(HockeyStL) -- The Blues ended their season on Saturday with a win over the Dallas Stars, and within a couple hours after the final horn they learned their fate for the first round of the playoffs. The Blues drew the team that many considered the “better of two poisons” in the San Jose Sharks. The Blues were hoping to avoid the Los Angeles Kings and their elite goaltender, Jonathan Quick, who has been stellar all year, and were likely relieved to find out they would be playing the Sharks in the first round, but by no means will it be an easy matchup for the Blues.
The Sharks come into the playoffs playing much better than when the Blues saw them in their last regular season meeting on March 3. The Sharks have posted a record of 7-3 in their last ten games compared to the Blues’ 4-3-3 record. It is apparent that the Sharks have momentum heading into the playoffs, but the biggest question is, can the Blues cool them off quickly?
Home ice advantage……
The series will open at Scottrade Center on Thursday, and the Blues will look to use home ice advantage to their advantage. The Blues have been a dominant home team this year, posting one of the NHL’s top home records of 30-6-5. The Blues have made teams uncomfortable at Scottrade Center this year, and will look to continue to do so in the playoffs.
The Blues will get a chance to set the tone early as they open the series with two games at home on Thursday and Saturday night both at 6:30 p.m. Then the Blues get to resume being road warriors when they face the Sharks at HP Pavilion Monday, April 16, at 9 p.m. and Thursday, April 19, at 9:30 p.m. If the series hasn’t been decided after four games, the Blues would host game five Saturday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. A potential game six would be played in San Jose on Monday, April 23, and if the series is knotted up at that point, game seven would be at Scottrade Center on Wednesday, April 25.
While home ice has been a great friend for the Blues this season, they finished up 1-2-1 at home. And for those with long memories, remember the Sharks bounced the Blues out of the playoffs in the first round in 2000 when the Blues had the top seed after winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
Game of defense……
The Blues are known for their defense first mentality, brought on by Ken Hitchcock. They were the stingiest team in the league allowing 165 goals during the regular season, and goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott earned the Jennings Trophy with a league low 1.89 goals against average. When the Blues prioritize defense, their whole game blossoms and their offense finds the back of the opposition’s net. However, when the Blues get away from this 200 foot defensive game they struggle mightily.
The Blues will look to impose their style of play on the Sharks, whose defense was excellent as well this past season. The Sharks finished ninth in the league in goals allowed surrendering 210. The Sharks, on average, only allow 28.6 shots per game compared to the Blues’ average of 26.7. Both teams very rarely allow more than 30 shots against, meaning it is important to capitalize on chances. Both teams play remarkable defense, so if you expect to see high octane offense every night, be prepared for a disappointment, as it appears the team that is able to finish its precious few chances will be victorious.
The biggest question going into the playoffs is who will be the Blues’ starter. It appears at this point that Halak will be given the opportunity, but Elliott could step in if needed. The Blues’ Jennings Trophy winning goalie tandem not only paced the league in goals against average but also earned the top spot stopping 92.9% of the shots they faced. There is no question that either can get the job done, and the Blues will expect whoever is chosen to perform. For the Sharks, Antti Niemi will likely be called upon. Niemi is a solid goaltender, but can often at times be inconsistent. The Blues’ success against the Sharks will largely depend on which Niemi comes to play. Niemi finished the season with a record of 34-22-9, and posted goals against average of 2.42 along with a save percentage of .915. Niemi is not nearly as consistent as his Los Angeles counterpart, Jonathan Quick, but he can be just as dangerous when he is on a positive streak.
Power play vs. Penalty Kill……
While the Blues boast one of the strongest, and hottest penalty kills in the league, they will be going up against an elite Sharks’ power play. The Blues finished with the seventh best penalty killing unit in the NHL, successfully killing off 85.8 percent of opponents’ power plays. Facing the San Jose Sharks’ second ranked power play unit could pose a much larger threat than what the Blues are accustomed to. The Sharks converted 21.1 percent of their power play chances into goals, and they are playing against a St. Louis team that will take a lot of penalties. The Blues must hold their composure to avoid putting the Sharks on the power play if they hope to be successful.
This should be a fun series to watch, as it always is a fantastic matchup when the Blues and Sharks clash. I believe the Blues have the edge in the series, but must improve in many aspects of their game before Thursday, but if they can capitalize on several of the Sharks’ glaring weaknesses, they should be fine. We will find out Thursday if the Blues came ready to play, or if they are destined for a quick elimination.
Players to watch……
STL’s Alex Pietrangelo: 3 goals, 2 assists, +3 in four games against the Sharks this season.
SJ’s Joe Thornton: 18 goals, 59 assists, +17 on the season.
Blues went 4-0 against the Sharks this season, outscoring them 11-3, and shutting them out twice.