Well, this seems like it has happened before. Back in 2016, St. Louis beat Dallas in seven games and then faced the San Jose Sharks for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final. Flash forward three years later and here we are.
Normally, there is talk of how one team is rested but that is not the case. San Jose just closed out Colorado on Wednesday night but thankfully due to arena conflicts, there is an extra day of rest. This series starts in San Jose on Saturday.
San Jose Sharks – Pacific Division 2nd seed:
San Jose may hit the playoff wall eventually, but they survived one seven-game series by divine intervention (“the major power play”) and Martin Jones saved them against a Colorado Avalanche third-period onslaught in another Game 7. That is how crazy this postseason has been.
There are several reasons why San Jose has gone this deep in the playoffs. One now must be Martin Jones. For as inconsistent as Jones was in Round 1, he was the exact opposite in Round 2. Aside from Game 6 in Colorado, Jones delivered several quality starts and saved San Jose’s season in Game 7 while Colorado had chance after chance after chance. While Jones only saw 30 shots once in the second round, he played well especially in Game 7 when his counterpart, Philipp Grubauer, did not.
As for injuries, Radim Simek has an injured ACL and MCL on his right knee. Other than that, the return of Joe Pavelski signifies that San Jose is for all intents and purposes healthy. That does not mean players are not banged up. However, the Sharks top-six is back intact and just in time against a team like St. Louis that can grind better than just about any other team.
What to watch:
There are several things. San Jose’s penalty kill has been a bit vulnerable this postseason but is improving. Considering how bad it was at one point, the Sharks have killed off 13 of their 14 short-handed situations. San Jose has been a bit more aggressive in covering the puck carrier and passers. More importantly, Martin Jones has been their best penalty killer.
Will Brent Burns continue to crank out 8-10 points per round? San Jose will need Burns, Erik Karlsson, and yes Marc-Edouard Vlasic to provide some offense in this series – especially on the power play. This is because St. Louis can clamp down on defense extremely well. At one point, St. Louis held Dallas to just four shots in two periods during Game 7 on Tuesday night. San Jose will need its balanced top-six, now with Joe Pavelski, to produce. Finally, a little depth production is essential along with the Sharks’ man advantage – 10 for 54 on the postseason.
St. Louis Blues – Central Division 3rd seed:
The St. Louis Blues arguably faced two of the tougher opponents in the playoffs in the form of the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars. Vladimir Tarasenko needs to play more like he did over the second half of the season. Too many games in these playoffs, Tarasenko has been a passenger too often. He has had several impressive games though. Jaden Schwartz and Ryan O’Reilly have been excellent for the Blues. Schwartz has shaken off the injuries to score eight goals and 11 points. Alex Pietrangelo also has 11 points for St. Louis. They may not lead the playoffs in scoring like San Jose (three players with 14 points --- Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Tomas Hertl) but the Blues have enough firepower, defense, and goaltending to cause problems for the Sharks.
Jordan Binnington has been steady and at times very good for St. Louis. That is what is needed sometimes in the playoffs. Binnington and Jones is quite the match-up and both have had flashes of very good play. However, the St. Louis goalie has been a touch more consistent.
As for injuries, St. Louis is healthy which is extremely rare this time of year. Likely, there are some players banged up but not enough to keep them from playing.
What to watch:
How does St. Louis fare against the San Jose offense? Can they slow down the likes of Timo Meier, who tormented Colorado and Vegas repeatedly. Meier creates chances and knocks opponents off their game. His physical play and net-front presence have proven to be essential as San Jose continues to advance. St. Louis must find a way to slow Meier and the top-six of San Jose just enough to create their own counter-punching attack.
They must also stay out of the penalty box. San Jose has had over 50 power play chances in these playoffs – that includes that one famous major power play. There is one area to exploit and that is the San Jose penalty kill. Again, it improved against Colorado, but the Blues have a nice special teams’ differential of +13 in the chance column. The Sharks have taken 52 penalties in the first two round. Can the Blues power play (7 for 41 in postseason) take advantage of that where Colorado failed?
The Blues are versatile enough to attack with speed and have their own bruising defenseman who can shoot a laser. That would be Colton Parayko. Paryako changed the St. Louis-Dallas series when his shot injured Ben Bishop’s collarbone. Bishop played remarkably well in Game 7 but he would often cheat on the side away from his dinged up collarbone. Finally, the speed and power of Robert Thomas cannot be overlooked. Here was a young player getting double shifted and not looking the least bit tired. Thomas assisted on both goals in Game 7 including the Patrick Maroon game winner.
Finally, what is in the Stanley Cup futures?:
Currently, San Jose is at a respectable +229 while the St. Louis Blues are a surprising +350. It is often what happens when the “sexier” team gives and takes a lot more than the team that plays shut-down hockey more. San Jose allows over three goals in the playoffs but scores nearly 3.25 per game. The same cannot be said about St. Louis. Despite that, St. Louis has an edge and plays with it in a way which could drive San Jose bonkers defensively.
Prediction: St. Louis in seven. (The value on St. Louis is a reason to pick them here)
By Chris Wassel