SAN JOSE, Calif. – There is at least one lesson the San Jose Sharks learned while losing all four regular-season games against first-round playoff opponent St. Louis.
“Whatever we’ve done so far this year is probably what not to do,” defenceman Dan Boyle said.
The Sharks are looking for a complete reversal from the decidedly one-sided season series in which the Blues dominated special teams, clogged up the neutral zone and thoroughly dominated a San Jose team that had controlled the series in recent years.
That was far from the case this season as St. Louis outscored San Jose 11-3 and allowed just one goal in the final 10 periods played between the teams.
“We didn’t play well against this team. So I can give you a long list of about 15 things that have to be better,” coach Todd McLellan said. “That could be a good thing for us. We haven’t played to our capabilities against this team.”
McLellan pointed out deficiencies in penalty killing, a lack of scoring chances, a failure to challenge goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott and the inability to play with the lead. San Jose led for less than 14 minutes in the four games and in only one of the final three contests.
McLellan said the Blues are basically a simple team that plays a “north-south” game under coach Ken Hitchcock and tries to outwork opponents rather than out-trick them.
“You have to understand how they play,” McLellan said. “Two and a half goals is enough for them. If you think you’re going to hit the home run one shift and play a high-risk game and try and force something it could come back to bite you for one goal against. You don’t want to play safe against them. You want to be aggressive but you also have to understand how they play.”
San Jose failed to score a goal in two trips to St. Louis, being shut out by Elliott in December and Halak in February, and failed to score on its last 14 power-play chances against the Blues.
The Blues are the stingiest team in the league, setting a record by allowing just 155 goals in an 82-game season. That was even more of the case after Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne in early November and put in his system that relies heavily on the forecheck and waits for the opponents to make mistakes.
“They’re tight defensively,” forward Logan Couture said. “You look at how they play. They’ve got five guys around their net most of the time and they really don’t give up many odd-man rushes. In the hockey game you get chances. You just got to bear down.”
The Sharks had won 20 of 26 meetings between the teams before faltering this season. They are banking on there being a big change between four single meetings over a five-month span in the regular season and a best-of-seven series.
One difference will be the return of second-line winger Marty Havlat, who missed the last three meetings but has bolstered the team with his return last month.
“Hopefully it’s different for us,” forward Torrey Mitchell said. “You’re obviously more focused in on the team than during the season. You play so many games and you’re in and out of a city pretty quick. Some teams you don’t know that much about sometimes. Now we’re focused in on each other.”
One bright note for San Jose is that the series was much more even when the teams played 5-on-5 hockey. The Blues got five of their goals on power plays, including three with a two-man advantage, and also had two empty-net goals. St. Louis outscored the Sharks 3-2 in straight 5-on-5 play, adding another goal in a 4-on-4 situation.
That will make staying out of the penalty box a priority for the Sharks, who uncharacteristically were short-handed 19 times in the four matchups. San Jose allowed the fewest power-play opportunities in the league with just 225.
The Sharks struggled all season when short-handed with their 76.9 per cent penalty besting only the Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished with the worst record in the league.
“For us it’s not the penalties, it’s just the timing of some of the penalties putting us down 5-on-3,” forward Ryane Clowe said. “A lot of them are penalties. We can’t complain too much about them. We have to get better in that area. Obviously our PK has to be strong. St. Louis is a disciplined team. I don’t see them taking a whole lot of minors. I think it will be a lot of 5-on-5.”
Notes: D Brent Burns returned to practice after sitting out Monday. … Clowe, who missed the third period of Saturday’s season finale against Los Angeles, missed his second straight practice with an undisclosed injury but is expected to play Thursday, McLellan said.