NHL Playoffs 1st Round Preview: San Jose-St. Louis

One year ago the San Jose Sharks made the Western Conference finals as the #2 seed. This year the Sharks are back in the 2-7 draw in the NHL’s playoff bracket, only in the underdog role. Sitting in the two-hole is the St. Louis Blues, off a great regular season and hoping to deliver their city it’s second professional sports championship in a period of eight months later in June. TheSportsNotebook previews the coming San Jose-St. Louis series…

On the surface, St. Louis has none of the markings of a vulnerable favorite. They excel on defense every which way. You want a great goaltender? Try Brian Elliiot. When he’s healthy, there’s none better, including those in more heralded big markets. For those times when he’s not healthy—which still include now, when the Game 1 starter is still up in the air—you can turn to Jaroslav Halak. While not as consistent as Elliot, Halak is still a good enough goalie to start on at least half the playoff teams. You want to make sure your goaltender isn’t overly exposed? Let’s introduce the defenseman who allow the fewest shots on goal of any team in hockey—that would be Alex Pietrangelo, Barrett Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk who get the bulk of the credit. And you want a good 5-on-5 team, who doesn’t rely on an official’s whistle to keep them in good standing? St. Louis is second in the entire league in that category.  If the favorites who are vulnerable are those who are soft defensively—and in any sport, but especially the NHL playoffs they usually are—then St. Louis would be safe.

But there are some other factors to consider and the biggest is the quality of the opponent. San Jose is more consistent top-to-bottom than the Eastern Conference 7-seed Washington Capitals. The Sharks churn out shots on goal like it’s going out of style, trailing only Pittsburgh in the entire NHL when it comes to a blitzkrieg on the goalie. An offense that’s both talented and plays as a team is led by three solid centers, starting with Joe Thornton, going to Joe Pavelski and then Logan Coultre. Pavelski is the most complete offensive player, but Thornton is still a veteran with superb passing skills (59 assists), and Coultre is a 30-goal scorer in his own right. Along with winger Patrick Marleau, who would be the top offensive threat on a lot of playoff teams, San Jose has an offense that will keep the St. Louis defense on its toes.

The Blues are not a great offensive team, and have no real standouts anywhere on the ice. What they do have is balanced passing where the defenseman and the forwards are both involved in setting up shots. That St. Louis’ defenseman can be this involved in the attack and still get back to lock down on the other end it speaks volumes to how underappreciated they are.

I’m picking St. Louis to win, because offense trumps defense and the fact San Jose’s penalty kill unit is very poor suggests to me that the Blues can sneak off with some power play goals. But I expect a really good series. The Sharks defense is in the Top 10 themselves  and if they play clean and avoid putting themselves in spots where they’re a main down, their own skilled offensive talent can steal wins. I see a seven-game barnburner, or at the very least, a game where St. Louis has to win several gut-wrenchers in order to advance.