Two franchises very familiar with each other from multiple decade old playoff series will collide head on in the first round of the 2012 NHL Playoffs. The resulting friction is sure to reignite the rivalry that has been smoldering between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.
Will the brash newcomers to the Western Conference’s elite ranks flare out amid pressure from a second season savvy crew playing with reduced expectations for their first time in a long time or will one contending window close as another begins to open?
No answer can be certain till the games are played so in the time till the first puck drops let’s take a look at what’s to come.
Thursday, April 12th – 6:30pm Central @ Scottrade Center
Saturday, April 14th – 6:30pm Central @ Scottrade Center
Monday, April 16th – 9:00pm Central @ HP Pavilion
Thursday, April 19th – 9:30pm Central @ HP Pavilion
Saturday, April 21st – 6:30pm Central @ Scottrade Center
Monday, April 23rd – Time TBD @ HP Pavilion
Wednesday, April 25th – Time TBD @ Scottrade Center
Local TV: TBD
National TV: CNBC (Games 1, 2, 5) & NBC Sports Network (Games 3, 4)
2011-12 Season Facts & Figures
St. Louis Blues
Record: 49-22-11 | Points: 109
3rd in NHL | 2nd in Western Conference | 1st in Central Division
Home Record: 30-6-5 | Road Record: 19-16-6
Goals For/Game: 2.51 (21st) | Goals Against/Game: 1.89 (1st)
Power Play: 16.7% (T-19th) | Penalty Kill: 85.8% (7th)
Goals: David Backes (24) | PPG: Backes (8) | Points: Backes (54)
ATOI: Alex Pietrangelo (24:44) | +/-: Alex Steen (Plus-24)| PIMs: Ryan Reaves (124)
Wins: Jaroslav Halak (26) | GAA: Brian Elliott (1.56) | Save %: Elliott (.940) | Shutouts: Elliott (9)
San Jose Sharks
Record: 43-29-10 | Points: 109
12th in NHL | 7th in Western Conference | 2nd in Pacific Division
Home Record: 26-12-3 | Road Record: 17-17-7
Goals For/Game: 2.67 (13th) | Goals Against/Game: 2.50 (T-8th)
Power Play: 21.1% (2nd) | Penalty Kill: 76.9% (29th)
Goals: Logan Couture (31) | PPG: Couture (11) | Points: Joe Thornton (77)
ATOI: Dan Boyle (25:35) | +/-: Joe Pavelski (Plus-18)| PIMs: Ryane Clowe (97)
Wins: Antti Niemi (34) | GAA: Thomas Greiss (2.30) | Save %: Niemi & Greiss (.915) | Shutouts: Niemi (6)
2011-12 Season Series & Head to Head Stats
October 15th @ SJ: Blues 4 – Sharks 2
December 10th @ STL: Blues 1 – Sharks 0
February 12th @ STL: Blues 3 – Sharks 0
March 3rd @ SJ: Blues 3 – Sharks 1
Blues Power Play: 5 for 19 (26.3%)
Blues Penalty Kill: 14 for 15 (93.3%)
Blues Scoring Leaders: Kevin Shattenkirk (2g,2a, Plus-2) and Pietrangelo (2g, 3a, Plus-3)
Blues Goaltending Leaders: Halak (2-0-0, 0.50 GAA, .977 save percentage, 1 SHO) & Elliott (2-0-0, 1.00 GAA, .967 save percentage, 1 SHO)
Blues Fun Fact: Nine different Blues players have scored against the Sharks this season.
Sharks Power Play: 1 for 15 (6.7%)
Sharks Penalty Kill: 14 for 19 (73.7%)
Sharks Scoring Leaders: Clowe (0g, 2a, Minus-2) and Torrey Mitchell (1g, 1a, Plus-2)
Sharks Goaltending Leaders: Niemi (0-3-0, 2.041 GAA, .923 save percentage)
Sharks Fun Fact: Patrick Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, and Couture have all been held scoreless in the season series versus St. Louis.
Must See Video: Watch Blues netminder Brian Elliott rob Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle
to preserve a St. Louis victory late in the October 10th game in San Jose.
Storylines & What to Watch For
Familiar Foes From Long Ago
This will not be the first time the Blues and Sharks have met up in the post season. In fact this will be the fourth such battle.
In the 2000 playoffs the Sharks upset the President Trophy winning Blues in seven games before they fell in five to the Dallas Stars. St. Louis’ revenge came swiftly in the form of a six game series win in 2001. In 2004 San Jose needed just one more contest than the minimum to send St. Louis to the offseason.
Much has changed with both squads since their last second season meeting. Long gone are the days of Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra, Chris Pronger and Doug Weight. Patrick Marleau is the only remaining Shark from the 2004 series.
Did you know that Jonathan Cheechoo, a 28 goal scorer on that 2004 San Jose roster, is now in the Blues organization? He is a key veteran with their AHL affiliate in Peoria. Bonus DYK: Scott Mellanby is the only Blues player from that same series that will take part in the 2012 version at ice level. Though he will be a coach behind the Blues bench rather than sitting on it.
Note: Barret Jackman was a part of the Blues 2003-04 team, but played only 15 games due to injury. He did not play after January 5th that season.
Offensive Defenseman on Both Right Points
It’s not often that two teams with such strong offensive presences on their backends square off, especially when the four primary producers are all right handed. However, that is the case in this series as Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Dan Boyle and Brett Burns all look to power their team to the next round by continuing to rack up impressive point totals.
By the numbers
Pietrangelo: 12 goals, 39 assists, 51 points, Plus-16 rating, 6 power play goals, 18 power play assists.
Shattenkirk: 9 goals, 34 assists, 43 points, Plus-20 rating, 5 power play goals, 13 power play assists
Boyle: 9 goals, 39 assists, 48 points, Plus-10, 3 power play goals, 14 power play assists
Burns: 11 goals, 26 assists, 37 points, Plus-8, 5 power play goals, 11 power play points
Average: 10 goals, 35 assists, 45 points, Plus-14, 5 power play goals, 14 power play assists
Whichever team can contain these dynamic duos stands the better chance at winning four games before their opponent. Such a thought process is reinforced by how those four have performed against each other this past season. Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk leads the Blues in points against San Jose while Boyle and Burns have just one combined goal versus St. Louis and they’ve won all four. It’s critical that Boyle and Burns get rolling and imperative that the Blues continue to keep them off the score card.
Toughness on the Left Point
Accolades come the way of those flashy offensive threats, but there are a pair of defensive defenseman to take special notice of in this series.
Barret Jackman and Douglass Murray.
The two lefties are quite the contrast to their counterparts. These two rely on positioning and sandpaper to make their marks. No two may be more underrated in the West than Jackman and Murray. Their ability to hold down the fort below their blueline will go a long way in ensuring skill line frustration. Expect both to endear themselves to their own fans while take on the role of villain to the opposition’s.
The Middle Runs Deep
A substantial amount of success for both the Blues and Sharks comes from their forward depth. While both have highly skilled talent on the wings, it’s the big bodies in the middle that make the most difference.
Blues captain and potential Selke Finalist David Backes is the go to pivot. His above average skating ability combined with his 6’3”, 225 lbs frame makes life difficult for even the slickest centers. Swede Patrik Berglund rolls with the second wave. Though his skating ability is not as strong as Backes’, he is mobile enough to use his hockey sense to get that 6’4”, 218 lbs body in the right position to make the most use of it. Heading in to the playoffs his two-way game has never been better. Jason Arnott, who comes in at 6’5”, 220, is quite the mass of man who eats quite a bit of available space. The Cup winner is a veteran of many post season wars and knows how to be in the right place at the right time. Whether that is to unload his cannon shot or clog the slot in front of his netminder. Vladimir Sobotka and Scott Nichol may come in as the smallest centers, both smaller than 6’, but they play a big man’s game. Neither is afraid to throw their weight around and work tirelessly to be on the defensive end of the puck.
The don’t call Joe Thornton “Jumbo Joe” for nothing. He is not known to be a goal scorer, but at 6’4” and 230 lbs there are few centers who can protect the puck as well as he can before setting up a scoring opportunity. Joe Pavelski may be called “Little Joe”, because of his 5’11” and 195 lbs frame, but the guy is a true gamer and doesn’t shy away from contact. Former Blues forward Michal Handzus is a mammoth in the middle as well. The35-year old Czech is listed at 6’4” and 219 lbs and is capable of contributing at both ends of the rink. Dominic Moore falls in to the Nichol/Sobotka category and his experience in the playoffs lends to play above his 6’0”, 190 lbs stature.
Under Your Skin
Both teams feature a forward who is very effective at worming their way under the skin of opponents,. albeit in completely different ways.
Ryane Clowe will use his overly physical nature to punish the Blues defense. There is little doubt he will draw the ire of Blues fans in much the same fashion as Mike Ricci once did.
David Perron is more of the “Geoff Courtnall” type of pest. Use his speed and skills to get past defenders and on top of the netminder. Besides his nose for the net, poking Sharks defensemen with verbally rather than literally with his stick will boil blood.
Who Starts Game One?
Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock has quite the decision to make regarding who his starting goaltender will be.
Does he go with the record setting netminder who has a GAA barely over 1.50, a nearly double digit shutout total, and ridiculous shutout streaks or the persevering battler who has played the role of David and toppled multiple Goliaths.
There may be no right or wrong answer, but who will get the nod won’t be known publically till Thursday according to Hitchcock. Fans may want to know for their playoff pools, but keeping the decision under wraps is the best move. Why does it need to be broadcasted? The answer is it doesn’t. The less prepared the Sharks are, the greater benefit to the Blues.
Don’t Underestimate the More Experienced Team
It’s easy to look at where San Jose finished in the regular season standings and make claims that their window is closing. While the hockey gods stand close by ready to slam it down if the Blues force them to, they won’t do it just because. The likes of Thornton, Boyle and others who have been around the block more than once picked up their play and played big parts in locking up the franchises seventh consecutive playoff appearance since the 2004-05 lockout.
If they’ve turned up the intensity at the right time the Blues may have more than they can handle and let loose the Shark tail. Considering how their season concluded, going 4-3-3 in their last 10 by virtue of breaking at pressure points, an upset isn’t far fetched.
Don’t forget that the one filling the most critical role for the Sharks, Niemi, does have his name on the Stanley Cup.
Open Questions from Sunday
* Of the four Western matchups, who is the most likely to be upset? – LA defeats Vancouver.
* Of the four Western matchups, who is the most likely to be swept? – Phoenix drops four in a row to Chicago.
* Of the four Western matchups, which will be the most intense? – Nashville vs. Detroit.
* Which Sharks player invokes the most fear, in terms of ability to dominate and take the series over? – Joe Thornton. He just posses too much size, skill and experience to handle when he gets going.
* Which Blues player is the most critical to success in the first round? – Whoever starts in goal.
* How much stock can be put in to the Blues season series sweep? – None. The playoffs are a totally different season.
* How much of a role will “experience” play? – It will decide the series. Either the Blues inexperience in dealing with pressure forces a cave in or they grow and perform above their established standards.
Should the Blues make it past round one, who do you want them to play? - Phoenix
Skill: San Jose – The Sharks have more scoring line options with greater historical production levels than their Blues counterparts and more experience. The potential is there for St. Louis’ best forwards to surpass, but they can’t be put ahead till they actually prove they are.
Depth: St. Louis – The meat and potatoes lines have been he unsung driving force behind the Blues rise in the standings. San Jose’s group is not far behind, but they are.
Top Four: Push – Besides the three Blues defenseman already mentioned, adding Roman Polak to the mix puts them ahead of the Sharks three and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. However, with Polak still getting his injured knee back to normal and the Sharks experience level, the two are on equal footing.
Depth: Push – Colin White, Jason Demers and Jim Vandermeer are on par with Kent Huskins, Kris Russell, and Carlo Colaiacovo. Both trios have obvious positive and negative aspects.
St. Louis – With all due respect accounted for Niemi’s run in Chicago, his performance this season has not been better than Elliott’s or Halak’s.
Push – The Blues penalty kill has been a stingy difference maker while the power play has bobbed up and down in the waters of consistency all season. Conversely San Jose has a lethal group converting on the man advantage but has struggled to prevent power play goals against. Yin and yang…
St. Louis – Is really as simple as comparing Ken Hitchcock’s dramatic turnaround of the Blues and his championship season in Dallas to Todd McLellan’s inability to get his team over the hump? From my perspective, it is.
St. Louis wins in six extremely close games.
Thanks for reading. Please check back throughout the week and the entirety of the Blues playoff run for thoughts, analysis and information.
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