Western Conference Finals Preview: Sharks vs. Blues

 

How the Blues got here:

By being resilient, that’s how. And it’s still strange to say.

 

After a crushing defeat at the Madhouse in Game 6 against Chicago, it all felt much too familiar. The Blues were going to be outed again in the first round, perpetually unable to get past the hump and each first-round exit more painful than the last. Except the Blues won, and carried that momentum forward against Dallas.

 

By the time the Stars had pushed the series to seven games, the Blues had already lost any reason to panic. They polished off the reigning Cup champions in seven games, so there was no reason they couldn’t do the same to the Central Division winner, a Dallas team that still had many holes on defense and question marks in net. The Stars defense just didn’t have an answer to their size and versatility – young John Klingberg still has plenty of growing to do and Kris Russell barely moved the meter, which left 6-foot-3 Stephen Johns, who had 14 career NHL games prior to the playoffs, as the only player big enough to the handle the Blues’ size. And, as expected, neither Kari Lehtonen nor Antti Niemi were particularly sharp, showing flashes of ability but not consistent enough for Lindy Ruff to trust either one.

 

Those two weaknesses were exploited by the Blues’ depth, because if Vladimir Tarasenko wasn’t doing the scoring, it was Troy Brouwer and Robby Fabbri. Even David Backes, who posted his lowest point total in seven seasons, has six goals in the playoffs this year, after scoring just five in his previous 31 playoff games. Backes has been so good that the Blues may think twice before moving on from their long-time captain. The Stars did all they could with a young lineup that was missing key bodies, and simply just ran into a better, more experienced team.

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How the Sharks got here:

Little Joe, Jumbo Joe, Any Joe. And throw in a little Logan as well, who set a new Sharks record with 11 points in a single series. The Sharks’ big guns have come through every single game, and even though it took seven games to dispatch the Predators, they ran the table in Game 7, getting out to a 3-0 lead early and holding the Predators to fewer than 10 shots until the third period. Roman Josi and Shea Weber were uncharacteristically bad, and the usually composed Pekka Rinne smashed his stick in frustration after a goalie switch.

 

It didn’t matter what kind of pressure or defense the Kings or Predators threw at the Sharks, because they simply ate it up. Like the Blues before them, the Sharks had to exorcize demons of their own, first getting past the Kings, believing in themselves a lot more than they ever did before. But something clicked this year. Overlooked all season and still employing two players (Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau) who had been stripped of their captaincy and begging all sorts of questions about locker room dynamics, the Sharks had a different bite.

 

For starters, even if he was untested before the season, Martin Jones provided a calming presence in net all season, something that was missing when Antti Niemi tended the pipes. Brent Burns then turned in the best season of his career, while Thornton, Pavelski and Couture became the dreaded three-headed monster people expected. Sprinkle the roster with some skill in Marleau, a finally healthy Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi (who will take any hit to make a play), and then some size in Joel Ward and Dainius Zubrus (who was excellent in limited action), then you have all the makings of a winning team.

 

Something has to be said about Peter DeBoer, who has only made the playoffs just once in five seasons prior to joining San Jose; but, that one time he made the playoffs, he took a patchwork Devils squad straight to the Finals. Could he do it again in his second career playoff appearance? Seemingly soft-spoken and always having a look of concern on his face, he’s managed to steer the ship through some pretty choppy waters, especially with a franchise that has had its share of playoff disappointments.

 

The best player in the series is:

Vladimir Tarasenko has the game-breaking, one-on-one talent nobody else on either team possesses, but how can it not be Pavelski? He’s scored nine goals in 12 games (tied with Nikita Kucherov for the league lead), two of which were of the game-winning variety, and leads all Sharks forwards in ice time with almost 21 minutes per game. If Tarasenko played 21 instead of 18 per game, he might have a shot at this title. It looks like the Sharks have finally found the right guy to lead the team, and Pavelski hasn’t disappointed. He’s always around the net and plays in all situations. Considering his recent play, Couture should be part of the conversation as well.

 

The best defenseman in the series is:

Sorry, Chewie. In short, what Alex Pietrangelo did against the Stars might have cemented him as one of the future pillars of Team Canada’s defense. He current averages 29:41 per game, the highest among defensemen currently in the playoffs, and nearly four more minutes more than Burns. It may not sound like much, but that’s equivalent to five or six shifts per game, meaning that Hitchcock has five or six more chances per game to utilize Pietrangelo than DeBoer can with Burns (or Marc-Edouard Vlasic). Now, Pietrangelo doesn’t have the same offensive ability as Burns or even Kevin Shattenkirk, but you can bet he will play a vital role if the Blues can shut down the Sharks offense.

 

The best goalie in the series is:

This is the toughest question, and ultimately the decider of the series. It’s so close. Consider:

 

Brian Elliott: 8 W, 2.29 GAA, .929 Sv%, 1 SO

Martin Jones: 8 W, 2.16 GAA, .918 Sv%, 1SO

 

So, who has the upper hand? Elliott seems to have the statistical edge with the better even-strength save percentage (.941 vs. .923), but keep in mind that he’s already been pulled once, and that the Blues play with a lot of defensive structure with a deeper blue line. Jones, on the other hand, looked largely unflappable all playoffs and shut out the Predators in Game 7 after a 12-shot barrage in the third period. It’s Jones, but only by a hair. Should this series become a battle of the backups – as unlikely as that might be – Allen has a clear edge over James Reimer.

 

Top five storylines:

 

  1. The Stars offense was good enough to chase Brian Elliott, but not good enough to force the Blues to make a permanent switch. But now everyone knows Elliott is prone to the odd poor game, and that playing as well as he has for the past two months can be a tiring feat – so, will we see Jake Allen at any point this series? It’s certainly plausible given how explosive the Sharks offense is. How much of a leash does Ken Hitchcock give Elliott, knowing that he has a very good insurance option in Allen?

 

  1. Which lines reigns supreme? Vladimir Tarasenko has laid waste to the Western Conference this season, but coming out of Round 2, it’s Paul Stastny’s line with Robby Fabbri and Troy Brouwer that has looked the best. David Backes also had an excellent Round 2 performance, so now that gives Hitchcock two lines that he trusts far more than Tarasenko’s line on the defensive side of the puck. The Tarasenko minutes watch has been ongoing, and he’s clearly irked when he doesn’t get his ice time. Winning cures all – but what happens when they start losing?

 

  1. Which kid will come through? Robby Fabbri has cemented his status as the breakout young player of the playoffs. There’s one every year. But the playoffs aren’t over yet, and Tomas Hertl is playing his best hockey since suffering a serious knee injury. He may be the third wheel on the Sharks’ top line, but what a wheel he has, using his speed to create all kinds of space all over the ice. The wily vets will hang around, but the playoffs are a young man’s game.

 

  1. Special teams. The Sharks and Blues are clicking at 28.2 percent and 27.5 percent, respectively, with the man advantage. Both teams feature a bevy of offensive weapons, and penalty killing units that can be exploited. Head-to-head, it seems like an equal matchup, which is why whichever team exploits the other in special teams will have the clear upper hand. You can bet discipline will be one of the keys to winning the series.

 

  1. Possession hockey wins. It is known. And possession starts with winning faceoffs, but guess what? Of the eight teams that win over half their faceoffs, only the Blues (50.7 percent) remain. Meanwhile, the three weakest teams? Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and San Jose. Odd, isn’t it? But that doesn’t mean faceoffs will be irrelevant. In fact, it might be the opposite. Couture is barely winning 40 percent, while Paul Stastny is close to 60. You’re telling me Hitchcock isn’t just salivating at that matchup, especially if they’re in the offensive zone? Both teams also have a penchant for utilizing wingers in the faceoff dot, especially if they’re on their strong side, but it’s easy to overthink and put too much emphasis on these matchups, too.

 

Prediction:

The Blues are just a little bit deeper, and that should make all the difference in the world. Make no mistake, the Sharks are very good, but it’s hard to see them win the series if they can’t chase Brian Elliott from the net at least once. The Blues seem to have been through it all this playoffs – they knocked off reigning champion Chicago despite being considered the underdog going into Game 7, then thumped division champion Dallas, holding their vaunted defense to just one goal in another Game 7. It’ll be close, but Blues in 7. Why not keep the streak going?