Much like the Vancouver-Los Angeles series, the #2 vs. #7 matchup between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues looks to be a lot closer than the team's seedings indicate. In one corner, we have the Blues who have quietly assembled a great foundation over the last few years and are now seeing it pay off as they are sitting pretty at #2 in the Western Conference. In the other corner, we have the hard-luck kids known as the San Jose Sharks who were expected to contend for the Cup (yet again) but ended up not earning a playoff spot until the last week of the season.
I am willing to bet that if you asked almost any fan at the beginning of the season which one of these teams would be one of the best in the Western Conference and which one would be battling for one of the final playoff spots, they would probably guess the Sharks for the former and the Blues for the latter. It hasn't quite worked out that way, obviously and it's actually been more of the opposite. Most pundits are impressed with what Ken Hitchcock has done with the Blues this season and have them winning in a short series, but I think it'll be much more difficult for them. Find out why after the jump.
Like many of the playoff matchups this year, both teams are among the best in their conference at driving possession, but the Blues have been an elite team in this category this year. This has been one of their stronger areas for the last couple of seasons and it seems like great goaltending is what has finally gotten them over the hump. Meanwhile, the Sharks have constantly been among the league's best at scoring and puck-possession but they have fell victim to some bad shooting percentages at even strength and awful goaltending on the penalty kill, which has been part of the reason for their struggle this year.
When it comes to even strength play, the Blues have the advantage in just about every category. Although, when two good possession teams are matched up against each other, I usually see things going either way at even strength. The Blues still have the advantage in goaltending with the tandem of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak but I am a bit skeptical of how sustainable that .936 save percentage is, especially Elliott's. Even if one of them screws up in the playoffs, it's nice to have another guy to fall-back on which is something San Jose doesn't have as their only guy behind Anttii Niemi is Thomas Greiss, who has not played many games this season.
St. Louis does have the advantage in goaltending but something they don't have is start talent. They have a lot of great players like David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, David Perron and TJ Oshie but San Jose has a lot more pure goal-scorers. Let's say that one of their goalies has a bad outing, can St. Louis' forwards afford to get into a run and gun style of game with the Sharks? I don't think that will work in their favor, so I could see St. Louis struggling if they are forced into that style of play.
That being said, the Blues' defense is among the best and most underrated in the league so I think they will be fine there. The powerplay is where their only weak-point is but San Jose's penalty kill is one of the worst in the NHL and it's only made worse when you factor in Niemi's atrocious PK save percentage. On the flipside, the Sharks have a terrific powerplay that is up against a stout Blues penalty kill that is backed by good shorthanded goaltending. Something has to give with either of these match-ups and I do think that San Jose does have somewhat of an advantage here.
I could be overvaluing San Jose's talent a little bit, but it is really hard to say that guys like Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Burns & Pavelski won't be producing on the PP since they've been so good there for most of the year. Then you have the PK which got better with the additions of Dominic Moore and Daniel Winnik. I think those acquisitions will definitely pay off for the Sharks in this series and their PK shouldn't be as porous as it's been for most of the year.
The other area that guys like Moore, Galiardi & Winnik have to help pitch in is with secondary and tertiary scoring. San Jose hasn't gotten much of that this season while the Blues have three lines that produce at a decent rate. These three along with others like Torrey Mitchell need to start producing more offensively if the Sharks want to avoid a first round exit. On the Blues side, they get a solid amount of offense throughout the lineup, but it would help if they had a break-out from one of their forwards to give them an edge over San Jose.
This is easily the toughest prediction I've had to make this post-season and I've already changed my mind a few times. In the end, I have to go with the Blues winning in a terrific seven game series. The Sharks are going to give them a scare and will be a tough out but I trust the Blues goaltending a lot more than I do San Jose's and the Blues have somewhat of an advantage with their defensive play and secondary scoring. The Sharks have the potential and the talent to win this series, but I think they just ran into the wrong team in the first round this year. It sort of fits the theme of their season.