Game Recap: St Louis Blues beat San Jose Sharks 1-0 on goal by Kevin Shattenkirk

Last night, the St Louis Blues beat the San Jose Sharks 1-0 in an excellent display of defensive hockey. That the Blues are well schooled in keeping the puck out of their net is no surprise, given that their new coach Ken Hitchcock is a master of defensive strategy.

The game started off fairly well for the Sharks. Although they failed to generate high-quality scoring chances, they were able to apply early pressure in the Blues’ zone, drawing a hooking penalty on T.J. Oshie little more than a minute into the game. But the Sharks failed to capitalize on the power-play, a theme throughout the night as the Sharks went 0-for-6 on the PP. The Blues penalty killing was flawless, making the Sharks’ man-advantage look pedestrian.

It was the best any team has killed penalties against the Sharks all season (and thus the worst the Sharks power-play has looked), and if smart opposing coaches study what the Blues did to negate what is usually the Sharks most potent weapon, it could present problems for team teal.

As the first period went on, the Blues drew a penalty of their own on Michal Handzus with 2:25 left in the period. The Sharks killed the first 1:27 of the power-play, but Justin Braun took an ill-advised hooking penalty to give the Blues a short 5-on-3. This mistake would prove costly, as Kevin Shattenkirk capitalized on a wrist-shot from the top of the right circle off some nice puck movement by the Blues. Antti Niemi was caught fairly deep in his blue paint thanks to the Blues good puck-movement and threat of a cross-crease play, and the puck beat him a couple of inches above his glove hand, which he lowered to cover the space directly above his right leg just as the puck was sailing by.

After taking the lead, the Blues did not sit back, which proved to be a smart decision. By no means were they overaggressive, but when they had opportunities to forecheck and make plays, the took them. T.J. Oshie and David Perron both had great games up front. Perron used his slick skating, edge control, and vision to find space in the offensive zone and make plays. Oshie’s skating also stood out, along with his strength and reach. He was able to shield the puck very effectively against almost every Sharks defenseman, which is where the Sharks really miss Douglas Murray.

On defense, the Blues did an excellent job escaping the Sharks forecheck at even strength. Once again, if opposing coaches think to the study the Blues’ game plan, that could cause more problems for the Sharks, as Hitchock devised an excellent strategy for beating the Sharks, and his players executed it to a tee. Defencemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk both had fantastic games at both ends of the ice for the Blues, and Barret Jackman was a rock all night in the defensive zone retrieving pucks deep in his zone and finding ways to get them out.

For the Sharks, no one really stood out, unfortunately. Logan Couture was dangerous in short bursts, but was unable to sustain it like he normally does. The same goes for Pavelski, who had one very good chance to score, didn’t bury it, and that was it. I felt Joe Thornton was outplayed by the Blues top-line center David Backes. It wasn’t a huge disparity by any means, but Backes bested Thornton last night in subtle ways.

Defensively, Boyle and Burns played adequately, but you have to give them a failing grade strictly on the basis that the Blues top two offensive defencemen, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, outplayed them. That can’t happen if the Sharks are going to be successful, although to be fair Pietrangeo and Shattenkirk are two of the best young defencemen in the NHL, and severely underrated.

In goal, Brian Elliott played very much for the Blues. He wasn’t called upon much, but he was extremely reliable, which is the most important asset for any goaltender when they play the Sharks. That is because the Sharks are a team that feed on soft goals. They throw more shots on net per game than any other team, and as a result they tend to benefit from a lot of soft goals let in by opposition net-minders. Brian Elliott rarely needed to be spectacular last night, but he deserves credit for not falling into the same trap that many other goaltenders do when facing the Sharks, where they lose focus just long enough to let in a bad goal or leave a fat rebound laying or around. Elliott did the opposite of this, leaving nothing to chance. He absorbed every shot from center ice into his chest, or batted it far away from his goal. On screened point-shots with a Sharks forward standing wide open right in front of him, all it would have taken to lose the lead was one mistake, one dropped puck, but Elliott would not oblige. He capped his solid performance with a great cross-crease save on Joe Pavelski off a shot-pass from the opposite point that caught his teammates off-guard. Another solid effort from Brian Elliott.

Antti Niemi was perfect except for the one, costly goal. As it was relatively-unscreened wrist-shot from near the top of the offensive zone, Niemi probably wants it back, but in reality we see a lot more goals scored from there than you’d expect, specifically on the 5-on-3. Because the 5-on-3 brings with it an increased threat of quick cross-ice passes, goaltenders typically play deeper in their nets so that they can slide from post to post easier. This leaves more room for shots to go in above the pads and in the corners, and Shattenkirk took advantage of this with his wrist-shot. All in all, Niemi is not to blame for last night’s loss. The Blues simply outplayed the Sharks as a team.

At the end of the day, the Sharks were not able to sustain enough of a forecheck, or create enough scoring chances, to win the game. The Blues were better than the Sharks in all three zones tonight, and they capitalized on one of their five power-plays (albeit a 5-on-3), and the Sharks didn’t. The forecheck, the neutral zone, the defensive zone, special teams; the Blues were just a tad better in each, which resulted in a win. A tight win, but a win nonetheless, and one their performance deserved.

Written by Shark Circle

Check back tomorrow for my trimester report card on the SJ Sharks defencemen and goaltenders, and click here if you missed my thoughts on the forwards.

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