Even though it is a rematch of the 2015-16 Western Conference Final it is probably not the matchup we expected this season.
The San Jose Sharks being here is in no way a surprise.
They loaded up for this season and built a team that should have had Stanley Cup expectations from the very beginning. Re-signing Evander Kane and acquiring Erik Karlsson to add to a roster that was already full of stars was a definite “win-now” approach to the offseason. Even though they were some valleys during the season, the Sharks have mostly met expectations. They are good. Really good.
It is the Blues that are a surprise.
After narrowly missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago they were one of the busiest teams in the offseason in an effort to fix their offense, adding Ryan O'Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, and David Perron to their forward group. At the mid-way point of the season it all looked to be for nothing because their goaltending dropped them down to the worst record in the Western Conference.
But since January they have been one of the league’s best teams, made a run at the Central Division title, and are playing like a true contender.
Monday, May 13, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
Wednesday, May 15, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Friday, May 17, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBC
Tuesday, May 21, 8 p.m.: Sharks at Blues | NBCSN
Thursday, May 23, 9 p.m.: Blues at Sharks | NBCSN
The Sharks’ offense is clicking on all cylinders in the playoffs, averaging more than 3.07 goals per game. They have four of the top-eight individual scorers in the playoffs and played almost all of Round 2 without a 38-goal scorer from the regular season in Joe Pavelski. It’s a deep group that doesn’t have any real weaknesses and is loaded with impact talent. Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl enter the series tied for the postseason lead in goals (nine) while the Sharks also have the two best offensive defensemen in the league in Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.
The Blues, meanwhile, have been … solid. They spent a ton of resources over the summer to improve an offense that was one of the league’s worst a season ago, and improved it to the point where they could make a late season run at the Central Division and are just four wins away from the their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970. They could use a little more from Vladimir Tarasenko, especially at even-strength, and he is probably due to bust out at any time.
ADVANTAGE: Sharks. They have the deeper group and more impact players at the top.
Just like at forward the Blues do not have quite the star power that the Sharks do on the blue line, but you can not argue with the results they get. The Blues were one of the best defensive teams in the league during the regular season when it came to limiting shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances, and once Jordan Binnington took over in net all of that started to translate into fewer goals against. Alex Pietrangelo is playing great hockey this postseason and quietly making a Conn Smythe case for himself if the Blues can keep winning.
For San Jose, it’s all about the superstars. Burns and Karlsson might be one of the best duos any team has had on its defense since Anaheim had Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer. They are the most dynamic offensive blue liners in the league and both control the pace of the game when they are on the ice. And they are on the ice A LOT. Burns is playing more minutes than any other player in these playoffs (by a wide margin) while Karlsson is playing more than 25 minutes. For at least two thirds of the game the Sharks have a Norris Trophy winner on the ice. That is a tough matchup for any team to deal with.
ADVANTAGE: Sharks. When your blue line has three Norris Trophies (and maybe a fourth in a few weeks) that is a huge advantage.
This was the biggest question mark for both teams coming into the playoffs.
On the San Jose side, Martin Jones and Aaron Dell were statistically the worst goalie tandem in the league during the regular season and one of the worst any championship contender has ever had. Four games into Round 1, it was looking like that was going to be their undoing. But Jones caught fire starting in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights and has been pretty good ever since.
But can he keep that going? If he does, the Sharks might be completely unbeatable. If he doesn’t, it could sink a potential championship team.
One of the biggest reasons the Blues found themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in early January was because their goaltending was getting torched on a nightly basis and it was sabotaging a team that was much better than its early season record indicated. They didn’t need someone to steal games, they just need someone to not lose them.
That is where Jordan Binnington came in and ever since making his first NHL start in mid-January he has been one of the most productive goalies in the league. He had a small slump early in Round 2 against the Dallas Stars, but rebounded nicely in Games 6 and 7.
ADVANTAGE: Blues. Jones has a more extensive resume and more of a track record, but Binnington is the better goalie at the moment.
On paper you would think that the Sharks would have a pretty significant advantage here, especially on the power play given the players they have their disposal. But it has not played out that way at all during the playoffs where both special teams units have been pretty much identical in their performance. Neither one has been great, neither one has been bad, they have both just been mostly average.
ADVANTAGE: Push, but with the qualifier that the Sharks have the potential to make this advantage IF their power play unit gets hot, which it is perfectly capable of doing.
Blues in 6. On paper everything is there for the Sharks to take this. Star power. Depth. Everything they have done as an organization has been built around winning it all this season. But while the Sharks have some advantages, the Blues are no slouches and have been an incredibly good team for about four months now. The way they have played since Craig Berube took over behind the bench is at a Stanley Cup level and even though he has almost no track record in the NHL I am more confident in him being able to get through this series without a meltdown than I am in Martin Jones. In a close series, that might be the difference.