It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.
The Blues find themselves in their first conference final since 2001 and they’ve worked hard to get here. They’ve been in two taxing seven-game wars thus far, having taken out the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks. They’ve met the Sharks four times in the post-season and have split their matchups, while San Jose has defeated St. Louis in two of three meetings during the 2015-2016 regular season.
The Sharks, meanwhile, have never been to a Stanley Cup Final and find themselves in their first conference final since 2011. They, like the Blues, required seven games to get to the conference final. They knocked out the Nashville Predators in Game Seven and took out the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. Of special note is the San Jose power play, which is clicking at 30.9 percent right now with a whopping 45 percent efficacy at home.
San Jose netminder Martin Jones is coming off a Game Seven shutout against the Predators and he’s outplayed better goalies in Pekka Rinne and Jonathan Quick. The 26-year-old from North Vancouver has an 8-4 record with a 2.16 goals against average and a .918 save percentage. He’s been calm, cool and collected throughout the playoffs. In the event of difficult, the Sharks will turn to James Reimer.
31-year-old Brian Elliot has been very good for the Blues, with an 8-6 record and a 2.29 goals against average with a .929 save percentage. He’s struggled at times, like in Game Six of St. Louis’ series against the Stars, and he’s made a boatload of saves thus far. His 419 saves in a single playoff season is the most in franchise history, with Curtis Joseph posting the previous high at 411 saves in 1992-1993.
Alex Pietrangelo averages 29:41 of ice time a game, the most among remaining active players in these playoffs. He’s logged considerable time with Jay Bouwmeester and has been responsible for shutting down some of the best players in hockey. The top pairing will pull a serious challenge in containing Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture and they should be up to the task.
Brent Burns has been piling up points, with 15 of them in a dozen games. He has two power play goals and seven points on the man-advantage, plus he’s cracked 43 shots on goal so far. He’s benefitted big time from playing with Paul Martin, who’s managed to man the store when Burns wants to go for a run. The Sharks turn to Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun to shut down the opposition, with Vlasic capable of pitching in. He has eight assists so far.
San Jose’s top line of Thornton, Pavelski and Tomas Hertl scored seven of their team’s 16 goals against the Kings, with Pavelski having nine goals so far. Thornton has 11 points in a dozen games, while Hertl brings balance and speed. But it’s Couture who really turned heads against the Predators, with 11 points coming against the Music City. That’s a franchise record. He has 17 points in a dozen games, including seven goals.
The line of Paul Stastny, Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer accounted for 23 points against the Stars, with Brouwer in particular likely to have a good series against San Jose. He has 10 points in 14 games, while Fabbri is tied with Vladimir Tarasenko with 13 points. Alexander Steen has seen time with Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, too, and the change has done him good. The 32-year-old has eight points in 14 games and plays a solid two-way game.
There’s not a lot between the Sharks and Blues, at least on paper. Both teams boast puck-moving blueliners and both teams pack quality power plays. The Sharks and Blues are first and second overall on the man-advantage after two rounds of playoff action, with St. Louis pushing their power play to seven for 18 on the road. Something’s gotta give in terms of special teams, right?
As for blueliners. St. Louis has received 30 points from their seven defencemen and the Sharks have 30 points in a dozen from its defenders. Look for both clubs to activate the blueline on the rush and look for a battle between Burns and Shattenkirk.
With these factors in mind, I’m going out on a limb with a San Jose victory in seven games.