Playoff Preview: San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues

The San Jose Sharks have met the St. Louis Blues five times in the post-season, with the Sharks holding the edge with three wins. The last – and only – time San Jose made the Stanley Cup Final took place after they knocked off the Blues in the 2016 Western Conference Final and eventually lost to Pittsburgh in six. The last time St. Louis made the Final was in 1970.

For the Sharks, the road to here hasn’t been easy. They played two seven-game showdowns, abolishing the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche in contests that went the distance. And when this series gets underway in San Jose Saturday, the Sharks will hope to improve on their 6-2 home record in these playoffs.

“It’s a cliché, I know, but you play all year, you put that work in during the season in order to have home ice during the playoffs and for these types of situations,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said. “Obviously every team wants to be playing at home, so we played well at home so far these playoffs and it’ll be nice to start at home again.”

The Blues, likewise, are coming off a Game Seven situation in the second round. They conquered the Dallas Stars in double OT Tuesday after beating the Winnipeg Jets in the first round. As good as the Sharks have been at home, the Blues have been astronomical on the road and flaunt a playoff-best five wins when they’re away from their own barn.

Scoring

The Sharks hold the scoring edge, averaging 3.07 goals per game. San Jose got a boost in Game Seven against Colorado with the return of Joe Pavelski and that should make a big difference. He has six points in eight playoff games, including two points on the power play. That power play needs upgrading, as they went two for 20 against Colorado in the second round.

San Jose boasts three players with 14 points in these playoffs: Brent Burns, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. Couture and Hertl have nine goals apiece, with Hertl generating four on the power play. The 25-year-old from Praha has been dynamic for the Sharks and has skated at least 24 minutes in two of his last three games. He’ll be a constant presence.

Couture, naturally, is a threat. With an identical stats line to Hertl, the 30-year-old has all the tools to push the Sharks over the top. He played nearly 25 minutes against Colorado in Game Five and has 95 points across 110 playoff games. Containing him will be of top import for the Blues.

St. Louis does not have the offensive edge against the Sharks, averaging 2.62 goals a game. They have two scorers with 11 points, Jaden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo, but that’s it for the double-digits. Schwartz’s eight goals leads the team, with Vladimir Tarasenko second on the squad with five goals. David Perron and Patrick Maroon have three apiece.

Schwartz has the puck luck to make it stick. The 26-year-old has 11 points in 13 playoff games and has been everywhere for St. Louis. He played over 26 minutes in Game Seven against the Stars and managed two shots on goal across 35 shifts. Hardly his greatest offensive moment, but it showcases his capacity to be everywhere for his squad – even when things get tough.

Tarasenko hasn’t exactly poured it on in these playoffs and his five goals are a disappointment by his standards. Four are on the power play, which advocates some trouble in even-strength situations. He played 26:29 in Game Seven against Dallas and had five shots, but there’s signs to suggest he’s not pinning high-quality chances like he usually does.

Defence

It’s a tale of two defences. The Sharks allow as many goals as they score (3.07 a game), but their D is all about instigation. Brent Burns plays like a forward and has the point totals to show for it, playing at a point-per-game pace. He has as many goals as Tarasenko, too, for what it’s worth. And his presence has been an asset, whether on quality dump-in plays that set up goals or just by pushing momentum.

Erik Karlsson, likewise, is an asset. Sure, he’s taken his share of dumb penalties and made a few clangers in his own end. But he has a dozen points, all assists. He’s a minus-five and could perhaps stand to tighten up a bit. He’s been skating with Brendan Dillon, definitely a B-pairing for the Sharks, what with Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Burns the top set. Injuries may be a factor.

Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan account for the third pairing, but the Sharks often drop defensive use as the game goes along and Ryan sits. That makes for a five-D revolution, which gives San Jose a different look.

The Blues and Sharks play comparable styles, even if the Blues don’t galvanize their defence quite the same way. They are the stingier team, allowing 2.62 goals against per game, and that’ll be an issue. While defensive powerhouses have gone down in these playoffs already (see New York Islanders), the Blues may enjoy a superior fate.

That has a lot to do with Pietrangelo, who’s doing it all. The 29-year-old has 11 points in 13 games, including two goals and three points on the power play. He skated 35:20 in Game Seven against Dallas and managed four shots on goal. Seldom a liability and often in control of creating chances, Pietrangelo could be the key to the series.

Joel Edmundson has seen some time on the top pairing with Pietrangelo. He has three points in 11 games and played 26:53 in Game Seven, but he hasn’t always enjoyed such ice time. With Robert Bortuzzo and Michael Del Zotto among those out of the lineup, the Blues have become rather creative and Edmundson is among the beneficiaries.

Jay Bouwmeester, ever the stalwart, skated 32:31 in that much-discussed Game Seven against Dallas. He has five points, all assists, and two of them came on April 29 against the Stars. 25-year-old Colton Parayko is also a factor. He has seven points in 13 games, averages 23:51 of ice time a game and is one of the biggest players on the ice at any given moment at 6’6.

Goaltending

Martin Jones has been a question mark for the Sharks for a large part of the playoffs, but he’s tightened things up as of late after allowing 13 goals on 80 shots in his first four games against Vegas. He had a career-worst regular season, too. Luckily for San Jose, it looks like bouncing back is a theme. In his last 10 games, Jones has posted a .928 save percentage. He was the best player against Colorado.

A lot of that comes down to what Jones can withstand. Anyone who watched the closing minutes of the series against the Avalanche know that he can head off a massive dose of pressure without flinching. Without that performance, the Sharks wouldn’t be facing the Blues in the Western Conference Final and we’d be talking about another netminder. His capacity to hold the fort under fire is vital.

By now, everyone knows that Blues netminder Jordan Binnington is ice cold. Unlike Jones, he’s not been chased from the net in these playoffs. Even when he seems flustered, he’s not. That cool deportment has put the Blues in every single hockey game. In eight of his 13 post-season contests, he’s allowed two or fewer goals against.

The Calder Trophy finalist has given the Blues a reason to fight and a way to win, which has, in turn, situated the team well. He lets them play to their strengths because he’s well-covered and makes serious stops. St. Louis locked it up against the Stars in the second round, allowing just four goals against in the last three games, and Binnington has everything to do with that.

Prediction

The Sharks have ample scoring depth and can physically punish the Blues. Getting in the head of Binnington will be Job One, while Karlsson will have to side-step blunders in his own end. Mistakes will be chastised by St. Louis, but the Sharks know how to hold and build a lead. They’re 7-0 in the playoffs when they’ve allowed two goals against or fewer.

Still, Binnington is the ace in the hole and that’s a problem. St. Louis wins this one in six.

(Photo credit: NBC Sports)

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