The first line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Logan Couture was phenomenal tonight. Niemi stopped everything he could see. And the Sharks turned in what was probably their best overall effort of the series when it came down to possession time at 5v5.
But once again it was the St. Louis Blues who walked away the victors, taking a 3-1 series lead back to St. Louis for what will officially be a must-win early in the first round.
Brian Elliot made 24 saves in the victory while BJ Crombeen and Andy McDonald added tallies for the Blues. Joe Thornton made things interesting late in the game when he sent a nice wrister past Elliot with 1:07 left on the clock, well deserved considering the tremendous effort from him and his linemates, but for the second straight game it wasn't enough.
The Blues came out of the gate hard but San Jose received the first Grade A scoring chance of the night when Brent Burns found a streaking Logan Couture with a beautiful breakout pass out of his own zone. It sprung Logan Couture all alone with speed, but Couture's deke and backhand attempt was answered by Brian Elliot with equal aplomb.
The Sharks couldn't find a way to clear their zone a couple shifts later however, leading to a goal against and yet another first period deficit. About five San Jose Sharks were unable to clear the zone with any gusto in back to back shifts, leading to a slam dunk chance in the low slot. BJ Crombeen snapped one past Niemi to make it 1-0 St. Louis as Patrik Berglund and David Perron picked up assists on the play
San Jose answered in pace but not on the scoreboard when Kevin Shattenkirk went to the box for holding-- San Jose's power play generated some solid chances off shots from Logan Couture and the ensuing rebound opportunity from Pavelski, but nothing came of it when Elliot made a nice set of back to back stops.
The first line looked solid in the first period, generating four of the Sharks seven shots on net (Couture 3, Pavelski 1), but San Jose entered the first intermission with a 1-0 deficit.
A high-sticking penalty assessed to Scott Nichol led to the Sharks second straight power play of the night and for the second straight time they looked solid with the man advantage. That crisp puck movement led to an excellent chance at the midway point. Joe Thornton put one on the tape of Pavelski as he cut into the slot but the ensuing opportunity was squashed by Elliot.
After St. Louis hit the post on the power play (whew!) both teams traded power play opportunities. The Sharks strong puck movement and ability to get to the front of the net to pounce on rebound opportunities was readily apparent but the end result was growing familiar-- despite an open net looming, yet another top-notch Pavelski PP scoring chance somehow found a way to defiantly stay out of the net.
Martin Havlat's slash towards the tail end of the man advantage led to some 4v4, which in turn led a Blues power play, which in turn led to a feeling of dread, which in turn led to a successful kill.
Pins and needles baby.
San Jose was strong throughout the second period. However, despite all the offensive zone time amassed, they carried a mere 16 shots into the third period. Credit St. Louis for getting into shooting lanes high in the zone-- they held San Jose's blueline without a single shot through two periods and forced the Sharks to work the puck down low where battles along the boards were in heavy supply.
The third period was much of the same for San Jose. Extended puck possession, some good looks at the net, but either a Blues defenseman or Elliot managed to keep it from finding twine.
Things got bleak when a Blues shot hit some bodies on the way to the net, flew about ten feet in the air, and landed right on the crease. It was a slam dunk chance for Andy McDonald who punched it home, giving the Blues a 2-0 lead with eight minutes left to go and yet another power play tally.
And just like game three, that late power play goal against proved to be the difference.
San Jose made things interesting late for the second straight game when Joe Thornton sent a nice wrist shot past Elliot's blocker to pull San Jose within one with just over a minute left to play, but St. Louis managed to keep the Sharks from doing anything of note for the rest of the tilt.
It was certainly a frustrating game, but we can't emphasize enough just how excellent the top line was for San Jose. Joe Pavelski (4 shots), Logan Couture (5 shots), and Joe Thornton (3 shots) amassed nearly half of the team's shots on net tonight, doing so with excellent puck possession and work down low. They had the best game out of anyone in a white or black jersey tonight, and that type of play is an encouraging sign to see from a series that could very easily be over if Niemi hadn't stolen game one.
But despite the top line's performance, it's clear hockey is a team game. With so many players failing to register much of anything in the way of scoring chances or zone possession, and the Sharks defenseman held shotless through two periods (they finished with four), there's only so much the top line can do.
You can't give enough credit for St. Louis. They're proved their worth, been the better team up and down the lineup, and ensured that their regular season dominance of the NHL was not just a flash in the pan. This team is one that looks like it has the opportunity to go deeper than anyone this postseason, especially if Andy McDonald continues to play the way he has.
Game five lies on the horizon. Many cited the Sharks experience as their primary strength coming into this series. It's clear that has not been fully put to the test just yet.
Time to see what that experience is made of.