The problem for the St. Louis Blues isn’t just goaltending.
It isn’t just a lack of scoring from Vladimir Tarasenko or the inability to control San Jose’s top line and power play at critical times in the Western Conference Final.
What the Blues have lacked is consistency and attention to detail in a variety of areas and that’s the main reason why they are on the brink of elimination.
Their choices are to find a way to win Game 6 at 8 p.m. Wednesday in San Jose or wonder why their season ended so close to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock announced Tuesday that Brian Elliott will return as the starting goaltender for Game 6 after Jake Allen went 1-1 in the previous two games against the Sharks.
Elliott was in goal for all 14 games in the Blues’ first two playoff victories over Chicago and Dallas, then started the first three games against San Jose before Hitchcock went with Allen in Games 4 and 5.
Allen relieved Elliott in Game 3 in San Jose after Elliott surrendered three goals on 14 shots. Allen was in net for the Blues’ 6-3 win in Game 4, but then gave up four goals on 25 shots Monday in a 6-3 defeat in Game 5.
Elliott is 9-8 in the playoffs with a 2.34 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
“We needed the jolt from Jake,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday before leaving for San Jose. “We got it to get back in the series. Unfortunately we didn’t get the win yesterday, but this has been Brian’s playoffs and we’d like him to finish the job.”
The Blues are 2-0 in elimination games this spring, but both of those were in Game 7 victories over the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars.
This one comes a game earlier, with the Blues hoping to get things back to Scottrade Center on Friday for a decisive Game 7.
“When we face an elimination game, our best game seems to come out and that shouldn’t be different coming in to Game 6,” Blues captain David Backes said after Monday’s game. “We get it back here for Game 7, all bets are off. But we have to work our butts off and bring our best game of the series in the next one just like we’ve said every game. We’re going to park (the Game 5 loss) and move on and have our best outing in the next one.”
Blues forward Alexander Steen believes the desperation might make the Blues even better.
“Elimination games are elimination games,” Steen said. “I liked the way we played in the two previous ones, simplified. A lot of desperation. And that’s what we’ll need tomorrow.”
When dissecting the lack of production from Tarasenko, the Blues’ regular-season scoring leader with 40 goals and 74 points, San Jose’s defensive attention needs to be credited first and foremost.
Tarasenko has no goals or assists through five games in the series. In 91 minutes he’s been held to just 12 shots, including one each in the last two games.
This from a guy who scored 13 goals in his first 17 playoff games.
“I thought he scored there in the third where he finally got a little space and got a nice shot off through a little traffic back against the grain,” Backes said Monday after Game 5. “Just might have found a glove, I don’t know if he sees it or not. Just takes a little spark and all of a sudden he’s right where he needs to be and scoring big goals for us. But he’s trying his butt off. We’re all trying our butt off.”
Tarasenko isn’t the only Blues’ main scoring source without a goal in the Sharks series. He is joined by Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Paul Stastny and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, none of whom have contributed a goal in five games.
Jaden Schwartz ended a 13-game goal drought Monday night with his first of the series.
In addition, the Sharks have enjoyed success this spring shutting down their playoff opponent’s top scorer. They held Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kins to one assist in five games after he scored 31 goals during the regular season, then limited Nashville star Filip Forsberg (33 regular-season goals) to one goal in seven games during the second round.
“What happens with goal-scorers when they get frustrated is they look to hit home runs,” Hitchcock said. “We need him to just act like a worker. I know that’s a funny thing to say, but he’s looking for the home run. The guy he’s playing against (Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic), did the same thing to Toffoli and did the same thing to Forsberg.
“You can’t look for home runs. They’re not there. You’ve just got to stay in program, stay with a little bit longer, and trust your work.”
Hitchcock said that he realizes that Tarasenko is frustrated, but at this point he’s got a lot of frustration on his hands after the Blues fell to 4-6 at home in the playoffs.
“He’s a guy that’s struggled this series,” Hitchcock said. “He’s struggled offensively. He hasn’t got the looks offensively that he normally gets. But he’s one shift away from breaking it open. It’s like any other goal-scorer, when they don’t score, there’s a frustration level that comes in. It’s my job to make sure and correct the frustration level if I can.”
While the Blues have struggled to score outside of the six-goal outburst in Game 4 in San Jose, the Sharks top line of Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl has been machine-like in its execution.
The trio has combined for six goals and 18 points in five games, led by Pavelski (three goals, eight points). Thornton has six assists and Hertl has three goals and four points.
Pavelski had two big goals in Game 5, one near the end of the second period that tied it 3-3 and one 16 seconds into the third that proved to be the game-winner. Pavelski’s 12 goals and 21 points in 17 games make him the NHL’s playoff leader in both categories.
These are two teams with a history of playoff frustration. The Sharks are one game away from their first appearance in the finals while the Blues are one loss away from being done.
“We’ve got a lot of work still to do,” Thornton said. “We’re going to enjoy this for a little bit but we know we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”