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SAN JOSE, Calif. – Joe Thornton and his linemates have managed to do what Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn couldn't in the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs: control the play against the St. Louis Blues.
San Jose's top line of Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl have dominated the play over the first three games of the Western Conference final and are a major reason why the Sharks lead the Blues 2-1 to put them as close as they have ever been to reaching the Stanley Cup final.
Hertl scored two goals in San Jose's 3-0 victory in Game 3 on Thursday night off passes from each of his linemates and the trio spent much of the night in St. Louis' zone creating chances and momentum.
"These guys in my mind are maybe the most dangerous and best line in hockey," teammate Tommy Wingels said. "You see the way they play against world-class defensemen and some of the best players in the world. They're able to hold onto pucks and make it a clinic out there the way they pass it around and cycle the puck. It's contagious."
After getting the best of Los Angeles' Drew Doughty in round one, Nashville's stellar defensive pair of Shea Weber and Roman Josi in the second round, the Thornton line is doing it against Alex Pietrangelo and the Blues in the conference final.
Thornton and Pavelski have played together for much of the last four seasons with various third linemates. Hertl moved into that spot in early January and that helped the entire team take off.
"I think just playing a long time with somebody, we just know each other's tendencies in our sleep," Thornton said of his chemistry with Pavelski. "For me, I like to pass. He likes to shoot. Then you throw this big fella (Hertl) in there, it's a pretty good line. But, yeah, all three of us, we read so well off each other. We just got to keep continuing that."
The Blues made it this far in part because of their ability to shut down the opponent's top players, including the league's top two scorers in the regular season. Kane, who led the league in scoring, had just one goal and two even-strength assists in Chicago's seven-game loss in the first round. Toews wasn't any better with no goals and three even-strength assists.
St. Louis kept it up in round two against Dallas's Benn, the league's No. 2 scorer. Benn had one goal and two even-strength assists in seven games, meaning those three stars combined for two goals and seven assists at even strength in 14 games.
In this round, Thornton's line has spent the bulk of its time in St. Louis' end, creating chances, drawing penalties and getting three even-strength goals from Hertl.
"We put our top-scoring players out there in this series so far and we've not been able to maintain pressure in the offensive zone," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We've ended up in our zone quickly sometimes. That's something that no one's done against us. We've been able to take top players and hem them in, frustrate them. For whatever reason, we cannot control the play, even though we start 200 feet from our net. So that's on me. I'm going to have to change tactics, do something completely different than we've done in the first two series because within 10 seconds in most occasions, they're in our zone."
Hitchcock tried juggling his lines in Game 3, flipping centers Alexander Steen and Jori Lehtera. He could make even more switches in Game 4 and said he might even bench goalie Brian Elliott for Jake Allen.
But the Blues' issues go far deeper than goal. While San Jose's top players are thriving this round, St. Louis is still looking for offense from any source.
The Blues have been shut out by Martin Jones the past two games and haven't gotten a single point all series from 40-goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko or rookie Robby Fabbri, who had 13 points the first two rounds.
"We just haven't created enough quality chances to really test him and make him make save after save, what we can do when we're really on our game," captain David Backes said. "The result has been a couple scoreless games for us. It's not the way we're going to win games. We need to get back onto our method and our ways. When we do that, we're going to have success."