The San Jose Sharks will play Game 6 without Erik Karlsson and Tomas Hertl. Joe Pavelski is a game-time decision. That’s the lede.
But what will bury the Sharks, as they try to dig out of a 3-2 series hole, are their struggles with breaking out the puck against the St. Louis Blues.
“We haven’t played in their end enough,” Logan Couture said. “We’ve had to break out the puck, we’ve had a tough time doing that at times.”
“We threw some tough passes up to the wingers, they were bouncing to their D-men. We need to make cleaner plays, help the forwards out,” Justin Braun acknowledged.
Four times on this nightmare shift in Game 5, Braun (61) or Marc-Edouard Vlasic were rebuffed on their attempts up the wall to a winger. Credit the Blues’ five-man forecheck.
At center ice, Joel Edmundson stood up Joonas Donskoi (27) (0:02). At the right point, Alex Pietrangelo (27) stopped Micheal Haley (18) (0:09). Brayden Schenn (10) picked off a Braun hope pass (0:12).
“They got a good forecheck, they got good sticks. They’re knocking pucks down,” Braun noted. “But we still have to make those plays.”
So you can’t go up the wall? Go up the middle, right?
Pietrangelo stepped in to middle on a Donskoi attempt (0:26).
“It’s just all forecheck,” Pietrangelo said. “Our forwards are getting in. [The Sharks] want to make plays. If we’re tight as D, and our forwards are tight on their D-men, it’s tough to make a play up the wall because everyone’s so tight and we always have someone up the middle.”
Vlasic tried the wall again, but Parayko was on top of Donskoi (1:00). St. Louis was able to change defensemen on this shift!
The Blues were everywhere in a Game 5 second period where they outshot the Sharks 20-6.
Even when St. Louis couldn’t get their five-man forecheck set in the offensive zone, they stayed on top of San Jose’s forwards in the neutral zone.
Evander Kane (9) tried to hit Joe Pavelski (8) for some dump-and-chase. Pietrangelo is on top of Pavelski, preventing Pavelski from picking up speed to chase the puck. Hertl (48) is too far behind to help out.
This is a common breakout play: Stretch pass to an up-ice forward, who’s supposed to chip the puck in for another forward to chase.
But time after time, the Blues were on top of this up-ice forward, while the supporting forward didn’t help enough.
For example, Parayko wouldn’t cede inside position to Kane on this chip and chase.
So what are the Sharks to do?
It’s not as easy as avoiding the wall. As Pietrangelo noted, they’re watching the middle closely as well.
But you want to see more of this in Game 6 if you’re San Jose:
It starts with outnumbering St. Louis down low:
Melker Karlsson (68) threw it up the wall to Kevin Labanc (62). This drew the high forward (David Perron, 57) away from the speed coming up the middle (Joakim Ryan, 47).
With more time and space, Ryan was able to skate it out with ease. But it wasn’t just as simple as give it to Ryan, watch him go. Karlsson and Braun drew in two St. Louis forecheckers. Critically, Labanc’s presence moved Perron away from Ryan, otherwise Perron could’ve stayed tighter on Ryan.
The exiting Ryan handed it off to Joe Thornton (19), who delivered a soft, perfectly-placed corner dump-in that Jordan Binnington couldn’t reach. An activating Ryan blew through Perron’s attempt to obstruct his forechecking route.
Ryan touched the puck first, Thornton and Labanc helping out. This resulted in a rare second period scoring chance.
San Jose had some success coming out of their zone with Ryan and even a hampered Erik Karlsson in Game 5. Hopefully, Karlsson’s replacement, Tim Heed, can bring some of that tonight.
It's not just speed from the backend: The Sharks forwards will need to bring the same, even if the first forward is denied.
Brenden Dillon (4) goes up the wall to Kane, who’s predictably met by Parayko. But San Jose has another source of speed here besides Kane: Hertl gets the hand-off from Kane and gains the zone in stride.
Hertl deceived Oskar Sundqvist (70), who over-committed to getting inside on Hertl’s forehand. Kane rang the post.
The Blues are going to bite hard on passes to the Sharks’ first forward up the ice, meaning the second forward has to be there to support.
Even without Karlsson, Hertl and Pavelski, San Jose can play this winning brand of hockey.
It sounds like an easy-enough breakout plan — activate the defense, speed from your forwards on entry — but as they say, if it were easy, they’d already be doing it.
But just a little more success in these areas is all San Jose needs to send it back to SAP Center for Game 7.