St. Louis Playoff Preview: Bring on the Sharks
The schedule is set. The St. Louis Blues finally know who they will be facing in the first round of the playoffs - the San Jose Sharks. There's plenty of history. There's some bad blood. There's even a familiar face. The first round should be a good one.
The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks have crossed paths numerous times in the NHL playoffs. The most notable might have been the 1999-00 campaign where the Blues entered the playoffs as the Presidents' Trophy winner and the clear favorite to take home the Cup. San Jose had other ideas, ousting the Blues in Game 7 of the first round.
The Blues got redemption, beating the Sharks in the playoffs in 2000-01. San Jose answered, sending the Blues home from the playoffs in 2003-04.
As you can see, the Blues and Sharks have shared plenty of playoff memories over the course of the past several seasons, causing plenty of celebrations and disappointments for both clubs. The old rivalry is renewed in the coming weeks.
Previous playoff matchups aside, plenty of Blues fans are still unhappy with Joe Thornton, the man who hit David Perron in the head that caused the St. Louis forward to miss a year of playing time. This point isn't what I'd label as a feud or anything serious, but it is sure to be lingering in St. Louis minds.
Skipping back to the present day, the Sharks are a team the Blues handled with ease during the 2011-12 season. The Blues beat San Jose four times in regulation during the regular season which, on paper, makes the matchup look to heavily favor the Blues. However, as the playoffs have taught us, there are no guarantees once the regular season ends and the playoffs begin.
Former Blue Brad Winchester is a member of the Sharks. While he has been used in a reserve role as the season concluded, the Sharks may opt to dress Winchester to add some extra grit to their lineup.
San Jose Goaltending
Most fans should be relived that the Blues avoided the LA Kings as it would mean a direct confrontation with elite goaltender Jonathan Quick. Instead, the Blues draw Antti Niemi.
Niemi is a tough goaltender to analyze. At times, he can be one of the best in the business while at other times he loses focus and can be breached for goals by the handful. He ended the 2011-12 season with a 34-22-9 record with a 2.42 GAA and a save percentage of .915. He recently enjoyed a successful stretch of games through the end of March and the start of April that saw him win six of the eight games he appeared in.
Like any goaltender in the NHL, when Niemi is on he is nearly unbeatable. Thankfully, this happens a lot less often compared to other goaltenders such as potential foe Jonathan Quick.
San Jose Defense
San Jose had a strong defense in 2011-12, allowing 2.50 goals a game (8th in the NHL). They allowed an average of 28.6 shots a game (8th in the NHL).
Their defense is active in the team's offense with Dan Boyle (9 goals, 39 assists) frequently getting involved in the team's offensive scheme. Brent Burns (11 goals, 26 assists) is another offensive weapon that also brings a big physical element to his defensive play.
The long story short here is that San Jose's defense has been good most of the year. As evidenced by the rankings, it hasn't been able to jump from being good to great.
San Jose Offense
The casual fan may look at the names in the San Jose offense and consider it the team's strength. On the contrary, San Jose's offense has been mostly average all season long. They've averaged 2.67 goals a contest (13th in the NHL) which does best the St. Louis attack (2.51 - 21st), it's not elite as some people might think.
That being said, the Sharks do have some notable names the Blues need to look out for. Joe Thornton (18 goals, 59 assists), Logan Couture (31 goals, 34 assists), Patrick Marleau (30 goals, 34 assists) and Joe Pavelski (31 goals, 30 assists) are the biggest threats and thus the biggest targets.
San Jose Special Teams
Make special note of this category as it could be a crucial one.
Though San Jose's offense as a whole has been mostly average, their power-play has been elite. They ended the year with a power-play that converted 21.1% of the time (2nd in the NHL). When they get the opportunity, they make you pay. The Blues need to avoid mental lapses, avoid stupid penalties and keep out of the box.
San Jose's penalty kill is a different story. The unit ranked second worst in the NHL with a percentage of 76.9%. This bodes well for the St. Louis power-play that has struggled the last couple weeks.
I'm not a fan of the usual "Team X wins in X games". Hockey has so many uncertainties and intangible aspects that these types of predictions are typically just guesses from a hat.
That being said, I think the Blues will take this series. San Jose holds the edge in playoff experience the past few years but they haven't been able to do very much with it. Mental demons have consistently got into the minds of various Sharks players and have caused them to continuously stumble short of their ultimate prize.
The Blues have lacked quality the past couple weeks which is something to worry about. They have a healthy roster that has presented questions about team chemistry and which players should be deployed where. Incredibly, the Blues are in a situation where they actually played better when more players were on the IR. This is a large area of concern heading into the series.
If both teams are "on" and playing their best, I give the series to the Blues. The Blues have been an elite team at times in 2011-12 while the Sharks at their best have mostly been in the "great" category while rarely, if ever, fringing on elite.
If the Blues are unable to patch the issue of chemistry and what the fourth line should consist of, San Jose could easily disrupt the party and send the Blues to the golf course early.
The Blues can win if they work together, turn in a solid 60, and resort to the tactics that they used nearly all season long. The Sharks can win if their offense gels, Antti Niemi plays like he is capable of and by getting into the mind of either Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott - or both.
For fun, Yahoo! predicts the Blues will win in five games