The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks know exactly what's on the line tonight at Scottrade Center. Whoever takes Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals will be one win away from a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
It's likely to come down to which team is first to establish its game plan.
"We know we have to get to our game at home quicker than we have been all playoffs," said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. "[This] is going to be a good test for us to do what we did in [a 6–3 win Saturday night in] San Jose. Anytime we can use the home ice to our advantage with our matchups and our crowd, it's going to help us."
Having already won once in St. Louis in this series, the Sharks believe they have a bounceback effort in them.
"We've battled through a lot this season," said San Jose forward Logan Couture. "When we're pushed, we've pushed back. We know in our room we didn't play well at all last [game]. We made a lot of mistakes that we haven't been making throughout these playoffs. But Game 5 is a new opportunity for us."
Here's a look at some of the key talking points ahead of this swing contest (8:00 ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS):
• The Blues dominated the special teams battle in Game 4, going two for four with the extra man and getting a back-breaking shorty from Kyle Brodziak. They'll be the first to admit though that they took too many penalties. They were tough on the kill in Game 4, keeping the Sharks to the outside and cutting off the lanes to the low slot and the backdoor where Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns have done so much damage. But that's not a fate they should continue to tempt. Hand San Jose five chances again tonight and the Blues are likely to get burned.
Playing that heavy, physical style is bound to incur a penalty or two, but the Blues have to avoid the easy calls—the late hit, the cheap shot behind the play, the hooks and slashes.
• Blues coach Ken Hitchcock still isn't ready to tip his hand about the availability of David Backes and Robby Fabbri for Game 5.
"We're going to dress the same lineup for warmup that we did the last game," he told the media on Monday. "We had two extra forwards, one extra D. No changes. All those players are there. They'll dress for warmup and then we'll run a further evaluation after warmup. Same 23 guys are dressing."
Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford noted that Steve Ott left the team's practice early this morning, suggesting he could be in the lineup, and that one of the two big guns won't be available.
Backes skated just over five minutes on Saturday before being stapled to the bench for the second and third periods. There's no word on what may have happened, but a lower-body injury was ruled out.
Fabbri picked up his team-leading 14th postseason point on Saturday with an assist on Troy Brouwer's first goal, but sustained an apparent lower-body injury when he was rocked by Sharks forward Tommy Wingels. The St. Louis rookie skated just 52 seconds in the third period, but with the Blues holding a sizable lead that decision may have been precautionary.
Scottie Upshall missed Games 3 and 4 with an upper-body injury, but it's believed that he is available for action.
• The Blues have had success creating offense off the rush in these playoffs, but against the Sharks it all seems to start down below the goal line. San Jose turnovers and a tired Sharks D are the keys to St. Louis's success again in Game 5.
"They're real good at coming back and taking away time and space in the D zone," Pietrangelo said. "We're going to have to occupy the O zone and get our chances from there. That's how we scored all of our goals pretty much [Saturday], is playing hard, playing big down low, using our size, using our speed, making life tough for their D."
That effort could be even more difficult if Fabbri is out. His ability to back defensemen off with his speed in the neutral zone is a key to the Blues' chances to create in transition.
• There wasn't much to like about San Jose's efforts in Game 4 outside of that three-goal pushback in the third period. Sharks coach Peter DeBoer hopes that small dose of success sends a message to his team.
"I think it reinforces that when we play the right way, we'll get rewarded," he said. "That was the one period of the game we started to play the right way."
Having gone through that frustrating loss, he hopes his team will respond in Game 5.
"I think we've got a smart group that takes a lot of pride in their game, in their identity as a hard team to play against," he said. "When we step out of that box, we usually don't get rewarded. Usually don't deserve to get rewarded. That's what happened. We tend to get it back quickly because of that."
San Jose wasn't particularly hard to play against on Saturday, particularly in the early going. The Blues set the tone with their physical play, and the Sharks melted under the pressure. They struggled to break out of their own zone, and the turnovers started piling up. St. Louis will look to play the same way tonight. San Jose needs to respond with better puck decisions ... even if that means holding onto it half a beat longer and taking a big hit in the process. Making the right pass the first time will be the key to countering that aggressive forecheck.
The Sharks also need to do a better job of getting pucks deep. Jake Allen is a more effective puck handler than Brian Elliott, but that doesn't mean they can't create chances off the dump.
"We're familiar with that," DeBoer said. "[Jonathan] Quick, [Pekka] Rinne, those guys are quick puck handlers. This is no different than what we've dealt with. It's not a huge change for us.
"Obviously putting the puck in the right place to forecheck is always critical. It's a little more critical when the guy can handle the puck a little bit. But it doesn't change a whole lot for us"
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• DeBoer seemed disinclined to shake up his lineup even after the loss. "We've played some really good hockey in the last two or three weeks,” he said. “I think we can fix it without having to take those type of measures.”
That said, it wouldn't be surprising if he made one change to the forward group. Matt Nieto, who has been out since May 9 with an upper-body injury, could be available. He's not a player who can kickstart their offense (1-3-4 in 11 playoff games), but he can make a difference with his speed. The Sharks have been at their best in this series when they've used their wheels to challenge the Blues through the middle. If Nieto is good to go, he could be an asset on their fourth line, which got roughed up on Saturday. If he's in, look for Nick Spaling to sit rather than Dainius Zubrus.
• Jake Allen will be back in net for the Blues. No surprise really, given how well he played in his first start of the playoffs on Saturday. But as good as he was, his success was built on a better effort from the team in front of him.
"We weren't playing for [Brian Elliott]," Hitchcock said. "We were relying on him. There's a big difference ... We needed to jolt ourselves into playing a lot harder for who was in the net."
Despite getting lit up on Saturday, Martin Jones is expected to start for the Sharks. He allowed four goals on 19 shots in the loss, but no one was pinning those numbers on him. "We hung him out to dry," Wingels said. "He made some big saves there and he gave us a chance. But we kept giving them more opportunities ... odd man rushes and open guys around the net. That's not on Jonesy at all. It's on every guy in front of him."