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- Canadian ice hockey coach
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Almost every move St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made for Game 4 of the Western Conference Final worked.
His decision to change goaltenders sparked his team’s all-around play. His decision to change up lines kept the San Jose Sharks off-balance. The way the St. Louis Blues coach changed in-game tactics confused San Jose.
Because of all this, in his postgame news conference Sharks coach Peter DeBoer couldn’t handle any more questions about the Blues, Hitchcock and how they adjusted their way to a series-tying 6-3 victory.
DeBoer stopped such a question mid-sentence and jumped into a brief answer.
“I’m sure Hitch will tell you he made all types of great adjustments and every one of them worked tonight,” a clearly peeved DeBoer said. “Hats off to him.” DeBoer then walked out of the media room in the bowels of SAP Center and gave a quick, “Thanks.”
Some of these changes were necessitated by injuries to David Backes (didn’t play the last two periods) and Robby Fabbri (didn’t play almost the entire the third period). Hitchcock didn't give specifics on their problems but said both "should be good to go" for Game 5.
But really the changes were clear before those issues.
Goaltender Jake Allen, who started his first game this postseason in place of Brian Elliott, stopped 31 of 34 Sharks shots on goal. Hitchcock’s fourth line with Kyle Brodziak, Dmitrij Jaskin and Magnus Paajarvi scored the game-winner. Both Paajarvi and Jaskin entered the series in Game 3 and were arguably the team’s best line in that game, carrying their momentum to Game 4. Moving Alex Steen on a line with Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer led to two goals by Brouwer. He found a way to stop Joe Thornton’s line – at least until the third period when the game was out of reach for the Sharks.
“I kind of think I know what I'm doing. I mean, I know this is harsh to say, but I don't really care what you did for me yesterday, I just care about what you're going to do for me today, and I don't care about tomorrow.” Hitchcock said. “I think the players recognize that. I feel for some of the players that didn't get to play today. But I’ve got to do what's best to help us win hockey games. When I see something that's going, I hang onto it. When I see something that I know will work, I hang onto it. We had an idea of what we needed. We put those players in. We challenged them. They did the job today again.
The Blues mostly took a page from the Sharks’ book, found their speed and used it in their transition game and deep in the San Jose zone
St. Louis gained the zone on Brouwer’s first period power play goal, set up and then Fabbri found Brouwer in front.
Jori Lehtera’s goal at the 10:11 mark of the first came after a forecheck from David Backes caused a Brent Burns turnover, which kept the Sharks hemmed in their zone.
Brodziak’s first goal came on an aggressive Blues penalty kill where they neutralized they mighty San Jose power play, which finished the game 0-for-5.
Brodziak’s second goal came when the Blues kept the Sharks in their own zone with a powerful cycle game.
“We made a few adjustments, but I think what he said and what we all were saying after last game to each other, was that we needed to be better at the little things: getting pucks in, being quicker through the neutral zone,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “We were slow in the first three games through the neutral zone, and it didn’t allow us to get any forechecking pressure. When we saw it on tape, and we saw the few examples that we had that worked, we realized that’s what we needed to commit to.’’
Hitchcock didn’t directly praise Allen who kept the San Jose attack at bay as the Blues raced out to their lead. The score was 4-0 in favor of the Blues before the Sharks scored their first goal. Instead, Hitchcock pointed out that the decision to change goaltenders helped give his team a type of attitude he wanted.
“He gave us exactly what we needed. He's a competitive son of a gun. We needed a battler in there. We needed somebody to really help us play better defense. We played with more passion in front of him in our own zone because I made the goalie change. I had to make that decision,” Hitchcock said. “I just felt like we were allowing them too much open space with Ells in there, and Ells was getting bombarded. We needed to just dig in a little bit deeper defensively if we were going to have a chance in this series.”
Hitchcock making changes has become a common theme with the Blues and one the players are used to at this point. Some groups may not like such inconsistencies, but St. Louis puts great trust in their coach.
“He’s got combinations in his head for a long time and the beauty of our team is that we can go a number of different ways with it,” Shattenkirk said. “I think that’s why we’re able to adjust on the fly and handle it.”
Said Brodziak, “Coaches' decisions, whatever they are, you're going to have to live with them. You have to make the best of the situation. I think throughout the year, guys have done a good job of that. I think the last little while everybody has respected it and done a good job of responding the way the group needs everyone to do right now.”
As the series shifts to St. Louis, the onus is now on the Sharks to find ways to make changes to deal with the Blues. San Jose has been mostly consistent with their lineup and line combinations this postseason. It’s a formula that’s worked for San Jose – a group that’s lost two games in a row just once out of the 16 they’ve played in these playoffs.
“We've been consistently good for a while. We didn't execute tonight. We got burnt,” DeBoer said. “We got what we deserved because of our execution. Short memory. We'll move on to the next game. We've had one or two of these games throughout the playoffs and we've always responded the right way.”
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