Can St. Louis Blues Return to Normal After Thursday Night Disaster?

May 19, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) leaves the ice after being removed from the game during the third period in game three of the Western Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
May 19, 2016; San Jose, CA, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) leaves the ice after being removed from the game during the third period in game three of the Western Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports /

St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made some pretty drastic changes for Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, and they didn’t pay off. Is it realistic for him to just undo all those moves?

After a deflating loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock was obviously frustrated, and he allowed that frustration to influence his gameplan as his team set out on the road for Game 3 at SAP Center. In addition to moving guys around on his top two forward lines, Hitchcock also swapped out two forwards and a defenseman for Thursday’s game, resulting in a postseason-high three lineup changes as the Blues visited the Sharks.

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The changes didn’t appear to make too much of a difference, as the Blues were shut out for the second straight game and lost Game 3 by a score of 3-0. Hitchcock also ended up pulling goalie Brian Elliott, who has been the star of the postseason, after 46 minutes and inserting backup netminder Jake Allen. After all these drastic shakeups failed to change anything, does it make sense–or is it even feasible–for Hitchcock to simply go back to the group of players that has been instrumental in winning nine of 17 games this postseason, or does he keep trying to shake things up and hope that something works?

The biggest issue after Game 3 will be whether Allen or Elliott is going to get the start in net for Game 4. At this point, it seems as if Allen is going to be the favorite after Hitchcock stuck with Elliott following a similar benching in Game 6 of the prior round. Make no mistake, Allen had a great 2015-16 season and was a major factor in getting the Blues to the postseason. But he hasn’t started a game since April 3, and he’s really only had three really good complete game performances since the start of the new year: a 32-save effort in a February 28 win at Carolina, a 33-save gem and a composed shootout performance on March 9 against Chicago, and a 32-save shootout on March 26 at Washington.

There’s something to be said for a goalie who’s fresh and has played in just 19 games (four of them relief appearances) since January 1, compared to Elliott’s 45. It doesn’t mean as much, though, when you consider that Allen’s performance peaked during December. He’s done good things this season, but it might be a mistake to rest the team’s remaining playoff hopes on his shoulders after such a long layoff from starting a game, and an even longer one from actually being in a groove.

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It will also be interesting to see what Hitchcock does after a blueline adjustment backfired on him in Game 3. For the third time this postseason, Hitchcock elected to remove rookie defenseman Joel Edmundson from the lineup and replace him with Robert Bortuzzo. Not too surprisingly, the change was just as ineffective as it had been in previous rounds.

While Bortuzzo has been solid when called upon this postseason, registering a plus-1 rating with one assist, the consequences that have accompanied his entrance into the lineup have been much more severe. Because Edmundson, the usual defensive partner of Kevin Shattenkirk, is a lefthanded shooter, he gives the Blues a natural balance of lefthanded and righthanded shooting defensemen. But when Bortuzzo replaces him, the Blues must find a way to make due with four righty shots and just two lefties (Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson.)

That change has left Shattenkirk playing the left side alongside either Colton Parayko, his partner on Thursday night, or Bortuzzo. He’s looked unnatural in that role and has struggled to play a defensively sound game when forced to make that adjustment. Thursday night was no exception, as the Blues allowed two goals with Shattenkirk on the ice.

The Blues are now 1-4 this postseason with Bortuzzo in the lineup (and 0-4 with Edmundson out of the lineup, as the only win with Bortuzzo came when he replaced the injured Gunnarsson), while Shattenkirk has a minus-6 rating in games where the Blues utilize four righthanded-shooting defensemen. While it can be argued that Shattenkirk has struggled to remain disciplined in his own zone all season, regardless of his defensive partner, that number is a stark contrast from the plus-2 rating that he’s posted while paired with Edmundson.

Now, though, can Hitchcock really just put Edmundson back into the lineup again without losing some respect from his players? It’s a common adage that third chances should never be given, and now that Hitchcock has pulled the rookie from the lineup on three separate occasions, it’d probably make the most sense to sit him down for good. The unfortunate reality of the situation, however, is that the Blues don’t really have a viable lefthanded-shooting alternative to Edmundson on the roster (unless you consider Chris Butler, who hasn’t played in an NHL game since January 16, or Petteri Lindbohm, who no longer even practices with the regular skaters, that guy), and the team performs markedly better when he’s in the lineup.

Contrary to Hitchcock’s assertion that “every time we’ve made the changes we’ve played better”, the move to play Bortuzzo has actually come back to burn the Blues on multiple occasions, so perhaps he should just ride it out with Edmundson the rest of the way and avoid the temptation to make changes on the blueline.

Finally, while the fourth line has performed solidly throughout the postseason, even as six different players have seen action on it, there need to be some decisions made as to who’s going to fill it out going forward. Winger Scottie Upshall missed Thursday’s game with an upper-body injury, and he was replaced by Magnus Paajarvi, who performed capably but doesn’t provide the same physicality or ability to play on the penalty kill that Upshall does. Getting Upshall back during this series would be a major boost to the fourth line and the PK, but if he’s too hurt to return, it might just be on Paajarvi to get the job done the rest of the way.

More importantly, Hitchcock needs to make a decision on who fits best in the fourth line right wing spot. Dmitrij Jaskin wasn’t aggressively bad on Thursday, but he had no hits, completely negating the physicality that usually comes from the position when Steve Ott or Ryan Reaves is in the lineup. That issue is a double-edged sword during this series, as the Blues can’t be so physical that they take dumb penalties, but need to be aggressive enough to make things harder on San Jose’s dominant offensive attack.

Jaskin clearly provides more offensive ability than Reaves or Ott, but he needs to start taking better advantage of his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame and put some pressure on the Sharks. If he can’t do that, then it will be a challenge for the Blues to defeat San Jose, as Ott and Reaves have already shown this season that they can’t be trusted to avoid taking costly penalties and putting the Sharks’ spectacular power play on the ice.

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Figure that the Upshall situation will resolve itself, but Hitchcock is still going to have three decisions to make heading into Saturday’s Game 4. Will his players buy in if he continues to aggressively move pieces around in search of a spark? Only time will tell.