The St. Louis Blues scored three first-period goals on the way to a decisive 6-1 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 7 Wednesday night.
The Blues got goals from Robby Fabbri, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund, David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Vladimir Tarasenko. Patrick Eaves replied for the Stars.
Many pundits expected this series to come down to goaltending, and in the end it did.
Kari Lehtonen melted down in the Dallas net, allowing three tallies on eight first period shots to put the Stars into a deep hole. Brian Elliott made sure they stayed there by stopping 31 of the 32 shots he faced.
With the win, the Blues move on to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001. They'll face the winner of Thursday's Game 7 tilt between the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks.
Here are three thoughts on this series clincher:
Fabbri changes everything
Always the tinkerer, St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock made a number of roster moves over the course of the series. All of them paid off to some degree. Dmitrij Jaskin, for instance, was inserted for Game 4 and scored the winning goal. Steve Ott was brought back for Game 7 and made an impact every time he touched the ice, drawing penalties and rattling cages.
But none of them worked quite like the decision to move Fabbri back onto a line with Stastny and Brouwer.
Stastny, who helped shut down Jonathan Toews in the first round and all but silenced Jamie Benn in this one, brought the playmaking skills. Brouwer provided a heavy body in the corners and a terrific net presence. But it was the rookie Fabbri, who supplied a strong forecheck and relentless energy, that elevated the effectiveness of the trio.
“[He] was exceptional," Hitchcock said. "We expected the veterans to play, but he is a 20-year-old kid and played with such competitive composure this whole series. You could see his experience in big games come out tonight. His composure and his ability to make plays under pressure is just incredible.”
With Fabbri's speed setting the pace, the line was unstoppable on Wednesday night. By the time the rout was over, they'd collected nine points in total with each player tallying a goal and two assists.
The Blues now head into the Western Conference final as the favorite over whichever team they face. As Hitchcock said after the game, they've beaten two excellent teams in Chicago and Dallas, and they're battle-tested after earning a pair of Game 7 victories (the first time they've done that in a single postseason since their expansion year of 1967).
There's definitely a sense that this is a different team than the ones that were eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. This is a team that's been honed to a fine edge by the obstacles they've faced.
Every time the pressure's been ramped up they've responded like champs. That poise will weigh in their favor as they move on. So will their physicality. But it's their depth that gives them an undeniable edge. The Blues had eight players record at least five points in this series, with Fabbri and his linemates leading the way.
Yes, it was a blowout, but the Stars had three glorious opportunities to turn this game around.
The first came just 90 seconds after Fabbri gave St. Louis the lead. Val Nichushkin had the puck on his stick and a wide-open net but rang his shot off the right post. Lindy Ruff refused to blame Lehtonen in his post-game comments, but had no qualms about criticizing Nichushkin. "He has to put that in the back of the net," the coach said.
The second came when an apparent goal scored by Vladimir Tarasenko was nullified after a coach's challenge revealed that he'd been offside when he entered the zone. The goal, which would have given the Blues a 2-0 lead, was awful, an off-balance, bad angle wrister that never should have gotten past Lehtonen. It was one he definitely wanted back, and thanks to video review he did.
The deficit back to one, the Stars were in position to press for the equalizer late. Instead, they allowed the Blues to get a puck deep on the very next shift, then lost the battle for possession. And 43 seconds after the Tarasenko goal was disallowed, Stastny restored the two-goal lead with another soft-angle shot from the side of the net.
That one cut deep, but the real dagger was driven into their hearts by Elliott. With the Blues holding a 3-0 lead early in the second, he mishandled a puck behind the net, leading to a Keystone Kops routine out front. As he scrambled to get back into his net, Colton Sceviour pounced on the loose puck and whipped it toward the gaping cage. But instead of closing the gap to 3-1, he missed 20 feet of open space and hit Elliott's outstretched leg instead.
Moments later, Backes took advantage of some soft defensive coverage and a bad angle by Antti Niemi, in net to start the second after Lehtonen was pulled, to make it 4-0 St. Louis. And that was church for the Stars.
Wait'll Next Year
At the beginning of season, the Stars' own radio adverts trumpeted that they were gunning for the playoffs. A modest goal, but hardly a sure thing. Dallas, after all, had missed the cut six of the previous seven seasons, and in the black-and-blue Central there are no guarantees, even for a young team on the upswing.
But the Stars gelled in a way no one saw coming. They became the poster children for puck possession and the league's highest-scoring team. By the time the regular season was over, they'd claimed a division title and posted the best record in the Western Conference. They followed that up with a first-round playoff win, their first since 2008, over the Minnesota Wild and advanced to a coin-toss Game 7 in the second round. And they checked those last two boxes while offensive spark plug Tyler Seguin (lower body) rehabbed on the sidelines.
There's no shame in losing this series. The Blues are an excellent team and the odds-on favorites to capture the Cup according to the bookmakers. And as Ruff noted after the game, sometimes you have to learn from losing.
But dropping this game the way they did, it's going to leave a mark. It was their third home loss of the series, which is bound to leave a bad taste in the mouths of a fickle fan base. And it almost necessitates a change in personnel. The one question facing this team coming into the postseason was whether or not it had playoff-caliber goaltending. There's no question now. It doesn’t. And they won't become a serious contender until they do.
Still, this is a team that has some incredible talent in the system, especially on the blue line. And it has one of the best general managers in the business in Jim Nill. They'll have a different look next year. And they'll set much higher goals.