The team spending the most time in the penalty box during the Western Conference final may be sitting at home watching the next round instead of being an active participant chasing the Stanley Cup.
The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues have the top two power plays among the four remaining playoff teams, so there will be plenty of pressure to remain disciplined and try to avoid the type of needless infractions that could lead to big goals. The Blues gained the upper hand during a 2-1 victory Sunday in Game 1, getting a power-play goal from David Backes while killing off all three of the Sharks’ power plays.
“We have a tough opponent over there on the power play and it’s something (where) we’re going to have to be on our toes for the entire series because they’re lethal,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Tonight was just a great job.”
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was just as excited about winning the special teams battle.
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“Our special teams were excellent,” Hitchcock said. “Our power play was excellent and our (penalty kill) was even better. They were both good. They were the reason for the victory.”
San Jose was a sizzling 13-for-42 (31 percent) on the power play before Sunday, the best unit in the league. The Blues entered the series right behind at 11-for-40 (27.5 percent) and boast eight difference power-play goal scorers led by three by Jaden Schwartz.
“They have five guys out there who can score, one is one of the elite passers in the league,” Shattenkirk said. “Joe Pavelski is one of the best scorers in the league, Brent Burns is one of the best scoring defensemen in the league
“It’s one of those power plays that’s just lethal.”
Shattenkirk said the Blues spent a little extra time watching video on the Sharks’ power play, but not much more than the other playoff opponents. What makes them so effective?
“What you get from them is just the familiarity,” Shattenkirk said. “They’ve been playing together for so long that they make little plays that most power plays don’t make just because they know where everyone’s going to be.
“That’s the beast. That’s why they’re so successful — and it’s something we’re going to have to figure out.”
San Jose’s top power-play scorers are Logan Couture (four goals, eight points), Pavelski (four goals, seven points), Burns (two goals, seven points) and playmaker Joe Thornton (one goal, six points).
Vladimir Tarasenko leads the Blues in power-play scoring (one goal, six points), followed by Shattenkirk (five assists), Schwartz (three goals, four points) and Alexander Steen (one goalm four points).
Coach Ken Hitchcock said not enough attention is being focused on the Blues’ effective power play potential.
“We’re in a very unique situation because we have two units,” Hitchcock said.”The two are completely different, hard to check because one is a shooting power-play and one is a set power-play.
“That’s what makes it hard for teams to play against our team because you cannot prepare for one unit.”
The Blues’ penalty kill was especially solid against Dallas in the second round, killing off 18 of 20 man-advantage opportunities. However, the Blues peanlty kill struggled in the opening round against Chicago when the Blackhawks scored six power-play goals on 19 opportunities (31.6 percent).
Hitchcock said San Jose’s veteran presence and familiarity with each other adds more danger to the Sharks’ power-play unit.
“One of the reasons they’re successful is they’re able to keep the puck in the zone longer than most power-plays,” Hitchcock said. “When you have a chance to clear it, you have to get it cleared. When you have a chance to win the faceoff and get it down the ice, you have to do that.”
The Sharks’ passing is crisp and quick and Burns’ ability to load up from the point makes teams pay him constant attention.
“Offensively he’s similar to Erik Karlsson in the way that they’re very aggressive,” Shattenkirk said. “They take their chances and Brent’s someone who really seems to shoot any time he feels like he has that open lane because he can get the puck to the net better than most with how hard he shoots it.”
Hitchcock reunited the “STL line” to open up the San Jose series, moving Jori Lehtera back in between Schartz and Tarasenko. Late in the Stars’ series, Alexander Steen centered the line and it becamae an effective unit.
Schwartz was asked what the line must do to remain effective.
“Teams like to swarm a little bit, especially when Vladdy is in the slot there’s usually a couple guys on him or one of us in the corner,” Schwartz said. “So we have to make sure we’re coming towards each other, being an option for one another. Whether it’s coming through the neutral zone or the D-zone, make sure we have speed and one guy driving the middle and one guy finding a lane.”
Home sweet home?
While the Blues enjoy the home-ice advantage they’ve fought for during the regular season, they didn’t take full advantage of it during the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Blues’ 2-1 win Sunday at Scottrade Center evened their postseason home record at 4-4. They are 5-2 on the road, including the 6-1 Game 7 win in Dallas.
By the numbers
-Backes was credited with a Blues playoff record 11 hits on Sunday. It was the ninth-highest total in NHL playoff history since the hits statistic began being tracked in 2005-06.
- Blues goaltender Brian Elliott is now 5-0 against the Sharks in the playoffs. During the regular season Elliott is 8-3-1 vs. San Jose with two shutouts, a 2.23 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
- Elliott and Pavelski were teammates on the University of Wisconsin’s 2006 national championship team. Elliott ws 25-5-3 that season with eight shutouts.
- Ten of the Blues’ 14 playoff games have been decided by one goal.