Sizing Up The San Jose Sharks Potential Playoff Opponents: St Louis Blues
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With the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche losing last night, the San Jose Sharks clinched a berth in the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The only question that remains now us whether the Sharks will win their division and clinch home-ice advantage in the first round, and who they will play.
There are four possibilities at this point: the Vancouver Canucks, St Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks. Let’s take a look at what each of these match-ups could mean for the Sharks.
If the Canucks are the most complete team in the Western Conference when at their best, then the Blues are a close-second, if not tied with Vancouver. As well as the Canucks match up against the Sharks, the Blues 4-0-0 record against San Jose this season suggests they might match up even better. And it makes sense. If the Canucks have any area of concern in their match-up against the Sharks, it would be that while the Canucks are by no means an undersized team or a soft team, the Sharks are bigger than them, an advantage the Sharks have been able to exploit in small bursts (although it hasn’t been nearly enough to beat the Canucks consistently).
This is a disadvantage the Blues do not share. The Blues may not be as fast or high-flying as the Canucks, but they are bigger, grittier, and even more defensively responsible. And since the Sharks are not a team with elite speed, the Blues still have enough speed to match or exceed them in that aspect of the game, similar to Vancouver, while adding in even more size, physicality, and defensive structure to the equation. In that sense, the Blues are even better balanced than the Canucks. And if it weren’t for the Canucks’ advantage in top-end skill that comes with having the Sedin’s, I would give the Blues that title.
If the Blues do have a shortcoming in some people’s eyes, that would be it, a lack of top-end offensive ability. The stats would seem to bear this out, as the Blues are only 19th in the NHL in scoring and 17th in power-play percentage, to go with what is the league’s #1 ranked defense (by Goals Against Average) by a mile. However, I’m not convinced the Blues are as wanting for offense as some think. For one, when you are only allowing 1.86 goals per game, your need to score extra goals diminishes. The Blues are so good at defending, I doubt they feel the need to score another goal when they are leading 2-0 going into the third period, for example. This may explain their below-average Goals Per Game average. Additionally, the Blues have been missing some of their best forwards for large parts of the season, which has had a negative impact on that stat. But they are healthy now.
In my opinion, the Blues are actually a very good offensive team when they have their full roster. They are loaded with underrated forwards. David Backes, Alex Steen, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Andy Mcdonald, Patrick Berglund, Chris Stewart, Jason Arnott, Matt D’Agostini, Vladimir Sobotka, to name a few. They may not have the star names, but their four lines can match just about anyone’s.
As for their defensive core, it looked to take a hit last season when they traded Eric Brewer, but other players have stepped up in his absence. Filling the void does not even begin to cover it. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk have had excellent seasons at both ends of the ice, and Barret Jackman has been a rock defensively. Carlo Colaiacovo has played very well when healthy, as has pretty much everyone else on the defense core. I’ve been very impressed with Kris Russell’s poise and decision-making in a bottom-pairing role, and Roman Polak is a rock physically who has played a simple, effective game.
In goal, the Blues employ a tandem with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott where the starts are shared pretty evenly. Both goaltenders have had excellent seasons since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach, but it’s hard to say how much of their success is because they are elite goaltenders vs. how much of it is because of the Blues dominant defensive play. That the Blues are so stingy allowing goals regardless of who is in net suggests that it’s the team in front of the goaltenders, not the goaltenders. This means that if the Sharks can find a way to create high quality scoring opportunities against the Blues, there goaltenders may be easier to beat than people realize. Or not. We’ll have to wait and see.
If there is one area where you could look at these and say the Sharks have an advantage, it would be comparing the two team’s power-plays. The Sharks have the 2nd ranked power-play in the NHL, and the Blues are 17th. This might lead you to believe that if the series became a special-teams battle, the Sharks would have the advantage, however, the disparity between the Blues 7th ranked penalty kill and the Sharks’ 28th ranked one more than makes up the difference. The Blues may actually have the special team’s advantage over the Sharks, not vise-versa.
Ultimately, the Sharks 0-4-0 record against the Blues this season does not inspire confidence. Yes, some people like to say a team’s regular season record against an opponent means nothing when it comes to the playoffs. Those people are usually the ones involved with a team that has a bad regular season record against their upcoming playoff opponent. But the truth is, these are basically the same two teams, with the same two coaches, as they have been all season long, when the Blues swept the season series. The Sharks have a few new deadline acquisitions, but the Blues also have David Perron, Andy McDonald, Alex Steen, and others off the injured list from earlier in the year. If anyone has improved since the regular season meetings between the two teams, it’s likely the Blues, not the Sharks. And otherwise, it’s the same two teams.
This clearly does not bode well for the Sharks if they meet the Blues in the first round. Could the outcome reverse if the two teams met? Absolutely. The Blues have not been to the playoffs in years, although they have plenty of experience and former Cup winners on their roster, and every game is different. “It’s why they play the games,” as they say. The Sharks could pretend they’re playing Detroit instead of St Louis and get the referees to gift them 20 power-plays per game. Or the Blues could suffer a bunch of injuries and not be the same team. Or the Sharks could just beat them straight-up, five-on-five. Anything can happen. But if the question is which team is better, top-to-bottom, I’d say that, while the Blues may not have the star power that San Jose has, they are a two-way force of a team that has played better hockey than the Sharks almost all season long, and I would expect that to continue if the two teams meet in the first round. If the Blues stick to their game-plan, they are the better team right now.
But, the better team does not always win.