues to the Central Division title in a breakthrough season. When they can pair a potent power play with a stingy, tight-checking mentality they truly are tough to beat.
Patrik Berglund scored the first of visiting St. Louis' three man-advantage goals, and the Blues throttled the San Jose Sharks until the closing minutes of a 4-3 victory in Game 3 of their first-round series Monday night to take a 2-1 series lead.
"It was the power play. That's where we created some momentum," Berglund said. "It's really good the pucks were bouncing our way on the power play. We've been struggling a whole lot this whole year with the power play. We're coming up big with it now."
Jason Arnott and Alexander Steen also scored on the power play, and Andy McDonald had a goal and two assists as the Blues won their first post-season road game since 2003, snapping an eight-game skid. Brian Elliott made 26 saves in place of injured Jaroslav Halak to give St. Louis its second straight win following a double-overtime loss in Game 1.
Game 4 is Thursday in San Jose.
Brent Burns, Colin White and Logan Couture scored for the Sharks, who again struggled to find answers against St. Louis and lost for the sixth time in seven meetings this season. If San Jose doesn't find a way to penetrate St. Louis soon, the Sharks could exit in the first round after making it to the Western Conference finals the past two seasons.
"I thought we had better legs tonight than we did in Game 2, which was nice to see," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "We generated more in the offensive zone than we did in Game 2. The penalty kill has to get better and the power play has to polish up."
After going more than eight years between playoff victories, the second-seeded Blues have now put together back-to-back wins with the same formula that made them so successful in the regular season.
Elliott and Halak have been the backbone of a defence that allowed a record-low 155 goals in the regular season, and a balanced offensive attack takes advantage of whatever mistakes the opposition makes. Five players had at least two points apiece with McDonald recording two assists to go with his goal. Defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo helped out on three goals.
"We're a young team. We're growing up quick, though," coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I can't say enough about Game 2. It's given us new legs and a newfound confidence. We wrestled home ice back again, which is a good sign for us."
For the second straight game, the Blues took control in the second period. McDonald got them off to the fast start when Berglund deflected Colaiacovo's point shot off the post, and McDonald knocked the rebound into an open net just 1:01 in.
The Blues capitalized on an interference penalty by Douglas Murray midway through the period when McDonald threaded a cross-ice pass to Arnott, who beat Antti Niemi to give the stingy Blues a commanding two-goal lead.
The Sharks came up with a few good chances in the second but Elliott robbed his former college teammate at Wisconsin, Joe Pavelski, on one shot from the slot, and stopped everything else to keep it 3-1.
The frustration for San Jose became evident late in the period when Daniel Winnik took a boarding penalty against Colaiacovo, which proved crucial when Steen beat Niemi with a point shot on the power play in the opening minute of the third to make it 4-1.
"We have to stay out of the penalty box. That's it," captain Joe Thornton said. "Their power play was potent tonight and that is what cost us the game. We have to kill penalties better and stay out of the box."
Colin White scored with 3:02 remaining, and Logan Couture added a goal with 18.5 seconds left for the Sharks, but it proved to be too late for a comeback.
The boisterous, towel-waving crowd was energized from the start after Murray flattened T.J. Oshie with a check just after the opening faceoff.
But there was little for the home crowd to cheer after that as the Blues made it difficult for the Sharks to come out of their own end and controlled much of the play.
With Tommy Wingels off for high-sticking Alex Pietrangelo in the offensive zone, Berglund beat the defence to a puck that hit off the post and was sitting in the crease, knocking it in for his third goal of the series.
"The big thing for us is we got the first goal and took the crowd out of it and eased our way into the game," Colaiacovo said. "We really limited their chances. They came out hard, they came out hitting. It was nothing we didn't expect. As a group we did a great job of handling it and weathering the storm and found a way to win."
The Sharks answered on the power play a few minutes later when Kris Russell mishandled Thornton's dump-in with his glove, setting up Burns' pretty backhanded goal that was his first career playoff tally.