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The Blues Go On, The Sharks Go Home

Ah, the sweet smell of victory. The air this lovely Sunday morning seems a little fresher, a little cleaner, a little...well, sweeter. Birds are chirping, squirrels are, um, making whatever noise it is squirrels make, hungover hockey fans are groaning and moaning as they smack the snooze button for the third time. 

It is a good morning here in the city of St. Louis, Missouri. We have a hockey team that defied all odds -- well, okay, they were actually favoured in the series, but we Blues fans know perfectly well that doesn't mean shit when it comes to this team in the playoffs -- and defeated their rivals from San Jose. The Sharks are heading home to lick their wounds, think of what have been, and contemplate where an aging franchise goes from here. 

The Blues, meanwhile, are moving on and moving up, one step closer to the dream of a Cup, moving to round two of the playoffs. 

As dramatic comebacks go, I will admit it didn't have quite the panache of, say, a Cardinals Game Six, but it wasn't far off. The Blues played a solid game the whole way, but the Sharks played with the kind of intensity you expect from a team on the verge of elimination. I said following Game Four the Sharks played as tight a defensive game as I've ever seen from a San Jose team, and yet they somehow managed to ratchet that energy level up even another notch. They weren't brilliant in the first period, but built steadily to an incredible crescendo in the second. I haven't seen this Blues team chasing the game as badly as they did in the second period very often this year; it's a true credit to the Sharks that they managed to put so tough a team back on their heels, and in their home building no less. 

It wasn't late enough necessarily to really start worrying yet, but I'll be honest: I didn't know if the Blues were going to get a goal last night. They just weren't having a whole lot of luck cracking the San Jose pressure; the Blues outshot the Sharks for fairly large chunks of the game but didn't necessarily generate quality scoring opportunities. Antti Niemi made a few really nice, really solid saves early on, but for the most part it was just the Sharks pushing the intensity above and beyond where the Blues were able to go for the first two periods. When Joe Thornton put a goal past Brian Elliott in the waning minutes of the second period, I honestly believed the series was headed back to San Jose. 

And then, of course, came the third period. After the game, Jamie Langenbrunner, veteran of playoff hockey since before half the other Blues' forwards were shaving, said, "We had to push them out of the game." I think that's a remarkably apt description. 

The Blues did have to simply push the Sharks out. They pushed, they pressured, and they finally broke through. It was a marvel of Hitchcockian hockey: play the toughest, smartest, physicalest defense you can, and wear the opponent down. Don't give up anything easy, and when your opportunity comes be ready. The Blues did that for 60 minutes last night, and finally just forced the Sharks out of the series. They did so by enforcing their will in the biggest moments of the game, controlling the center of the ice, and dictating what the Sharks were able to do. San Jose brought their intensity to an amazing plateau last night, and were able to beat back the Blues' pressure for two-thirds of the game, but they couldn't maintain it forever. In the end, Ken Hitchcock's boys beat them down and broke them. 

If there was one word to sum up everything this victory was last night, it would be Patience. Turned away time and again at the net, playing an opponent fighting like an cornered animal, and staring a zero on the scoreboard dead in the eye, the Blues never panicked. The played their game, believed in the plan and themselves, and they did what they've done so many other times this season: they won. It was a masterpiece of patient, intelligent hockey; waiting out the storm of an opponent backed up against the wall, sticking with the gameplan, and striking when the Sharks finally wavered. 

It was, to say the least, a beautiful game of hockey. 

This win was a long time coming for those of us here in St. Louis. I won't go overboard with the celebrations just yet; after all, there hasn't been a parade carrying Lord Stanley's Cup down Market Street that I can recall. But all the same, it's been an awfully long time since we Blues fans could enjoy that sweet smell I believe I mentioned earlier. 

I won't single anyone out as a start of the game today. It seems wrong to do so. The star of the game last night was the team. The coach. And the patience to put into action what the coach has been telling the team all this time. 

Enjoy it, Blues fans. The next round will start soon enough, and there will be an entirely new batch of matchups and potential disasters to worry over. For now, though, on this wonderful Sunday morning, I think we can all agree to just take it in and bask a bit. 

The Blues won. They beat the Sharks. They're moving on. It's a pretty good day. 
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