The key to the St. Louis Blues' 2-1 lead in their NHL Western Conference playoff series with the San Jose Sharks came last Thursday in a crucial mistake that led to their only loss.
With 7:28 left in the third period, the Blues' power play, which has been the big difference in this series, struck to give them a 2-1 lead. The Blues then went into lockdown mode, the style introduced by head coach Ken Hitchcock when he took over the foundering team early in the season. It is classic Hitchcock, the smothering defensive game he's preached over 15 seasons as an NHL head coach, one which brought him the 1999 Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars.
It is not an easy way to play the game. It requires discipline, committing yourself to the team rather than a flashier, more offensive route to success. It isn't much fun to watch, either, as the team keeps four players back at all times, forming a barrier around the goaltender. Offensive forays are more to clear the puck down the ice rather than to score goals.
But if the players buy in, it works. This is often a tough sell and Hitchcock is known as a demanding, difficult coach. However, he came along at the right time to make his pitch. The Blues were an offensive-minded, rather soft group at the start of the season and under head coach Davis Payne they stumbled to a 6-7 start.
The Blues could not afford a third consecutive finish out of the playoffs. Their attendance was in decline and the rebuilding plan under president John Davidson and general manager Doug Armstrong needed to produce results. Enter Hitchcock, who found a group of players willing to try anything to find success.
It wasn't long before the Blues developed a tight defensive game in front of a goaltender rotation of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Halak was still looking to recapture the form that made him the hero of the 2010 playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens. Elliott was simply looking for another chance after washing out with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.
The goaltenders did not have to be outstanding, just competent enough to stop the relatively few pucks that made it through the defence. In front of them, the defencemen and the forwards formed a horseshoe-shaped wall, repelling opposing forwards from the front of the net.
Success was almost immediate and as the wins mounted, so did the confidence of the goaltenders and the rest of the team. The Blues wound up contending for first place overall most of the season. Halak and Elliott combined to win the Jennings Trophy for the fewest goals allowed during the season. And Hitchcock is a lock for coach-of-the-year in a year when a lot of coaches did remarkable jobs. But none quite as remarkable as his 43-15-11 record.
But back to the final minutes of the third period last Thursday. As they did so many times during the regular season, the Blues tightened up their defence once they took the lead.
The Sharks desperately tried to mount some offence, only to be turned back at the St. Louis blue line or not much further. But, as noted earlier, playing this way requires a lot of patience and resolve on the part of the Blues.
When defenceman Roman Polak forgot that and bolted from his position to force the play, the Blues paid the price. Sharks forward Tommy Wingels carried the puck down the left side, along the boards and into the Blues zone with Polak backing into position to Halak's right.
An important part of Hitchcock's system is winning the one-on-one battles for the puck. But players have to know when to engage.
As Wingels came over the blue line, Polak could not resist. He bolted from his position in the slot and charged toward Wingels, who was at the boards, less than halfway into the offensive zone. Polak lost the battle when Wingels managed to get past him with the puck and continue along the boards and behind the net.
This left Polak out of position with Sharks forward Andrew Desjardins headed to the front of the net. The Blues defensive breakdown continued when the forward who stepped in for Polak in the slot failed to tie up Desjardins' stick. This left him free to take a pass from Wingels and tie the score. The lesson was completed when Martin Havlat scored in double overtime to give the Sharks a 3-2 win and tie the series.
When the Blues took a 4-1 lead in Game 3 on Monday night, thanks to a power play that went from middling to superior in the playoffs, there were no more defensive mistakes. The Blues clamped down on the Sharks in the third period. Even though San Jose scored twice to make the score respectable they were never a threat. The Sharks' final goal came with the goaltender pulled for an extra skater and was a last gasp with 17 seconds left on the clock.
This series may still go six games but if the Blues maintain their defensive wall it will be the difference.