I continue my analysis of the 1st round Stanley Cup playoff series by taking a look at the playoff series between the St. Louis Blues and the San Jose Sharks.
The St. Louis Blues became the surprise team of the regular season, particularly after they hired Ken Hitchcock after a 6-7-0 start and catapulted themselves to the one of the top records in the National Hockey League (NHL). Hitchcock’s coaching efforts transformed the Blues from a disappointing team to one that shut down opponents with a gritty, defense-first, two-way style of play and stellar goaltending with the league-leading goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot.
Hitchcock has also thrust himself to the top of the Jack Adams – NHL Coach of the Year – award conversation, although Hitchcock has always cared more about hoisting the Stanley Cup than any individual awards.
The San Jose Sharks season was a disappointing one as they struggled through various parts of the season and eked their way into the 7th seed in the Western Conference Stanley Cup playoffs tourney with a furious late-season surge, this from a perennial President’s Trophy – most team points during the regular season – contender. The Sharks continue to have their stalwart duo of Patrick Marleau and Jumbo Joe Thornton, steady veterans in Joe Pavelski, Brett Burns, Martin Havlat and Dan Boyle as well as an emerging young talent in center Logan Couture.
While the Blues dominate opponents with a philosophy of defense and stellar goaltending, leading the NHL in the fewest goals allowed (GA), the Sharks thrive with a potent offensive attack, having finished 10th in the most goals scored (GF) albeit a drop from their usual top five NHL offensive rankings.
So this has all the makings of a classic solid offense versus extremely stingy defensive battle. Add to that the intrigue as to whether the Sharks’ disappointing season, particularly if they fail to advance past the 1st round, could be the harbinger of a potential rebuild in the future.
I offer my predictions by assessing each team’s offense, defense, special teams, goaltending and finally each squad’s “X-Factor” – the intangibles that could decide the outcome of this series. I will then conclude with my prediction as to how I see this series playing out – who wins the series and in how many games they will do it.
Here’s the rundown…
The Sharks possess an impressive array of offensive firepower as they finished tied for 10th in the NHL in scoring with 2.62 goals/game. They are lead by a foursome of elite scoring forwards in Marleau,Thornton, Couture and Pavelski. But the Sharks also have a compliment of secondary forward lines scoring in Havlat and Ryan Clowe. The Sharks have plenty of offensive firepower from their blueline in Boyle and Burns, each of whom registered more than 26 assists during the regular season.
On the other hand, the Blues are somewhat an offensively-impaired as they finished 21st in goals/game with 2.47 goals/game. They are lead, offensively, by their ‘tough as nails’ captain David Backes as well as high-energy forward T.J. Oshie. However, both Blues forwards tied for the lead in points with 54 total points which represented the 2nd lowest team point leader in the NHL, behind only the Minnesota Wild, the NHL’s lowest scoring team this past regular season. As it relates to blueline scoring, the Blues possess one of the best blueline pairings in the NHL in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Pietrangelo finished 4th in the NHL in scoring amongst defensemen and Shattenkirk finished 11th in blueline scoring. The Blues do have adequate secondary scoring albeit not prolific with as many as nine Blues scoring at least ten goals during the regular season.
So, as the Blackhawks possess one of the NHL’s best offensive arsenals, in assessing which team gets the advantage goes to…
Although the Sharks do possess some solid defensive players who can execute a ‘stay at home’ philosophy, the defensive corps greatest strength are their puck-moving capabilities and ability on the man advantage (Power Play), with Boyle, Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Sharks finished tied for 8th in the NHL in Goals Allowed (GAA) during the regular season.
The Blues defensive corps is the NHL’s stingiest bunch with stay at home, shot-blocking stalwarts such as Carlo Colaiacavo and Barret Jackman who provide a great deal of shot-blocking support for both Halak and Elliot.
However, it is Hitchcock’s approach to the game with an ‘all in’ philosophy that has elevated the Blues to the NHL’s rankings for the fewest goals allowed (GA), having given up a stingy 1.86 goals/game as well as surrendering the fewest shots on goal allowed at 26.8 shots/game.
As the Blues’ defensive prowess is the NHL’s best, in assessing to which team the advantage goes…
To assess each teams overall special teams play, they are mirror images of each other, albeit in opposite directions on both the power play and penalty kill. The Blues struggled at times on the man advantage during the regular season, finishing 20th on their power play conversion rate with a 16.7% success rate. They are lead by Backes who registered eight Power Play goals during the regular season. The Sharks were one of the NHL’s elite power play units, finishing 2nd behind the Nashville Predators with a stellar 21.1 power play conversion rate. Couture leads the Sharks with 11 power play tallies, followed by ten power play goals for Marleau.
Regarding the Penalty Kill, the Blues had a distinct advantage, ranking 7th in the NHL with a stout 85.8% kill rate whereas the Sharks occupied the bottom levels on the Penalty Kill, ranking next to last (29th) in this category with a putrid kill rate of 76.9%.
So, to assess who possesses an advantage in this ‘strength versus strength’ Special Teams battle…
Be it based on the respective team’s philosophies or differences in skill level, the Blues possess a huge advantage in goal with Vezina Trophy candidates Halak and Elliot leading the way. Elliot led the NHL in lowest Goals Against Average (GAA) with a 1.56 GAA and also led the NHL with a SavePercentage (Save%) of .940. Halak was no slouch in net with a 1.97 GAA which tied him for 4th in that category and a Save% of .926 which ranked him 5th in the NHL regular season statistics.
The Sharks goaltending duties are primarily manned by Antti Niemi who posted solid, if unspectacular goaltending statistics. Niemi posted a GAA of 2.42 and a Save% of .915 ranking him 12th and 13th, respectively out of 43 regular NHL goalies during the regular season. His backup is Thomas Greiss who posted similar numbers to Niemi with a 2.30 GAA and an identical .915 Save% rate.
However, when assessing each team’s goaltending units, this one’s a simple call…
The Blues have not been much of a playoff participant over the past several years, their last playoff appearance being the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs, so playoff experience is not applicable with the young Blues squad, save for Stanley Cup veterans such as Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both of whom have been on previous Stanley Cup champions. However, Hitchcock has coached a Stanley Cup champion, in 1999 with the Dallas Stars so he knows the pressure-cooker and the extensive in-game preparation that’s required for Stanley Cup success.
The Sharks have advanced by one round during each of the previous Stanley Cup playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference finals, last season. Prior to that, the Sharks were saddled with early-round disasters and disappointment, having often been defeated in their 1st round playoff series as either the Western Conference’s top or 2nd seed. So the pressure to make the Stanley Cup finals is great, particularly for their rapid, patient fans.
It will be interesting to see if the Sharks can post early leads in their playoff games against the Blues, thus forcing the Blues to play catch-up, something such a low-scoring team can ill afford to do. Both teams avidly support their respective teams, so home-ice advantage should not be a factor, although the Sharks do play their home games at perhaps the most intimidating arena for opponents, the HP Pavilion otherwise known as ‘The Shark Tank’.
While the Blues are a bit ‘new to the party’ when it comes to recent Stanley Cup playoff participation, they play the type of stingy defense that flourishes in the playoffs. Meanwhile, it’s quite possibly ‘now or never’ for the Sharks, who have veteran players in Marleau and Thornton who may not have many more opportunities to win the Stanley Cup, particularly if they have another early exit.
Given all those variables, here’s the guess:
Blues in Seven Games