St. Louis just one loss from elimination
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- If the St. Louis Blues fail to regain their knack for winning in San Jose, they're headed home for the summer.
The Blues were among the San Jose Sharks' least favorite opponents over the past three seasons, largely because St. Louis had big success at the Shark Tank, winning nine of 11 games at one point.
But the Sharks won the first two games of the teams' first-round playoff series and followed up with a split in St. Louis, putting the Blues on the brink of elimination in Game 5 on Thursday night. The Sharks won Game 4 on Tuesday, holding off an inspired third-period effort by the Blues for a 4-3 victory.
Not only have the seventh-seeded Blues lost three straight in San Jose but they've scored just one goal in their last 189 minutes there. Evgeni Nabokov has posted two shutouts, including an overtime victory in Game 1 -- and was headed to a third before Doug Weight scored a meaningless short-handed goal late in Game 2.
"We have no choice but to rebound," said Blues goalie Chris Osgood, who lost 1-0 decisions in San Jose on Feb. 29 and in Game 1. "We're due to win a game in San Jose. Every game has been close, and we don't feel like we're getting outplayed."
That's the most frustrating aspect of the series for the Blues, who have been outscored by just one goal in the series so far yet find themselves teetering on the brink of an early summer.
It's a familiar feeling to opponents of the Sharks, who rarely do anything spectacular beyond their now-routine first-period shooting flurries. San Jose wins with speed, discipline and goaltending -- and rarely anything theatrical.
"We know they're going to bring everything at us [in Game 5]," Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren said. "I'm sure they don't want to end it, and they're going to bring their 'A' game, if not their best of the season."
Both teams relaxed Wednesday after playing three games in the previous four days. St. Louis didn't practice before a midday flight to the West Coast, while San Jose had just six players at its optional skate.
The series' compact schedule appears to be helping the Sharks, who had a noticeable jump in their step early in Game 4. San Jose took an early lead and held on despite the Blues' two goals in the third period.
But St. Louis' veterans should be able to rally their teammates for an elimination game, while most of the Sharks' leaders are newcomers or former supporting players on the best San Jose teams of recent seasons. Coach Ron Wilson isn't worried by his team's relative lack of big-game experience, however.
"Guys know what's expected of them because it's the coaching staff's job to make sure they're ready to go," Wilson said. "We'll go out for each game with the same mind-set. ... I don't think you'll see guys looking ahead or thinking ahead. That's not our style."
The Blues still haven't found a solution for San Jose's speed and forechecking, which produced most of the Sharks' scoring chances in the series so far. St. Louis tried to counter with overtly physical play in Game 2, but that simply gave the Sharks 13 power plays.
Defenseman Chris Pronger believes the Blues must put more emphasis on the first period to prevent the Sharks from setting a run-and-gun tone. St. Louis' Mike Kitchen, in his first postseason as a head coach, was much less analytical after Game 4.
"The toughest game to win is the fourth game," he said. "They've got to clinch the series and we're not going to let them clinch the series, so that's the toughest game to win."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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