In a battle of long-suffering fanbases, either the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues will advance to the Stanley Cup final representing the Western Conference. For the Blues, goaltending and discipline will be key, while the Sharks will look to speed and chance-creation in hopes of getting to their first Stanley Cup final.
SERIES STARTS: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, in St. Louis.
THE BLUES WIN IF...
The backbone of the Blues’ run to the Western Conference final has been Brian Elliott, and barring his hiccup in Game 6 of the second round, Elliott has been fantastic. Through two seven-game series, he has a 2.29 goals-against average and .929 SP, but the sheer number of high-danger saves Elliott has had to make is incredible. He could easily have some of the worst numbers of any netminder in this post-season, and it wouldn’t be any fault of his own. Instead, he’s stepped up and dominated in nearly every game he has played.
Beyond the obvious, it’s huge for St. Louis that Elliott has been this outstanding because a continuation of that level of play is going to be absolutely necessary against a San Jose Sharks team that has feasted on opposing goaltenders. But it will be just as important for the sturdy defense corps in St. Louis to slow down a San Jose attack that has been producing scoring chances almost at will. None of the four remaining teams have produced as many high-danger chances as the Sharks, but the Blues are the best chance-limiting team of the four conference finalists. That'll be something to watch.
The Blues will need to have the same counter-attack they’ve showcased all post-season, too. St. Louis dispatched of a threatening 5-on-5 team in the Dallas Stars in Round Two, and the Blues managed to emerge with a goal differential of plus-seven at five a side. The Blues are the highest scoring team in the post-season at 5-on-5 and their team — fully healthy for the first time all season entering the post-season — has shown they can hang with offensive juggernauts in Chicago and Dallas.
All of the above pertains to even strength play, though, and the Blues should use the first two rounds as a warning shot from the Sharks. Discipline will be absolutely, positively key for St. Louis, which isn’t the best news for a Blues team which has been shorthanded 39 times in 14 games. Giving up two or more power plays per game to San Jose is flirting with disaster, so discipline will have to be preached from before puck drop of Game 1 until the final intermission of the deciding game, whichever contest that may be.
THE SHARKS WIN IF...
San Jose showed off their speed in the seven-game series with the Predators, and that created havoc for a Nashville team that is exceptional defensively. If the Sharks want to get by the Blues in the Western Conference final, San Jose will again need to showcase that speed. Not only does that type of quickness offer coach Pete DeBoer's group the opportunity to turn around the Blues defense and put St. Louis on its heels, but it could lead to the Blues attempting to clutch and grab to slow down the Sharks. If that happens, the playoff-best power play gets to go to work, and we've seen how that's gone for the opposition.
As it does every year, though, the post-season has shown the game is called differently as the games get more meaningful, so the Sharks can’t rely on their work with the man advantage to get them through the Blues. Luckily, San Jose boasts the second-most productive offense and they’ve managed that against two teams in the Kings and Predators who are historically stingy. That bodes well for the Sharks’ ability to break down the Blues defensive structure.
The offense is going to have to run through Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture again, however, and that means the trio is going to have to find a way to make a difference. Unfortunately, that's a tall task against the Blues. Just ask St. Louis' two post-season victims in Chicago and Dallas. In the first round, the Blackhawks’ trio of Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may have combined for 20 points, but only three of those points were goals against the Blues. The same went for the Stars, whose trio of Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp combined for just three goals and 11 points in seven games against St. Louis. If Pavelski, Thornton and Couture can be the trio to finally start lighting the lamp against the Blues, it could be a quick series.
St. Louis has shown a tremendous ability to strike back quickly when scored on, too, and it will be up to San Jose to put a stop to that. It may be a lot to ask, but much of that duty has to fall on the shoulders of goaltender Martin Jones. He was good against Nashville, but he’ll have to be closer to great if he has designs on helping the Sharks to the Stanley Cup final. Brian Elliott’s play of late will almost ensure that one game in this series will be a goaltending duel. If Jones can win help San Jose win that contest, though, the Sharks’ chances likely increase astronomically.
BLUES: St. Louis boasts the toughest offense that San Jose has had to face in this post-season, but that will make the Sharks key in on players such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and Jaden Schwartz. That could open up room for captain David Backes to operate, and he could be a difference-maker. Backes is having the best post-season of his career with six goals and 12 points in 14 games, and he could cause problems for the Sharks defense. If Backes keeps rolling, expect St. Louis to keep on moving right through San Jose.
SHARKS: Pavelski, Couture, Thornton and Brent Burns are the four top scorers for the Sharks in the post-season, but the Blues can’t sleep on Patrick Marleau. With four goals and nine points in 12 games, Marleau is having another stellar post-season, but the veteran winger is flying largely under the radar. Marleau still has the speed to burn an opposition defense and with this being one of his final shots at chasing a Stanley Cup, you can be sure the 36-year-old is going to do everything in his power to get the Sharks to the final.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
This year’s EA Sports NHL Cover Vote couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. It’s between Joe Pavelski and Vladimir Tarasenko who happen to be facing off in real life during the playoffs. They’re two of the top right wingers in hockey and have been the catalysts to their teams’ success this post-season. Pavelski leads the league in playoff goals with nine (tied with Nikita Kucherov) while Tarasenko is tied for the team lead in points with Robby Fabbri at 13. The two actually haven’t spent much time playing against each other as Ken Hitchcock tends to keep Tarasenko away from top matchups, but that’ll likely change this series. The two score goals at a very similar clip and generate offensive chances at the same level, but the difference is Tarasenko is a better playmaker while Pavelski is the better defender. It’ll be an interesting matchup between two of the league’s best goal scorers and perhaps EA should just get rid of the Cover Vote and let the on-ice battle do the talking.
THN'S PICK: SHARKS in seven games.