ST. LOUIS — We never really learn, do we?
As many playoff series as we watch, we fall into the same trap. (At least I do.)
The San Jose Sharks take the momentum, win a few periods in a row, and we think, “This might be a five-game series! How on earth are the Blues going to turn this thing around?”
The Chicago Blackhawks, as we said at the time, “led” their Round 1 series 3-3 after a couple of wins, with Game 7 set for the Scottrade Center. There’s no way the Hawks were going to be denied that night, remember? The Dallas Stars had the Blues right where they wanted them in Round 2, with Kari Lehtonen on fire and a Game 7 at home. How could they possibly lose?
Of course, playoff series are exactly that: series. Two very good hockey teams finding new and different ways to overcome each other’s strengths, or exploit their weaknesses.
“I’m sure [Blues coach Ken Hitchcock] will tell you he made all kinds of great adjustments, and every one of them worked tonight. Hats off to him,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer after Game 4.
If it sounds to you like DeBoer is getting sick of hearing what a genius Hitchcock is, you’re right. Here are a few other things we’ve picked up through four games of a Western Conference Final that’s still got a looooong way to go:
1. Here’s what we know about goalies: (crickets).
And this: Martin Jones is going back in net for San Jose, and the Sharks will live or die with him this spring. Nothing against James Reimer, but this is Jones’ post-season to ride out, and he’ll be back in San Jose’s pipes next year and for a long time.
Reimer? Who knows where he ends up, but if he wants starter’s money as an unrestricted free agent, it won’t be with the Sharks.
As for St. Louis, don’t forget this: Jake Allen was supposed to be the starter all along. He’s the long-term goalie for St. Louis, and only lost his gig to Brian Elliott this season due to injury. Obviously the Blues are happy to win with anyone in goal, but given their druthers they’d prefer the 25-year-old accrue this playoff experience rather than the 31-year-old.
“I think for me playing in the playoffs last year, being able to watch three rounds this year, changed my whole mindset around being a goaltender in the playoffs,” Allen said. “I came in last year a little bit antsy and wanted to do too much, wanted to help the team win so bad, unfortunately we lost in the first round.”
2. You don’t realize how much a Stanley Cup means to these players until you watch veterans like David Backes, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau get this close for the first time. They all know this could be their last/best chance, a bunch of thirty-somethings that really only have one thing left to accomplish in their NHL careers.
I don’t know the extent of Backes’ injury, but the ultimate decision will come if the Blues’ captain is forced to decide whether to man it out and play hurt, or step aside for someone who can help the team more.
“We all know what Dave’s going to do to get out there,” said Blues alternate captain Alex Pietrangelo. “He’s our leader for a reason. He plays through anything. I’m expecting him to be in the lineup tomorrow.”
As for Thornton, every night he makes a pass that causes me to shake my head at its brilliance. He is, at age 36, still one of hockey’s elite dishers of the puck. And you can look through the roster of your favourite club and tell me if you’ve got a guy that protects the puck in the offensive zone like Jumbo. It’s doubtful.
3. Alex Steen should be captaining the Toronto Maple Leafs today. He has become a solid, understated veteran leader on a very good team. Hitchcock calls him St. Louis’ best player. Look up all-around player in the dictionary, and his picture should be there.
You wonder why teams reside near the bottom of the standings for a long time? Trades like that one — and Tuukka Rask — are a big part of the reason.
4. I wonder, with the NHL courting Las Vegas, if there is any concern or wish for hockey to become more popular with gamblers. There is definitely a link between action and interest in any sport, but the way the NHL reports its injuries they’ll never get any real action, in our opinion.
St. Louis may or may not be without their leading scorer Robby Fabbri and captain Backes in Game 5. Those two players present a major swing in the odds, yet all Hitchcock said of Backes on Sunday was, “I’ll let you guys know on all our health tomorrow.”
He likely won’t shed much light on that Monday though. Why? Because he doesn’t have to.
Could you imagine, the day before an NFC Championship game, not knowing if the quarterback and the top running back were in or out?