ST. LOUIS Their screams began behind closed doors, deep in the Scottrade Center after a crucial road victory. Not far away, a stunned crowd filed to the exits, silenced after winger Martin Havlat gave the San Jose Sharks reason to celebrate a statement triumph in their cramped locker room.
Before their 3-2 double-overtime victory Thursday, not much had gone right for the Sharks against the Blues over the past six months. St. Louis had swept the four-game regular-season series, outscoring them 11-3. San Jose had struggled to assert itself against one of the NHL's biggest surprises, a team that finished a stellar 30-6-5 at home. Some figured Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals would reveal more of the same.
Then Havlat's shot streaked past Jaroslav Halak, clinching his second goal of the game, and the series dynamic changed. Suddenly, the second-seeded Blues were given doubt. Is St. Louis, making its first postseason appearance since 2009, prepared for playoff pressure? Is seventh-seeded San Jose, making its 13th postseason appearance in 14 years, prepared to show how much the Blues must learn about this time of year?
Answers will come, but each team's focus shifted Thursday as the Sharks' postgame outlook evolved from pleasure to poise. Now, San Jose turns its attention from trying to steal one game at the Scottrade Center to taking two. Now, St. Louis must view Saturday's contest as critical to its goal of winning a playoffs series for the first time since 2002.
"In any series, it's important to get an early one," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "Starting on the road, not many of you experts are picking us to win. So it's certainly good to sneak one out here."
But San Jose did more than sneak out of the Scottrade Center. The Sharks strutted off the ice after a fast and physical game that showed how little separates the teams.
Goalie Antti Niemi had 40 saves to best Halak's 31. The Sharks rallied after surrendering two third-period goals to center Patrik Berglund. In the process, they showed they could swing back in a raucous setting after wavering late.
"Once you get in (the playoffs), anybody can beat anybody," Havlat said. "We lost four games (against St. Louis), but it was in the regular season. We have a confident group here. I'm just trying my best to help my team, and I think everyone else is trying to do the same."
History can be San Jose's motivation in this series. The Sharks are all too familiar with postseason heartbreak, so perhaps souring the Blues' run would provide them with special satisfaction.
After all, their recent playoff near-misses are a wrenching trend: San Jose has lost in the Western Conference finals in each of the past two seasons, in addition to bowing out in the Western Conference semifinals in three of the past six.
But the Sharks have gained postseason wisdom with those scars. That's knowledge most on the Blues' bench don't have, and that's something San Jose can exploit moving forward.
There were major questions about how St. Louis' 1-4 regular-season finish would affect coach Ken Hitchcock's team going into the playoffs. Throughout the week, the Blues talked about leaning on grizzled postseason veterans such as defenseman Kent Huskins, winger Jamie Langenbrunner and centers Jason Arnott and Scott Nichol to provide leadership.
The Blues also spoke about relying on a disciplined style of play that made a turnaround under Hitchcock possible. They spoke about embracing the moment and not letting the demanding stage overwhelm them.
Yes, the Blues played well enough to win a playoff game for the first time since 2004. Halak, as expected, was strong. But the Sharks' victory sent a message that regular-season dominance doesn't always translate to the playoffs, especially when the margin between triumph and defeat is so small on any given night. San Jose proved it is ready for a fight.
"I will take it hard tonight and get ready tomorrow and come back with a better effort," Hitchcock said. "It's one game. It was a heck of a hockey game probably the best game of the playoffs so far. Two good teams going at it. That's the playoffs."
That's what the Sharks know all too well. And that's what the Blues are only beginning to discover.
St. Louis mastered San Jose in the regular season, but the Sharks' postseason grit was the difference Thursday. As a result, San Jose earned a valuable road victory.
There is much to be learned about both teams in the coming days. But after Game 1, the Blues must move on with more doubt.