ST. LOUIS – The most important coaching Craig Berube did this series wasn’t even during a game.
It wasn’t finding a way to wring more from Vladimir Tarasenko or changing the St. Louis Blues’ power play or tweaking the defence pairings. It was walking into the dressing room late Wednesday to tell his players, emotional and vibrating with anger about a non-call that decided a playoff game against them, that everything was going to be alright.
“He comes in and says: ‘Forget about it, move on,’” St. Louis centre Ryan O’Reilly explained Friday. “He said: ‘We’re going to be alright, we’ll respond the right way.’ And we did.”
“We went home with the right mentality,” winger David Perron said. “I really believe it made a difference.”
O’Reilly said Berube believed in his players, and on Friday they earned more trust by dominating the San Jose Sharks at the start of Game 4 and hanging on to win 2-1 to even the Western Conference Final at two games apiece.
All that fury and frustration over the uncalled hand pass that set up Sharks’ Erik Karlsson’s overtime winner on Wednesday was channelled towards the start on Friday. The Blues were up 1-0 after 35 seconds and could have led by three or four goals after six minutes.
Eventually, they needed frantic defending and a couple of saves from Jordan Binnington as the Sharks attacked six-on-five in the final two minutes – “Just madness and you just hope for the best,” the goalie said – but the Blues did what they had to do.
They’re not only still in this series, they must now be considered the favourites.
The Blues head to San Jose for Game 5 on Sunday with a 6-2 road record, easily the best of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And in losing the series’ lead on Friday, the Sharks may have suffered an equally severe blow to Karlsson.
The magnificent defenceman, who missed 27 games late in the regular season with a groin-related injury, has looked at times like he is skating on one leg. But with the game on the line Friday, the two-time Norris Trophy winner wasn’t skating at all. He played only one shift in the final 10 minutes: the last 1:55 when San Jose had an extra skater and essentially ran a power play in the St. Louis zone.
Karlsson’s previous five shifts lasted 44 seconds, 18, 30, 45 and 28. He logged 18:49 in the first two periods, then 6:20 in the third. San Jose coach Peter DeBoer has been using primarily five defencemen, limiting sixth man Joakim Ryan’s ice time.
When rookie St. Louis defenceman Vince Dunn suffered a broken jaw in Game 3, Berube had reliable Carl Gunnarsson to bring in from the bullpen. The Sharks don’t have that kind of spare part. And even if they did, Karlsson’s ability with the puck is irreplaceable.
The series appears to have tilted in the Blues’ favour, although the Sharks are loaded with experience and firepower up front and haven’t lose two straight playoff games since they fell behind the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the opening round more than a month ago.
“It’s two great teams going at it,” Brent Burns, the Sharks’ other world-class defenceman, said. “You want a better start, but they get a vote, too. They’re a great team.”
“We just have to dig in and be better because we need to win at home,” San Jose centre Tomas Hertl said. “It’s for sure a little bit frustrating because we got a huge win last game in overtime and we come here (tonight). . . and we come out slow. We just have to be better next game.”
For all the talk about the Sharks’ good fortune in these playoffs after two titanic officiating mistakes, including one that saved their season against the Knights, went in their favour.
But a couple of St. Louis goals ticked in off San Jose defenceman Justin Braun on Wednesday, and on Friday, the Blues took the lead at 35 seconds when Burns gave away the puck and Ivan Barbashev’s centring pass ramped in off the stick of Sharks forward Gustav Nyquist.
And although Blues’ Tyler Bozak got the last touch on the power-play goal scrummed in at 17:53 of the first, the puck had been cleared by Sharks goalie Martin Jones against one of his players, then bounced to Bozak.
Of course, the Blues were so vastly superior at the start that the Sharks were lucky not to trail by more than 2-0.
“I don’t think about whether it’s lucky or not; we kind of the deserved the goals (against),” Hertl said. “Same like last game, I thought we deserved the win. Today, they were better in the first. They came hard and played hard, and we were slow and losing pucks. So we deserved it.”
Hertl dived to poke in a puck and cut the St. Louis lead in half at 6:48 of the third period after Burns’ one-timer trickled under Binnington.
“You could come here (after Wednesday’s game) and mope around and say we got screwed, or turn the page and move on, and that’s what we did,” veteran Blue Brayden Schenn said.
“We just talked about it, you know, ‘you’ve just got to move on,’” Berube said Friday. “The next day, I could tell just by the energy and how they came in the next day and the way they were reacting that they were ready for Game 4.”
Two wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup, both teams should be ready for Sunday. But will Karlsson?