By Lou Korac
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Blues always maintain that if they play their style of game, they are very confident they can beat anyone.
Ask the San Jose Sharks how the second period went on Sunday … in their barn.
The Blues forechecked, frustrated, hit, smothered, covered and hovered the Sharks to death and used it as a springboard to a 5-0 win in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at SAP Center.
The Blues, who lead the best-of-7 series 3-2, go into game 6 on Tuesday night at Enterprise Center with a chance to clinch their first berth in the Stanley Cup Final since 1970 and first on home ice since a 2-1 double-overtime win in 1968 over the Minnesota North Stars on Ron Schock’s goal.
Jaden Schwartz highlighted a dominating performance with his second hat trick of these playoffs, Vladimir Tarasenko had a goal and two assists, including the first penalty shot goal in franchise playoff history, and Jordan Binnington stopped all 21 shots for his first playoff shutout.
Dominating? Well, interim coach Craig Berube?
“I don’t know how dominating it was. I mean … first period, we got a break there, they hit the post,” Berube said. “That happens, but I thought that we had real good energy and focus in the game. I thought that everybody was pretty dialed in to doing things right and getting to our game as quickly as possible on the forecheck. That’s when we are at our best. Second period, did a real good job of it in the neutral zone both ways. I thought that we moved the puck really well, got it in, got on top of them and then defended the neutral zone really well.”
San Jose came out quickly and almost scored on the first shift of the game when Evander Kane had a chance from the left circle, but his effort hit the right goal post 12 seconds in, and from then on, it was all Blues.
And now they have a chance to do something not done since the third season in franchise history and they have a city buzzing in anticipation for the first time in decades.
“It’s probably tough to put into words,” said Schwartz, who’s 12 playoff goals in 18 games are more than the 11 he had in 69 regular-season games. “Obviously it’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream-come-true. That’s really all I can say.”
“I think every player dream of playing in Stanley Cup Final,” Tarasenko said. “We’re not there yet, we know next game will be really big game. If you check what kind of support we have when we play on the road, and even in Enterprise Center, it says what expectations are. It’ll be our best game next game.”
The Blues improved to 11-7 in the playoffs and established a franchise record for most wins in a postseason, eclipsing the previous high of 10 set in 1986 (10-9) and matched in 2016 (10-10), and they did so by playing the connected team game that drives their puck possession, forecheck and opportunities.
Once the Blues got through the first period with a 1-0 lead despite being outshot 11-4, they outshot San Jose 36-10 the rest of the way.
“We were feeling good,” Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson said. “There was good communication on the ice. I thought everyone had a good game. ‘Binner’ stopped every puck he could. We tried to make it easy on him. We’re happy with our effort tonight but we’re looking forward to Game 6.”
Oskar Sundqvist scored his fourth of the playoffs, being opportunistic after Erik Karlsson turned the puck over on a clear off the boards that went through the legs of partner Brenden Dillon. Sundqvist picked the puck off in the offensive zone and stepped into a one-timer that beat Martin Jones short side past a screening Karlsson at 5:50 to give the Blues a 1-0 lead.
The second period, it was all Blues.
“We played a great team game tonight,” Binnington said. “Their team went hard hardly and I think we weathered the storm there and just got to our game and never looked back. That was a great team win.
Schwartz scored at 3:05, getting a fortuitous bounce after Tarasenko’s shot was partially blocked by Kane, and Jones swooped the puck off to the side, but unfortunately for him, it was right to Schwartz, who put it into an empty net to make it 2-0.
And then Tarasenko, for all intents and purposes, put the game away at 6:53 of the second by sniping a wrister high glove side on Jones, the first penalty shot goal in Blues history and first attempt since Jimmy Roberts in 1968. He was awarded one when Brent Burns took Tarasenko down after Ivan Barbashev’s nifty redirection in stride.
“I don’t really know what turning point is, but we play last home game and we don’t play well in the second period, so we pay a lot of attention to keep our game and raise our game level to the game,” Tarasenko said. “Don’t sleep and give them easy chances. I think what we do pretty well today, I don’t think you can pick one goal. It’s just a solid team win.”
The Blues held a 20-6 shots advantage in the second, and it continued in the third at 16-4 when the Sharks were decimated with bodies.
They lost Karlsson after the second period with what has been a lingering injury that goes back to the regular season when he missed 27 of the final 33 games, then Tomas Hertl, who collided with Barbashev near center ice midway through the first period, and captain Joe Pavelski played less than a minute in the third but left after getting popped by fellow captain Alex Pietrangelo. Joonas Donskoi left after being hit by a teammate’s errant shot but returned.
“I saw the Hertl hit. Just watched the replay. Yeah, that’s a tough one,” Sharks center Logan Couture said. “But they had one in Game 3 on [Justin] Braun and nothing happened, so they can do it again, right?”
“You don’t want to make excuses, but some pretty key guys that are going down, some offensive guys that when you’re playing from behind like that it’s tough to push the pace,” Dillon said. “We had a couple chances on the power play to kind of get some traction and some looks, but I think at the end of the day we need to kind of ramp up our level instead of go the other way.”
And the Sharks’ frustration level ramped up, and they took six minors, and one set led to a two-man advantage, and Schwartz scored at 2:19 to make it 4-0. He completed the hat trick at 16:02 on a one-timer from the side of the net after a pinpoint pass by Tarasenko.
“That’s something you don’t really think about before the game,” Schwartz said. “You’re just kind of preparing the way you usually do and get focused for the game and help the team. Sometimes you get some bounces your way and you never score a goal by yourself. You need your linemates, your D, Binner to make big saves, timely saves. We’ve been a team where depth’s got us here and different guys step up every night. Tonight was no different.”
With 12,000 fans jammed into Enterprise Center for the watch party that left dozens of hats on the ice when Schwartz scored, and just imagine what 14th and Clark will be like come Tuesday night.
“That’s awesome,” said Schwartz, whose 11 road points (seven goals, four assists) are the most in the NHL. “Obviously everyone’s excited this time of the year. Our fans are pumped. They had a watch party tonight, but everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game. They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”
Photo courtesy of St. Louis Blues