First-round preview: Blues-Sharks
And yet, if the Blues were to be honest, we're guessing the last team they'd want to face in the opening round was the battled-tested Sharks, they of the back-to-back Western Conference finals appearances, they of the back-to-back playoff series wins over the mighty Detroit Red Wings.
Really, if there's a giant killer in the making in these Stanley Cup playoffs, it might indeed be the Sharks, whose bizarre and disappointing regular season can now be a flip of the calendar, a distant thought, as they begin the postseason with a fresh start and a loaded squad -- and without the usual pressure of having to live up to a high seed.
The Sharks will hope to repeat some history, too, after they upset the Presidents' Trophy-winning Blues in the 2000 playoffs.
San Jose, however, will have its hands full with a Blues squad that played, for my money, some of the most consistent hockey of any team in the league this season. It's a club that makes you earn every inch of the ice under coach Ken Hitchcock, a team that doesn't rely on one line or one player, but rather a deep and balanced club that led the NHL in goals against and played brilliantly at Scottrade Center, with the NHL's second-best home record at 30-6-5.
This is going to be a hugely compelling series.
1. Are the Blues Content? Well, of course they're not, but what I'm referring to here is the age-old problem of teams that overachieve or surprise in the regular season and fall flat in the playoffs. They tend to get to the playoffs, and whether it's conscious or not, feel like they're merely happy to be there, especially young squads. Remember that the Blues missed the playoffs last season. The veteran Hitchcock, our pick to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, knows how to push the right buttons, and if anyone can make sure this young squad doesn't fall into that mental trap, it's him.
2. Contrast in Numbers: Part of the reason the Blues were the stingiest team in the NHL this season, allowing the fewest goals, was not only because of their brilliant goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, but also because they allowed the fewest shots against in the NHL, at 26.7 per game. Interestingly, the Sharks finished second in the league in shots per game at 33.8, so something has to give here in this series. The Sharks love to get pucks to the net from any angle and crash it for rebounds. The Blues have been incredibly adept at protecting the front of their net.
3. Special Teams: The Sharks were an atrocious 29th on the penalty kill this season, an area the Blues need to capitalize on. Thing is, St. Louis ranked only 19th on the power play. The Blues, as you might expect for a Hitchcock team, excelled on the PK, ranking seventh. They'll need to be at their best against the Sharks, who had the second-ranked power play, which is buoyed by two equally dangerous five-man units. The Blues limited the Sharks to one power-play goal on 15 chances in their four regular-season games.
4. Who's in Goal for St. Louis? Elliott led the league in goals-against average and save percentage and yet played eight fewer games than Halak in goal for St. Louis. No bad choice here for Hitchcock, although one has to think Halak's magical 2010 playoff run with the Montreal Canadiens, when he backstopped two improbable series wins over heavily favored Washington and Pittsburgh, will come into play. Either way, Hitchcock has massive trust in both netminders and has the benefit of switching it up if and when things go awry in this series. Each goalie won two games each versus the Sharks this season.
5. Blues Offense: When you're the stingiest team in the NHL, nobody really needs to talk about the fact you didn't score that many goals. As Devils president/CEO Lou Lamoriello always said during New Jersey's heyday, it's not how many goals you score but rather how many more you score than you let in. Still, the Blues' leading scorer, David Backes (54 points), ranked only 74th overall in the NHL scoring race, and the Blues as a team were 21st in offense at 2.51 goals per game. But back to Lou's point: The Blues were second in the NHL in a key statistic that I covet: goals for/against ratio. The Blues' 1.34 ratio was second only to Detroit's. The top two teams in the 2010-11 regular season in goals for/against ratio? None other than eventual Cup finalists, Boston and Vancouver.
• Alex Pietrangelo vs. Joe Thornton: If folks across the hockey world still haven't woken up to Alex Pietrangelo's all-world capabilities, they'll get a glimpse in the playoffs. The Norris Trophy candidate led the Blues in ice time this season at 24:43, putting up 51 points while playing key defensive minutes against the opposition's top offensive threats. So it's likely he'll be matched up against Joe Thornton's top line with Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski, no easy task. It's a matchup that could likely decide the series. Of course, the Blues also have to worry about San Jose's second line of Logan Couture centering Ryane Clowe and Martin Havlat. That's the matchup headache the Sharks represent when they're fully healthy.
• Antti Niemi: Antti Niemi has not had the kind of season he would have wanted. His mediocre play especially in the opening two-thirds of the season was a key reason for San Jose's struggles. But the quiet Finnish netminder finished strong in March-April just in time for the real season. No one ever gives this guy credit, despite a Stanley Cup ring from 2010 with Chicago. And you can bet with the league-leading Halak/Elliott duo staring him across the ice, Niemi will be an area of focus if the Sharks fall behind in this series.
• David Perron: David Perron has been unreal since coming back from a career-threatening concussion (suffered against San Jose, ironically, in November 2010) that made him miss more than a year. He potted 21 goals in 57 games this season and has the ability to change a game on a dime. This could be a big coming-out party for him on the bigger, playoff stage.
• Well, I picked the Sharks to win the Cup in September (as always), so it seems somewhat cowardly for me to change my mind eight months later. They certainly have not given me much reason for most of this season to believe they'd take the next step from back-to-back conference finals to Stanley Cup finals berth. Still, this is a playoff-savvy team without the weight of expectation for once. Most of the numbers, and regular-season evidence, point to a Blues series win, but the Sharks have a shot against their younger, less-experienced opponents. This is my first-round upset special. Sharks in 7.