It took 14 combined games, one double-overtime thriller and another nail-biting finish, but the stage has been set for the Western Conference final and it’s a matchup with which the two fanbases will be awfully familiar. It was just three seasons ago, during the 2016 post-season, that the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues clashed in the third round with the conference crown and a berth in the Stanley Cup final on the line.
For the Sharks, the hope entering the series is that it follows the same script as that 2016 meeting. Despite needing six games to oust St. Louis, San Jose’s victory was rather convincing, each win coming by at least three goals, the Sharks posting two shutouts in the round and closing out the series with 22 goals for and 13 against. And San Jose enters the series with a similar group, as 10 skaters – 11 if you include goaltender Martin Jones – who were part of that Western Conference championship-winning club will suit up in this rematch with the Blues.
St. Louis, however, looks vastly different now than it did then. While much of the defense corps from that series remains the same, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Alex Steen are the only current lineup regulars who were fixtures of the Blues’ forward group in that series. (Robby Fabbri played a minor role then and has been in and out of the lineup this post-season.) And with all the changes that have been made, including the up-front additions of Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn and David Perron, St. Louis’ hope is that history won’t repeat itself.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
The path to the Western Conference final has by no means been an easy one for the Sharks. San Jose had to claw back from what looked like a certain series defeat at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights – first because of the 3-1 series deficit and later because of the 3-0 hole the Sharks had dug in Game 7 – and then traded wins and losses with the Colorado Avalanche before landing the knockout punch in the seventh game of the second-round matchup. But it’s hard not to like what you’ve seen out of the Sharks this post-season. And against all expectations, that begins in the crease.
Much was said and written, including around these parts, about Martin Jones entering the post-season. The Sharks goaltender was well below average during the regular season, not much better than the majority of backup keepers throughout the NHL, and some were of the mind that San Jose’s playoff fate would hinge solely on his play. And that has indeed appeared to be true, although not in the way most expected. Through four games in the opening round, Jones was awful, pulled twice and posting a save percentage so poor one had to wonder if Aaron Dell would get the call in Game 5. But the Sharks went back to Jones, who has been brilliant since, turning in a .928 SP across his past 10 games including a series-sealing 29-save performance in Game 7 against the Avalanche.
The return of Joe Pavelski in Game 7 also provided and will continue to provide a significant boost, and the Sharks captain made his mark on the second-round series with his one-goal, two-point performance. That Pavelski is back and ready to go come the conference final is a boon for the Sharks’ offense, which has already been among the post-season’s most effective. Their 3.07 goals per game are the fourth-most of any playoff team. (Coincidentally, both Eastern Conference finalists, the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes, are only slightly ahead of San Jose at 3.08 and 3.09 goals per game, respectively.)
What the Sharks will need to watch going forward is their limiting of prime opportunities. No team left standing has allowed a higher quantity of scoring chances or high-danger chances against at 5-on-5, and for as good as Jones has been, San Jose has been flirting with disaster by giving up so many quality looks.
X-Factor: All eyes are going to be on Pavelski, Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson in the conference final, and with good reason. But maybe that allows Timo Meier to slip out of the spotlight and fly under the radar. Meier, who has three goals and 10 points this post-season, is coming off of a breakout regular season performance and has been one of the Sharks’ best skaters night in and night out. If the Blues aren’t careful, it could be Meier – not one of the bigger names – who does the most damage.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
It’s been said time and again, and by the time the Western Conference final is through we’ll surely be sick of talking about it, but it bears repeating as we prepare for the third round: on Jan. 2, the St. Louis Blues were the last-place team in the NHL. They were three games under .500, had an NHL-worst 34 points, a minus-21 goal differential and were considered among the most disappointing teams in the league, if not the most disappointing of them all.
And that’s what makes the about-face the Blues have made over the past several months so remarkable. St. Louis looked dead and buried only to rise from their graves to win their way into a divisional playoff spot, knock off the Stanley Cup contending Winnipeg Jets, outlast the Dallas Stars in a double-overtime Game 7 marathon in Round 2 and punch a ticket to the conference final. So, how do they go one step further?
The most important thing for the Blues moving forward, particularly given offense hasn’t come all that easy throughout the post-season, is the continuation of the stellar defensive play that has seen them smother opponents at times this post-season. St. Louis has been among the stingiest playoff teams, allowing a mere 29.2 shots against per game, and in no outing was their commitment to insulating goaltender Jordan Binnington more evident than when the Blues surrendered just four shots throughout the final two regulation frames in Game 7 against the Stars.
Speaking of Binnington, there will be a reliance on his being equal to the task against a San Jose offense that is averaging upwards of three goals per game. The good news? Binnington has been steady. The bad news? He hasn’t been quite as good as he was during the regular season. After posting a .927 SP through 32 regular season games, Binnington has a .915 SP through 13 post-season contests. When he has been shaky, however, Binnington has come back with an A-plus performance the next time out. That should give St. Louis continued confidence in their netminder.
As noted, though, the Blues need to start finding a consistent source of offense. St. Louis 2.62 goals per game is nearly half a goal less than the next-lowest scoring conference finalist. And while a few skaters have come through, namely Jaden Schwartz, it’s time for others to step up. Vladimir Tarasenko has five goals, but that’s the entirety of his offensive output. David Perron had two points in seven games in the second round. Brayden Schenn only managed one point, an assist, against the Stars. And Ryan O’Reilly hasn’t scored since Game 5 against Winnipeg.
X-Factor: Alex Pietrangelo is leading the offensive charge from the blueline, but Colton Parayko could make the biggest impact in the conference final. In the first round, he was tasked with shutting down Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. In the second round, Parayko drew Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov in the matchup game. So, it stands to reason that Parayko is going to see a lot of Logan Couture in Round 3. If the Blues blueliner is effective in slowing down the Sharks’ top scorer, St. Louis could take over the series.
Nov. 9, 2018 – STL 4, SJ 0
Nov. 17, 2018 – SJ 4, STL 0
March 9, 2019 – SJ 3, STL 2 (OT)
Fan Favorite: St. Louis Blues
THN Series Pick: St. Louis Blues in six
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