Joe Pavelski

Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview: Sharks vs. Blues

Let’s face it — there really wasn’t a good option for the San Jose Sharks’ first round playoff opponent. Coming into Saturday’s regular season finale versus the Kings, there were three possible outcomes. With a Coyotes loss and a Sharks win, San Jose would face the Chicago Blackhawks. A Phoenix win and a Sharks loss would have pit the Sharks against the Vancouver Canucks. But wins for both the Coyotes and the Sharks was the result, matching San Jose up with the St. Louis Blues.

Chicago would have been the least of three evils, given that they are neither the first nor second seed. More importantly, San Jose would have enjoyed home ice advantage in that series. But former Sharks Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley — along with the rest of the Minnesota Wild — did nothing to help the Sharks’ cause, getting routed by the Coyotes 4-1 and making that option moot.

Although neither the Canucks nor the Blues are ideal opponents, the Sharks found a way to end their season the right way, coming back from 2 down on the Kings at the start of the third period to tie the game before Dan Boyle nailed down the win in overtime. San Jose finished its season with 96 points and a 4-game win streak that reeked of desperation and hunger. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because they’ll need to utilize that same formula against a complete Blues squad.

The downside

Again, there was really no good option for the Sharks in the first round. They were a combined 3-7-2 versus the Blackhawks, Canucks and Blues. Of those opponents, their record with the Blues was by far the worst – 0-4-0. They now travel to Scottrade Center for the first two games of this series, an arena known for it’s poor ice conditions — not exactly conducive to high-scoring games — that plays perfectly into the Blues’ style. They’re a defensive team with solid mechanics and discipline, not to mention their last line of defense, Goalie Brian Elliott, is the best in the league in save percentage at .940. They don’t score a ton of goals, but they don’t have to because they’re top notch when it comes to minimizing chances in their defensive zone and creating turnovers when the opportunity presents itself.

Goals will be at a premium in this series (Sharks scored 3 goals in 110 shots on Elliott and Jaroslov Halak, shut out in both games playing in St. Louis) and San Jose will need to be opportunistic if they plan on moving on. Despite their recent comeback in L.A., the Sharks would be wise to keep from playing the Blues from behind. They have to score goals early and steal at least one game in St. Louis before returning home.

The upside

The Blues’ dominance is a recent trend. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 2008-09 series, where they lost to the Canucks in the quarterfinals. The Sharks, on the other hand, have plenty of postseason experience. They’ve been to back-to-back Western Conference Finals.

Experience is key, and players like Dan Boyle, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski won’t be overwhelmed by the excess pressure that comes with striving for a Stanley Cup. The Sharks also have three 30-goal scorers in Patrick Marleau, Pavelski and Logan Couture.  The Blues?  There isn’t a single player on the roster who had over a 25-goal season.

Not only have the Sharks found a way to score goals lately, but they’ve been doing it in clutch situations. In the final two games of the season there was very little coast in the Sharks game. They had to play from behind against the Kings, and yet they answered whenever a game-tying or game-winning goal was needed.  These games will be low-scoring, which means the Sharks probably won’t have to face many large deficits. If the Sharks can find a way to pull ahead early, they should be able to hang on to leads and win some games.

The final key is momentum. The Sharks and Blues coming into the playoff under opposite trends – San Jose won four straight to end the season, while St. Louis broke a four-game losing streak in their final bout. As the Blues have been operating with team chemistry for the entire season, the Sharks have gained momentum as of late, finally finding a way to click as a unit. San Jose has finally found the right amount of caffeine to put some pep in their game. The underdog role is the only one they haven’t been casted for in the Stanley Cup playoffs yet. The quarterfinals will be the Sharks first step towards seeing if it will finally put them over the top.

Ruthless Prediction: Sharks in seven.

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