The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues ought to make for an exciting Western Conference final.
Fans should certainly expect fewer goals to be scored than in each team's previous series.
St. Louis is coming off a seven-game series win over a Dallas team with horrendous goaltending while San Jose beat a usually solid defensive team in Nashville in what was a surprisingly high scoring seven-game tilt.
Fewer goals doesn't mean less excitement though. These teams both play a big-boy brand of hockey. The physical battles in the corners will be as intense as any other playoff series we've seen in recent years.
Plus both squads are extremely hungry. Each franchise is still looking for their first ever Stanley Cup.
During the regular season the Sharks went 2-1 against the Blues and out-played them in all three games, two of which came in St. Louis. Perhaps those games mean little, but they all came within a seven-week span between February and March.
Let's see how these teams compare, shall we?
Joe Thornton has always played well against the St. Louis Blues. San Jose's 36-year old center has arguably gotten better with age as he had the best two-way year of his career this past regular season. Over his career, Thornton is a .98 points-per-game player. Against the Blues in particular that number jumps up to 1.12 with 53 points in 47 games.
Not to mention, the last time these two teams faced off in the postseason, Thornton was the best player on the ice for either team. San Jose lost the series in five games in large part due to inferior depth at all three positions that season. However, San Jose has drastically improved in all three areas since then and Thornton has remained just as dominant vs the Blues. In the three games against St. Louis this year, Thornton scored three goals and added two assists for five points.
As great as star winger Vladimir Tarasenko has become for the Blues, the matchups at the center position are where I tend to focus my prediction/preview articles. Jori Lehtera and Paul Stastny are fine players, but they don't compare to Thornton and Logan Couture. While Stastny has been a solid no. 2 center over the years, he has frequently had disappointing spurts where Couture has consistently been one of the best No. 2 centers in the NHL since he entered the league back in 2010. Comparing Thornton and Lehtera simply just isn't fair. Thornton should have been a finalist for the Hart Trophy as MVP. Lehtera meanwhile had just 34 points.
It will be interesting to see how these top-six lines matchup. In their first-round series against Chicago, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock weirdly didn't give Tarasenko much ice time when you consider he is their best player. In certain periods of action, grinding winger Troy Brouwer had more time on ice. St. Louis would be wise to get the puck in Tarasenko's hands as much as possible, but it will be hard for them to do that. If Hitchcock wants to get Tarasenko away from Thornton and Joe Pavelski (the NHL's leading playoff goal scorer), well, Couture is a stud two-way center in his own right and leads the league in playoff points with 17. Couture is also playing with some highly skilled wingers in Joonas Donskoi and Patrick Marleau. Donskoi in particular, San Jose's Finnish rookie, holds onto the puck quite a bit whenever he's out there.
Does this mean Hitchcock will try to get Tarasenko out against the Sharks' current third line? This is where the Blues certainly look to have an advantage if they are able to utilize the not as common first line vs third line matchup. The Blues are currently featuring top-six caliber players Alex Steen and captain David Backes on their third line and it isn't unfathomable for them to hold their own against the Thornton line. If they can draw even in a potential matchup vs Thornton, that would open the door for Tarasenko to likely win his matchup against the Sharks' third line that isn't as strong.
Chris Tierney is currently centering San Jose's third line and playing well lately, but he's mostly been a fourth line center this season. Tarasenko, Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz should be able to take advantage of the weaker Tierney. However, Tierney does have one advantage in that his right winger is the seemingly always clutch playoff scorer Joel Ward. The veteran forward has continued his playoff prowess here in his first year with the Sharks. If he stays hot, he could lead the way to helping Tierney and Melker Karlsson draw even against Tarasenko.
As for the fourth lines, the Sharks should have a slight advantage. Dainius Zubrus, Nick Spaling and Tommy Wingels had a terrific Game 7 for San Jose against the Predators. By the numbers, Spaling finished the season with 13 points in 58 games compared to Blues' fourth line center Kyle Brodziak who tallied 11 in 76. Wingels had a down year defensively for San Jose but his 18 points in 68 games trumps Blues winger Dmitrij Jaskin's 13 points in 65 games. And finally, Blues left wing Scottie Upshall tallied 14 points in 70 games compared to Zubrus who had only seven in 50 games for the Sharks,
Of course fourth lines aren't primarily about chipping in offense. The makeup of San Jose's fourth line just makes more sense. Zubrus is a guy that Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer knows well from their time in New Jersey, he can trust Zubrus in any situation. Spaling, while not worth the second-round pick given up to acquire him at the deadline, has the speed and defensive smarts to be extremely reliable in a fourth-line role. Wingels meanwhile has been a physical third-line forward for years that was a healthy scratch recently. He is extra motivated to prove he can still be an effective NHLer.
All three members of the Sharks current fourth line understand their roles. St. Louis on the other hand is pairing two declining veterans with a young player who has yet to figure out where he really fits in. When and if the Blues decide to get either Steve Ott or Ryan Reaves back into the lineup, the line becomes much more trustworthy on paper. However, Ott and Reaves both have limited skill and a propensity to take stupid penalties.
St. Louis owns the stronger reputation for being a stout defensive team. During the regular season their goals-against average was fourth best in the league at 2.40. San Jose was similarly solid, but not as good at 2.52, 11th in the league.
Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are a strong top pair for the Blues, but their fewwick-for percentages this season were right around 50, whereas San Jose's top shut-down pair of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun finished around 53.5%.
Kevin Shattenkirk is extremely talented for the Blues on their second pair but he is no Norris trophy finalist. Brent Burns and defense partner Paul Martin have been nothing short of phenomenal this year and into the playoffs. Burns has five more points in two fewer games played in these playoffs than Shattenkirk.
As strong as the Blues have been defensively this year, the advantage in top-four defense actually goes to the Sharks and it really isn't even that close by the numbers.
(Brent Burns photo credit: Zeke Mo)
Similar to the matchup discussions regarding the forwards, the third pair is where St. Louis certainly can look to utilize an advantage. Colton Parayko could have easily been a Calder Trophy finalist if it wasn't for the large crop of talented rookies this season. While Parayko was certainly sheltered a tad bit, as any rookie defenseman would be, he led St. Louis in plus/minus at an absurd plus-28, more than double the next best rating, Lehtera's plus-12.
Regardless of whom he plays with, whether it be his usual partner Carl Gunnarsson or someone else, Parayko's pair will be far and away better than the Sharks' current third pair of veteran stay-at-home types Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak. Neither of these two guys are strong puck movers and they spend a lot of time defending their own zone because of it.
With home-ice advantage in this series, Hitchock might be wise to try and utilize Parayko's offensive ability with Tarasenko as much as he can against the Sharks' third line and third pair. This should be a formula for success if the Blues choose to utilize it. The top-four defense then can be paired with the Stastny and Backes lines to shut-down the Sharks' top-six.
The Sharks and Blues both had strong power plays during the regular season. San Jose finished third at 22.5% and St. Louis sixth at 21.5%. On the penalty kill the Blues were far better though, third in the league at 85.1%, compared to the 21st place Sharks at 80.5%.
Thus far in these playoffs, this is the first series where the Sharks' opponent has to be given the edge in special teams based on the larger sample size of the regular season. However, through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Sharks' power play and penalty kill are both around three percent better than that of the Blues.
Given the fact special teams can often get hot and cold, and all that matters is how they are playing right now, the Blues only get a slight, slight edge overall based on their superior regular season penalty kill percentage.
Both teams feature two No. 1 quality goaltenders. The Sharks have Martin Jones and James Reimer. St. Louis meanwhile has Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. As for the two goalies who are currently playing, the edge has to go to Elliott. The man called "the Moose" posted better save percentage numbers than any goalie in the league and in my opinion he deserved more Vezina consideration than he got. While he only started 38 games, that is still half a season, most clear-cut NHL starters only play 55-65. That would have been a far larger sample, but 38 starts isn't as fluky as 15-25 starts can be in terms of numbers.
Elliott has continued to be fantastic in these playoffs with a .929 save percentage, just .001 lower than his regular season .930. Jones has been solid for the Sharks all year long, but not nearly as dominant with a .918 in both the playoffs and regular season.
While I can certainly envision a path where the Blues win this series, the Sharks are going to be too much for the Blues to handle. Even if Hitchcock is able to get Tarasenko and/or Parayko out in offensively tilted situations while on home ice, the Sharks top-six forwards and top-four defense are going to win their matchups. During the regular season, both of San Jose's wins came in St. Louis. The Sharks are extremely comfortable winning in that building over the years.
The way I see this series going is the Sharks splitting the first two games in St. Louis before taking the next two games at home to go up 3-1 in the series. The Blues will make a stand on home ice to win Game 5 but the Sharks will close it out on home-ice in Game 6. San Jose is riding a five-game winning streak on home ice dating back to the first round. Hitchock will be able to dictate matchups in St. Louis, but I see the Blues struggling to keep up in San Jose. The Sharks also have played two fewer games through the first two rounds. The time off between rounds one and two will pay off as this series moves along.