Thu Apr 12, 2012 Sharks Blues 4:30 PM TSN, CNBC, RDSI, CSN-CA(HD)
Sat Apr 14, 2012 Sharks Blues 4:30 PM TSN, CNBC, RDSI, CSN-CA(HD)
Mon Apr 16, 2012 Blues Sharks 7:00 PM TSN, NBCSN, RDS, CSN-CA(HD)
Thu Apr 19, 2012 Blues Sharks 7:30 PM TSN, NBCSN, RDS, CSN-CA(HD)
Sat Apr 21, 2012 Sharks Blues 4:30 PM TSN, CNBC, RDS2, CSN-CA(HD)
Mon Apr 23, 2012 Blues Sharks TV/TIME: TBD CSN-CA(HD)
Wed Apr 25, 2012 Sharks Blues TV/TIME: TBD CSN-CA(HD)
So this one should be easy right? I mean, the St. Louis Blues dominated the San Jose Sharks this season, sweeping the season series 4-0 and outscoring them 11-3 in the process. So no worries here, should be an easy sweep for the Blues right?
However, I’m sure if you asked the St. Louis Blues roster to be honest with themselves, I would imagine the last team they’d want to face in the opening round was the battled-tested Sharks. Remember the last two season, the Sharks have been to back-to-back Western Conference finals, and they’ve won back-to-back playoff series wins over the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
For this season, unlike any other in the recent past, if there’s an upset team in the making in these Stanley Cup playoffs, it might indeed be the Sharks. Their season would be considered bizarre and disappointing. For a team, at the NHL all-star break that was leading the West in winning percentage, and then to a team that had to win the last four games of the season to finish in seventh. But the regular season is over and they begin the postseason with a fresh start and a loaded squad. For a team that’s had constant pressure on them and play this series without the usual pressure of having to live up to a high seed.
The Sharks will hope to repeat a playoff series like they did in 2000 when they upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blues in the playoffs.
San Jose, however, will have its hands full with a Blues squad that played, some of the most consistent and high intensity brand of hockey of any team in the league this season. It’s a club that makes you earn every inch of the ice after the hiring of Coach Ken Hitchcock. This is a team that doesn’t rely on one line or one player, but rather a deep and balanced club that led the NHL in goals against and played brilliantly in St. Louis, where they posted the NHL’s second-best home record at 30-6-5.
As a fan of the Sharks and of the game this series is going to be a hugely compelling series. I’ve also been a fan of St. Louis for a few seasons; the Blues roster is loaded top to bottom with young speedy, creative talent, exactly the type of team I like to watch.
Part of the reason the Blues were the defensive jugger naught this season allowing the fewest goals in the NHL, was not only because of their brilliant goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, but also because they allowed the fewest shots against in the NHL, at 26.7 per game. Interestingly, the Sharks finished second in the league in shots per game at 33.8, so something has to give here in this series. The Sharks love to get pucks to the net from any angle, work the cycle game and crash the net for rebounds. While the Blues have been incredibly adept at protecting the front of their net.
The Sharks were an atrocious 29th on the penalty kill this season, and this will be an area the Blues need to capitalize on. However, St. Louis only ranked only 19th on the power play. The Blues did excelled on the PK, ranking seventh in the NHL this season. They’ll need to be at their best against the Sharks, who had the second-ranked power play, which is buoyed by two equally dangerous five-man units. If the regular season means anything, the Blues did only limit the Sharks to one power-play goal on 15 chances in their four regular-season games.
While Elliott led the league in goals-against average and save percentage and he played eight fewer games than Halak in goal for St. Louis. Good thing for Coach Hitchcock, there really is no bad choice. However, Halak’s magical 2010 playoff run with the Montreal Canadians, when he backstopped two improbable series wins over heavily favored Washington and Pittsburgh, would have to come into play, you would think. Either way, Hitchcock has massive trust in both of his net minders and has the benefit of switching it up if and when things go awry in this series. As he has done all season long. Each goalie won two games each versus the Sharks this season.
The Blues’ leading scorer was David Backes, scoring only 54 points this season, which ranked only 74th overall in the NHL scoring race. The Blues as a team were only 21st in offense, scoring at a pace of 2.51 goals per game. The Blues were however, the second in the NHL in a key statistic that I covet: goals for/against ratio. That ratio was +1.34, ranking second only to Detroit’s. So you must wonder which top two teams in the 2010-11 regular season had the best goals for/against ratio. Of course, it was Boston and Vancouver.
Alex Pietrangelo leads the Blues in ice time this season at 24:43, putting up 51 points while playing key defensive minutes against the opposition’s top offensive threats. So it’s likely he’ll be matched up against Joe Thornton’s top line with Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski. This is no easy task. It’s this matchup that will likely decide the series. Of course, the Blues also have to worry about San Jose’s second line of Logan Couture, Ryane Clowe and Marty Havlat. That’s the matchup headache the Sharks represent when they’re fully healthy. While Joe Thornton is still a top tier playmaking centre, he’s transformed himself into a top end two way player. Thornton is amongst the lead leaders in takeaways, and is a plus 17 on the season.
Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi has not had the kind of season he would have wanted. His mediocre play especially in the opening two-thirds of the season was a key reason for San Jose’s struggles. But the quiet net minder finished strong in March-April just in time for the real season. No one ever gives this guy credit, despite a Stanley Cup ring from 2010 with as the starter for the Chicago Blackhawks. You can bet with the league-leading Halak/Elliott duo staring him across the ice, Niemi will be an area of focus if the Sharks fall behind in this series.
David Perron has been unreal since coming back from a career-threatening concussion (suffered against San Jose, ironically, in November 2010, after Joe Thornton blindsided him) that made him miss more than a year. He has potted 21 goals in 57 games this season and has the ability to change a game on a dime. This could be a big coming-out party for him on the bigger, playoff stage, especially if St. Louis is to move on from this series.
The Sharks certainly have not given me much reason for most of this season to believe they’d take the next step from back-to-back conference finals to Stanley Cup finals berth. However, this is a playoff-savvy team without the weight of expectation for once.
Most of the numbers, and regular-season evidence, point to a Blues series win, but the Sharks have a shot against their younger, less-experienced opponents.
The Blues have a huge edge in goaltending with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Antti Niemi was better in goal for the Sharks late in the season but he does not inspire confidence.
While the Blues didn’t lose to the Sharks in the regular season, they lost four of their last five games while the Sharks won four in a row. Sharks also have the edge in playoff experience.
Smyth: Sharks in 7.
Blais: Blues in 6.
Diceman: Blues in 6.
Pinder: Blues in 5.