Playoff Preview: St. Louis Blues (2) vs. San Jose Sharks (7)
Both teams find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The Blues have never been to the playoffs with this line-up before, and the Sharks have not found themselves so far from being Pacific Division champs in many seasons. Both teams have many other things in common. Both have consistently been underestimated. St. Louis is not flashy like their division-mates Detroit and Chicago. They are grinders and can tire out their opponents in a low-scoring game without a single punch or penalty. Many had already deemed the Sharks season as over. I myself wondered if they would ever get back from their major February slump. But somehow, they did and here we are in the first round of the Playoffs, at the start of the “second season”.
Goals: David Backes (24)
Points: David Backes (82)
Goaltending: Jaroslav Halak (46 starts, 26 wins, 1.97 GAA, .926 Save %)
Brian Elliott (36 starts, 23 wins, 1.56 GAA, .940 Save %)
Goals: Logan Couture (31), Joe Pavelski (31)
Points: Joe Thornton (82)
Goaltending: Antti Niemi (68 starts, 34 wins, 2.42 GAA, .915 Save %)
2011-12 Head-to-head Matchup: I am a true believer that the regular season doesn’t mean much during the Playoffs. The blackboard is wiped clean. With that said, I do need to write something here. The Blues defeated the Sharks 4 out of 4 games in regular season play, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Two of those games were when the Sharks had major injuries, a goalie crisis, and other factors. At the end of the 2012 regular season, St Louis was in a total slump, having won only 4 out of their last 10 games, while the Sharks finished strong with a 4-game winning streak. The Blues’ lines, much like the Midwest they call home, have players who don’t stand out, won’t be featured on NHL-TV’s NHL36 any time in the near future, nor will they replace Ovi or Syd the Kid as the next heartthrob, but they are mostly young, can and will dominate if given any leeway. The Sharks have more of a gunslinger approach. They can hit you from many angles when you least approach it. Their lines as not as deep, not as reliable from minute to minute, but can be just as deadly when your head is turned for a split second. Still, the fact remains that when these two teams met in the regular season, St. Louis won every matchup, which speaks volumes about how this series could play out.
Advantage: St. Louis
Offense: St. Louis has no shortage of the NHL’s strongest players, along with many up and comers of a similar nature. They’re not afraid to take control of a game if allowed to do so. They dominate just by sheer momentum, grinding their way, ticking down the clock until their opponent realizes there’s no time left. They’re not the most exciting team to watch, but they’re tough. David Backes, T.J. Oshie, David Perron, Patrik Berglund and Jason Arnott are the Blues players that dreams or nightmares are made of. The Sharks have a few players who are stars in their own right. Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Ryane Clowe are seasoned vets and always ready and able to score and lead San Jose to a win. But the Blues are only 20th in the league in goals scored, while the Sharks were 12th, and with their backs against the wall the Sharks play their best hockey, so the challenge to overcome a multi-faceted Sharks offense may be too great.
Advantage: San Jose
Defense: San Jose made huge trades during last summer to make up for their obvious lack of defense in the 2011 Playoffs against Vancouver. They traded Dany Heatley for Brent Burns from the Minnesota Wild. They also acquired Colin White from the New Jersey Devils. Burns has grown into a strong and reliable player for the Sharks while White has improved in the past few weeks. Add them with Dan Boyle, Douglas Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and it’s quite intimidating. Kevin Shattenkirk should be a well-known name for all opponents of the Blues. His massive frame is usually in the thick of the action along with his teammates Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Pietrangelo. If the Blues defense can shut the Sharks down and keep them at a 1 or 2 goal game, they can win.
Advantage: St. Louis
Goaltending: Sharks fans have a love/hate relationship with the Antti Niemi. When he is hot, he is amazing. He has a Stanley Cup win already notched up from his days with the Blackhawks. But when he is off, it’s abysmal. He cannot be off at any time in the playoffs for the Sharks to be successful. The Blues have a tag-team of two great goalies. Both Halak and Elliott are able to stand on their own, and to have both of them on one team is like choosing from filet mignon and prime rib.
Advantage: St. Louis
Special Teams: The Sharks Power Play (21.1%) has surged in recent weeks. It was one of the hotbed issues the team has dealt with from the 2011 season and now they are Rank 2 in the Power Play in the NHL. St Louis is at 16.7%. St Louis ranks higher (83.6%) in the Penalty Kill, while San Jose is less at 76.9%, While the first part of the season made it one of the lowest in the league, the Sharks have steadily improved this percentage in recent weeks.
Advantage: San Jose
Prediction: As stated earlier, the Playoffs are not necessarily an extension of what happened in the regular season. It’s a different animal. One cannot say that because the Blues have defeated the Sharks before, they’ll do it again. By looking just at stats or the regular season, one could easily say St Louis will win this Playoff series, but that would be underestimating San Jose. This will not be an easy series; both teams will battle and grind. Both teams are big in stature and attitude. These are not goon squads; it won’t be a repeat of the San Jose-Los Angeles sweep the Sharks just concluded. They will use their muscle and their will and it will come down to what great Playoff games always do…who wants it the most. I give the edge to the team with the most players who have played together in the Playoffs before.
Forecast: San Jose in 6
By Martha Hughes