Blues hope for recovery from Sharks' opening bite

Saturday, April 10, 2004

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Chris Pronger never got on the ice during the St. Louis Blues' practice Friday. That's because he never got off the ice in their playoff opener.

Well, almost: Pronger played a jaw-dropping 36 minutes, 14 seconds in the Blues' 1-0 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night. The former MVP defenseman earned a day of rest before today's Game 2, when the Blues will attempt to salvage a road split.

It's too soon to tell whether the second-seeded Sharks' superb depth will trump the Blues' superior topflight talent in Pronger, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Pavol Demitra. St. Louis must rely heavily on its stars, and the strategy could prove risky in a long series.

"It's not about getting tired in the playoffs," Pronger insisted. "This is what you play the whole season to do. We're trying to make every minute count out there."

San Jose plans to stick to the same strategy that kept St. Louis on the defensive for long stretches of Game 1. The Sharks' speed, discipline and hard work was rewarded when rookie Niko Dimitrakos controlled a loose puck and beat Chris Osgood 9:16 into overtime.

"I think they probably realize that, boy, they really are fast," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. "I'm sure their coaches told them we were fast, but now I'm sure their players are saying, 'They came as advertised.' That's an advantage that we have on a lot of teams right now, and we've got to play our speed game."

Both coaches were happy with their teams' performances in the opener, which was largely even after the Sharks' usual dominant first period. Osgood kept the Blues in the game with several big saves against the NHL's fastest-starting team.

"We stood up to them pretty good," Osgood said. "They came out the way they usually do, and we hung in there. It was pretty much a totally even game after that. They just got the one break. We don't have anything to be ashamed about, or any big changes to make."

The Blues largely used three forward lines and four defensemen -- Pronger, Eric Weinrich, Murray Baron and Christian Backman -- during the nearly 70 minutes of Game 1, playing blueliners Bryce Salvador and Matt Walker only sparingly. St. Louis lost veteran Al MacInnis and Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman to injuries earlier in the season, leaving Pronger to carry much of the load.

In contrast, Wilson has emphasized the need for short, energetic shifts by his 18 skaters. He knows the game could be decided by the half-step of energy that's lost by staying on the ice too long.

"For us to be successful, we have to be aggressive, and that means a lot of skating by our forwards," Wilson said.

Though goalie Evgeni Nabokov never seemed flustered in his second career playoff shutout, the Blues were just one good break away from victory. Early in overtime, Tkachuk missed the Sharks' net during a two-on-one breakout -- and St. Louis still was thinking about the chance a day later.

"We could see it from the bench," said St. Louis coach Mike Kitchen, who lost his playoff debut. "There was about a foot there he could have hit. ... That's the kind of thing that happens in the playoffs, but you've got to move on ahead."

Notes: St. Louis RW Scott Mellanby, scratched with an undisclosed injury in Game 1, could return to the lineup Saturday. Kitchen will make a game-time decision after speaking with the 18-year veteran. ... Sharks C Alyn McCauley injured his shoulder in the third period when he tripped over Baron's stick and slid hard into the boards. McCauley returned for two shifts in overtime. "I'll try and (ignore) any soreness, and hopefully get through," McCauley said. If McCauley can't play, Mark Smith probably will make his playoff debut.

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