It would be extremely tough to find two more radically different games than the ones played by the St. Louis Blues in Games 3 and 4 of their NHL Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild.
Thoroughly dominated at both ends of the ice Monday in a 3-0 loss to the Wild in Game 3, the Blues did some soul-searching and readied themselves for Game 4. The result was a thoroughly dominant 6-1 win over the Wild that evened the best-of-seven series 2-2 and showed that the Blues indeed had another level of hockey at their disposal.
The team scoring first has been the winner in each of the first four games of the series. On Wednesday, the Blues got an early goal from Ryan Reaves and seemed to feed off the momentum.
They attacked the Wild with quick puck movement, aggressive play and kept building on the the lead until Minnesota goaltender Devan Dubnyk had been chased from the game late in the second period after allowing a season-high six goals on 17 shots.
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“That’s the big question,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “Can we continue to do the stuff at that pace, because we’re going to have to to win the series. We’ve got home-ice back, we’ve got to take advantage of it. Tomorrow’s a big game for us, so we need to find a way to get that same type of energy and that discipline that we play with.
“When we play that type of game we’re very successful. We need to get that back right away.”
With the threat of falling behind 3-1 in the series, the Blues were suddenly able to block out all outside influences. They galvanized that intense focus into arguably their best playoff game in years.
“I think we have to realize that desperation is kind of what forced us to play our best game,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “We have to kind of keep that in our minds and try to keep that desperation and find it in different games.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo did not spend an extra second worrying about how bad the score looked.
“Just move on,” Yeo said. “Obviously it’s frustrating, but I don’t know that it would be any more frustrating or disappointing if we had lost in triple OT. The feelings are the same when you lose a game, and the result is the same.
“It’s just how you bounce back.”
The Blues said they used the day between games in meetings between themselves and the coaching staff. Whatever was said resulted in a much better effort a day later.
Hitchcock also employed familiar lines the team had used for much of the season, including David Backes centering Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, Jori Lehtera between Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko and Paul Stastny centering Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrk Berglund.
“Everyone was trying to get back on the same page, everyone you could tell was all-in,” said Blues rookie goalie Jake Allen, whose 1.51 goals-against average ranks third among playoff goaltenders. “All-in to get to that point of the game we can play. We’ve shown all year we can play that way. When everyone’s on that one page and everyone has that mindset, I think the game comes to you.”
Apparently, the frustrations of the 3-0 loss were more than enough motivation to spur an improved effort in Game 4.
“I could tell after the (third) game guys were not happy with their performance,” Allen said. “It was unacceptable, I think, from our standpoint and we had a lot to prove and a lot of ground to make up. I could tell right after the game, the reaction from some of the guys, the second game was going to be a lot better.”
After scoring only 11 goals combined during a nine-game playoff losing streak on the road, the Blues erupted for six goals. It was the most goals by the Blues in a playoff game since a 6-0 road win over Vancouver on April 10, 2003.
“That’s a forgettable one,” Dubnyk said. “It’s not the first time I’ve given up six goals and probably not the last. I know how to handle it. we’re in the same situation we would be in if we lost 1-0 in triple overtime.”
Hitchcock said the priority for the Blues is understanding what they are capable of when the team attacks as a five-man unit.
“Our focus right now is internal,” he said. “I really don’t care what (the Wild) do. I don’t care how they play, it’s all about us. Our focus (after Game 3) became very internal and we had success because we had a real group focus. That’s what you’re trying to captivate every night and if we do that again, .... we have a certain style and it’s different than what they play.
“We needed to see our style.”