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Blues vs. Sharks – Western Conference Final Preview

The teams are all set. In what will be a rematch of the 2016 Western Conference Final, the Blues will face the San Jose Sharks to determine who goes to the Stanley Cup Finals this year. In 2016 the Sharks won the series in six games before going on to lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals. (NHL.com photo)

Here’s the breakdown of our old familiar foe.

REGULAR SEASON

St. Louis was 1-1-1 vs. the Sharks in the regular season. The Blues backup goalie at the time, Chad Johnson stopped every San Jose shot in a 4-0 shutout on November 9, 2018. The next matchup, eight days later was a 4-0 shutout for San Jose. Aaron Dell stopped all 30 St. Louis shots to return the favor. Their third and final meeting was March 9th. San Jose won in overtime. Jake Allen was in net for St. Louis, Martin Jones for the Sharks.

San Jose finished the regular season with a record of 46-27-9. Their 101 points were good for 2nd in the Pacific Division behind Calgary. Finishing one win and 2 points ahead of St. Louis in the regular season earns them the home-ice advantage over the Blues according to NHL playoff rules.

PLAYOFFS

The Sharks barely survived their first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas had them down 3-0 halfway through the third period in game 7 when Cody Eakin cross-checked Joe Pavelski. Pavelski fell awkwardly and split his head open. Eakin received a game misconduct penalty putting the Sharks on the power play for 5 minutes. Consequently, San Jose went on to score four power-play goals to take the lead. Vegas tied the game in the final minute of regulation, but it was Barclay Goodrow‘s goal in the closing minutes of overtime that propelled the Sharks into round two.

Their second-round matchup with Colorado also went the distance to a game seven. San Jose prevailed with a 3-2 win in the final match of a tightly contested series.

GOALIES

Jordan Binnington has not faced the Sharks yet in his career. We believe that gives him a slight advantage over a team that hasn’t seen him yet.

MARTIN JONES

The Sharks starting goalie is Martin Jones who is in his 6th year in the NHL. The 27-year old is 6’4″ and 190 lbs. His career numbers are .912 save % and 2.47 GAA. Jones started 62 games this season and was 36-19-5. Although his record was excellent, his save percentage of .896 and his GAA of 2.94 was the worst he has posted in his NHL career.

Jones has started 54 playoff games in his career with a postseason record of 30-23 with a .922 save % and 2.23 GAA. He is 5-4-0 in 9 career regular season starts vs. the Blues with a .919 save % and 2.00 GAA. Most Blues fans don’t need reminding that he was 4-2 in the 2016 Conference Finals and posted two shutouts to keep them from the Cup Finals.

The undrafted Vancouver native signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings where he played as a backup for two seasons before being traded to Boston in 2015 along with another player and a 1st round pick for Milan Lucic. Four days later, Boston dealt him to San Jose for Sean Kuraly and a first-round pick. He has found a home in San Jose where he has been the go-to guy for the past four seasons starting in no less than 60 games per season during that stretch.

AARON DELL

Backup Aaron Dell has not started a game this postseason but has made two appearances. He has no record but has given up five goals on 36 shots for a .861 save % and 3.35 GAA. Dell was 10-8-4 during the regular season with .886 save % and 3.17 GAA. Barring an injury to Jones or a poor outing, it is unlikely that the Blues will see Dell in this series.

DEFENSE

The best defensive strategy is debated in every sport, but San Jose seems to follow the mantra of George Washington who said in 1799, “Make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only … means of defense.”

The Sharks were 21st in the league in goals allowed (261), yet they were 2nd in goals scored with 289. The San Jose defensemen include some of the best offensive players in the league.

THE LEADER

The wily 35-year-old veteran Brent Burns leads them. Playing in his 15th NHL season, it seems like he’s been around forever. He’s an iron man for the Sharks, having played in all 82 games for each of the past five seasons and logging nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game. Notching a career high in points this season with 16 goals, and 67 assists for 83 points in 82 games makes him a definite offensive threat. He seems to have a knack for getting the puck through traffic to the net. He also quarterbacks one of the power play units where he had seven goals and 21 assists this season.

In the playoffs this year he has five goals, and nine assists for 14 total points in 14 games played and is among the league leaders in all of those categories. His 67 assists during the regular season were 5th among all skaters, more than guys like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Johnny Gaudreau, and Claude Giroux. The Blues must account for him when San Jose sets up shop in the offensive zone. He can beat you in a hurry.

SUPPORTING CAST

As good as Burns is, one man does not a defense make. His partner is typically Marc Edouard Vlasic, another veteran of 13 years in the NHL, all of which have been with the Sharks. Vlasic has three goals and three assists for 6 points in 12 post-season games this year. He is a 4-time NHL All-Star and a good shot blocker with 114 on the season, 2nd only to Justin Braun, a 3rd pairing defenseman who had 120 blocks.

The Sharks defense also boasts one of the highest profile upcoming UFA’s for this coming offseason in Erik Karlsson. The 6’0″ 190 lbs right-shot defenseman was traded to San Jose by the Ottawa Senators in September of last year. He has dealt with some injuries this season. As a result, he played in 53 games and recorded three goals along with 42 assists for 45 points during the regular season but seems to be in top form now recording 12 assists in the 14 playoff games so far. He is magical with the puck and can skate. He’s a perennial All-Star and has won the Norris trophy for best defenseman twice.

Rounding out the D-corps is Brenden Dillon who is typically paired with Karlsson, and Joakim Ryan who plays limited minutes on the 3rd pairing. Dillon played in all 82 games and led the Sharks with 201 hits.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY

Again, this group plays a lot from the opponent’s blue line and in. They add a lot to the scoring threat of the Sharks but also could leave their goalie vulnerable to odd-man rushes and breakaways. Remember, they gave up more goals than 20 other teams in the league.

The Blues will have to limit their chances to contribute on the offensive end, but they can be exploited on the other end. They’ve given up 53 goals in 14 playoff games (3.78 per game). They won the series with Vegas although they were outscored 23-25 in the seven-game set.

OFFENSE

This Sharks team is a scoring machine with threats from multiple lines. They boast five players with 27 or more goals each during the regular season.

In the playoffs, they have been led by Logan Couture with nine goals and five assists. He typically centers the top line with Timo Meier (3G, 6A, 9Pts in playoffs) on his right, and Joe Pavelski on his left. Pavelski (3G, 3A) is the team captain but didn’t play in the Colorado series until game seven. The incident in game 7 of the first round kept him out of the lineup.

THE CAPTAIN

I would compare Pavelski to a Jaden Schwartz in the way that he plays. He’s the motor that drives this team and is excellent at deflecting pucks in front of the net, possibly the best in the league. In his return to the lineup in the deciding game with Colorado he had a deflected goal and an assist.

While he was out, they were sliding Gustav Nyquist (1G, 7A) up from the 2nd line to the top line.

There isn’t much ‘drop off’ from the first to the second lines for San Jose. Tomas Hertl centers the 2nd line. He is 25 years old and in his 6th season in the NHL. This season he set career highs in goals (35), assists (39), and points (74) in 77 games played. He has nine goals and five assists in the playoffs.

THE BAD BOY

On his left is Evander Kane. Kane is a definite scoring threat but isn’t enjoying the most productive playoff run thus far with just two goals and five assists. He seems to be spending a lot of time in the penalty box with 45 PIMs in the first two rounds and set a career high in that category with 153 PIMs during the regular season. That was more PIMs than triple the next closest teammate. For comparison, Joel Edmundson led the Blues with 68 PIMs in the regular season and have three players with only 8 PIMs in the post-season.

Flanking Hertl on the other side is Joonas Donskoi. The 27-year old from Finland had a respectable year. He played in 80 games and notched 14 goals to go along with 23 assists for a career-high of 37 points in his 4th NHL season, while only seeing 13:25 of time on the ice. With Pavelski’s return, Donskoi would probably slide back down to the 4th line where he played most of the season.

THE OLD MAN

While Burns is the eldest defenseman on the San Jose roster, nobody is older than 3rd line center, Joe Thornton at 39 years of age. Playing in his 21st NHL season, ‘Jumbo Joe’ is a 12-time All-star, 3-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner, 3-time Art Ross trophy winner, and has multiple nominations for the Selke trophy, and Lady Byng as well. Thornton is best-remembered by Blues fans for the hit on David Perron back in November of 2010. Thornton received a 2-game suspension for the hit.

Video of Thornton hit on Perron

Although he is a little long in the tooth, Thornton leads a line which has five goals and 12 assists in the 14 playoff games this season. They are effective and cannot be taken lightly. Thornton is 6’4″, 220 lbs, Kevin Labanc is a 23-year old Brooklyn native and has three goals and three assists in the playoffs. The other winger is Marcus Sorensen who has five assists in the playoffs.

DEPTH SCORING

Based on some research from near the end of the regular season, the Blues were the 2nd deepest scoring team heading into the playoffs. Only the Vegas Golden Knights were deeper, according to our criteria. See the story here. 

When looking at the depth of San Jose, with five guys netting 27 or more goals apiece it seems like they are relatively deep. But closer examination reveals that they depended upon their top 7 goal scorers for 67% of their offense during the regular season. If you drop down and include the top 11 goal scorers, they carried 82% of the load.

Thus far in the playoffs, comparing the two teams you see quite a difference in how much each team depends on fewer guys to score. The lower the percentage, the deeper the scoring threat.

 % of Teams Playoff goals scored% of Teams Playoff points scored
Sharks Top 7
83%67%
Blues Top 773%59%
Sharks Top 1189%100%
Blues Top 1188%80%

If you consider the way the Blues have contributed up and down the lineup, you have to give the edge in depth to the Blues. Take a look at how they have contributed through the first two rounds. (We realize some lines have been shifted, but we put totals together as follows)

Schwartz-Schenn-Tarasenko 14G, 6A

Perron-O’Reilly-Blais 6G, 10A

Maroon-Bozak-Thomas 6G, 9A

Fabbri/Sundqvist-Barbashev-Steen 4G, 6A

Defense 4G, 27A

SPECIAL TEAMS

POWER PLAY

San Jose’s power play can be lethal, although they haven’t been as successful as of late. They scored 23.6% of the time in the regular season and have only managed an 18.5% success rate in the playoffs. Ten of their 43 goals this post-season have come on the power play. Hertl (4G,2A) and Couture (3G,2A) are the leading point-getters on the Sharks power play units.

PENALTY KILL

In killing off penalties, they are middle of the pack at 80.8% both in the regular season and the playoffs. Vegas scored eight goals in 29 power plays against them, but they seemed to shore things up against Colorado and only gave up two power-play goals in 23 chances.

OTHER STATS

In the Vegas series, they were outshot by an average of 35 to 33 shots on goal per contest. That flipped in the Colorado series where they managed 30 shots on goal and only allowed 27.4 by the Avalanche.

They won the majority of the faceoffs in a couple of games, but for the most part this postseason they’ve been about 50%.

CONCLUSION

This should be a good series. If St. Louis can play their game, they have an excellent chance to win this series. You have to expect that players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brayden Schenn will find some success eventually in this postseason. Thus far, they’ve been relatively quiet considering what they are capable of doing.

Although there were close to a dozen Blues on the roster in 2016 that are still here, most of them were young and didn’t play a lot in that Western Conference Final. I would hope that Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jay Bouwmeester would remind the boys in the locker room that we owe the Sharks one.

I keep leaning on the Blues depth as one of their key strengths; not only in their forwards but also in the defense. They got more actively involved as the series went on with Dallas and they are some talented offensive threats.

I won’t make a prediction, but you know who I want to win. It should be fun to watch. Let’s go Blues!

SCHEDULE

Gm 1 @ San Jose – Saturday, May 11 – 7 PM Central

Gm 2 @ San Jose – Monday, May 13 – 8 PM Central

Gm 3 @ St. Louis – Wednesday, May 15 – 7 PM Central

Gm 4 @ St. Louis – Friday, May 17 – 7 PM Central

Gm 5 @ San Jose – Sunday, May 19 – 2 PM Central

Gm 6 @ St. Louis – Tuesday, May 21 – 7 PM Central

Gm 7 @ San Jose – Thursday, May 23 – 8 PM Central

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Tim Hirsch

I am a lifelong resident of Du Quoin, IL and have been a Blues fan since as long as I can remember. My dad started following the Blues in 1967. I was 3 years old, so I guess I've been a fan all my life.

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