Heightening the ferocity of the NHL Western Conference final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks is the absence of a Stanley Cup championship in either team’s history.
San Jose has played in three conference finals without advancing to the biggest stage. The Blues last reached the conference final in 2001 and 1986, also playing for the Stanley Cup championship in their first three years of existence from 1968 through 1970.
Each time the Blues were swept in four games, playing teams close without ever collecting a victory. In 1968, the Montreal Canadiens beat the Blues by one goal in all four games, with two games decided in overtime.
Here’s a look at the Blues and Sharks playoff matchup:
By the numbers
▪ POWER PLAY: Blues-21.5 percent, sixth in NHL; Sharks-22.5 percent, third in NHL
▪ PENALTY KILL: Blues-85.1 percent, third in NHL; Sharks-80.5 percent, 21st in NHL
▪ GOALS-AGAINST AVERAGE: Blues-2.40, fourth in NHL; Sharks-2.50, 10th in NHL
▪ SCORING: Blues-2.7 goals per game, 15th in NHL; Sharks-2.9 goals per game, fourth in NHL
These are not one-line teams loading up their stars and snipers on one or even two top units. Both teams are blessed with size, speed and depth and scoring up and down the lineup.
Fifteen different Blues players have playoff goals, led by Vladimir Tarasenko’s seven, six by David Backes and five from Troy Brouwer. Six players have 10 or more points led by Tarasenko (seven goals, 13 points), rookie Robby Fabbri (three goals, 13 points) and Backes (six goals, 12 points).
Hitchcock has adjusted his lines a bit and seemed to find traction late in the Stars series with Alexander Steen on a line with Tarsenko and Jaden Schwartz, sliding Jori Lehtera between Backes and Patrik Berglund.
The line of Fabbri, Paul Stastny and Brouwer seemed to be their best in the second round against the Stars, with Stastny playing some of the best hockey he’s shown since coming to St. Louis last season. The trio erupted for nine goals and 23 points in seven games and Fabbri continues to far exeeed any expectations the club had for him.
San Jose has two lines featuring lethal scoring capabilities. The top unit is Joe Thornton (three goals, 11 points), Joe Pavelski (nine goals, 13 points) and Tomas Hertl, with NHL playoff scoring leader Logan Couture (seven goals, 17 points) on another line with Patrick Marleau (four goals, nine points) and Joonas Donskoi.
Thornton will throw his big body around in all areas and the Sharks’ size and speed should give the Blues all they can handle. Backes and Brouwer will do the same thing against the Sharks, who also must control Tarasenko and his ability to score in bunches.
The Blues have gotten a lot of mileage from their fourth line in the playoffs. The constants have been Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall, with Steve Ott, Ryan Reaves and Dmitrij Jaskin alteranting at right wing.
One of the Blues’ best players throughout the playoffs has been Alex Pietrangelo. The former fourth overall pick has taken his game to another level, especially defensively and in the transition game. He sniffs out problems almost before they erupt, clearing or skating pucks out of danger and igniting scoring chances going the other way. While Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk have struggled at times, both are capable of righting their games in a hurry and Shattenkirk always is an offensive threat.
Some of Bouwmeester’s rough moments come because he’s almost always on the ice against the opponents’ top line and on the penalty kill. Blues rookie Colton Parayko has been a revelation in his first playoff run an continues to make solid decisions in most situations. San Jose has a tremendously creative offensive defenseman in Brent Burns, second among Sharks playoff scorers with four goals and 15 points after racking up 27 goals and 75 points in the regular season. Marc-Eduoard Vlasic is a more than capable No. 1 defenseman and provides shut-down ‘D, while Justin Braun and Paul Martin add talent and depth. Former Blues defenseman Roman Polak typically plays on the third defense unit.
The Blues won’t be able to impose their will as they did on the smaller Stars’ defensemen in the last round. Every inch of space will be contested.
Neither goaltender has been this far into the playoffs, so each has plenty of motivation to step into the limelight with a big series.
Brian Elliott’s high level of consistency and penchant for making huge saves at the right time have far outweighed a few rough spots, such as the first period in Game 6 against the Stars. Elliott exudes confidence and that has rubbed off on his teammates, who love his hard work and dedication.
San Jose’s Martin Jones is 8-4 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with one shutout. Elliott, who has faced more shots than any playoff goaltender, is 8-6 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Jones isn’t flashy, but his steady hand in net has helped the Sharks avoid a lot of ups and downs in the always emotional NHL playoffs.
The only major difference is Elliott’s desire to prove himself as a playoff-worthy netminder after being passed over three other times as the Blues used others in the playoffs. Jones has plenty of motivation of his own in his first shot at being a playoff starter, but Elliott is older (he’s 31, Jones is 26) with a bigger chip on his shoulder.
Another plus for Jones is playoff wins over Stanley Cup-winning Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. However, Jones at times is aided by the Sharks’ defensive ability and he will need to show more consistency at making the game-saving types of stops, especially given the amount of traffic the Blues will attempt to send his way.
Elliott has stood tall despite facing two of the league’s top offensive teams in Chicago and Dallas.
Blues in seven games, but this series will be an all-out war.