In a toss-up series between two skilled, physical teams, the Sharks-Blues Western final may come down to a slight edge in goaltending.
Regular season recap
Feb. 4: Sharks 3, Blues 1
Feb. 22: Sharks 6, Blues 3
March 22: Blues 1, Sharks 0
Sharks: F Matt Nieto (undisclosed, day-to-day); D Matt Tennyson (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Keys to a Sharks victory
Offense: At five-on-five, the Sharks are at a bit of a disadvantage. Its not much, but they aren't as deep as the Blues. That puts the pressure on their top-two lines, led by Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, to do most of the heavy lifting. Fortunately, they're up to the task. Couture just set a team mark with 11 points against the Predators, while Thornton is bringing the intensity of a man who knows this might be his last, best chance to skate the Stanley Cup.
Get them to the power play though and the Sharks have no peer. After striking twice with the extra man in that 5–0 Game 7 win over Nashville, San Jose is clicking at 30.9% with 13 goals on 42 chances. There's no secret to their approach—they like to work the puck down low onto the stick of Thornton or Patrick Marleau and then look for Joe Pavelski out front. But even knowing what's coming, it's almost impossible to stop because of the precision passing and the finishing touch of Pavelski. He has nine goals so far, tying the single-season franchise record.
The loss of use it diminishes the impact of the third line. But Joel Ward seems to find a way this time of year. He could emerge as an prime player from their bottom six.
Defense: The Blues manhandled Dallas's undersized blueliners in the last series, but they'll find a tougher task awaiting them this round. San Jose brings a bigger, stronger and more experienced group. Brent Burns can switch to beast-mode and take over a game at will with his speed and willingness to put the puck on the net from anywhere. When he's engaged in the attack, the Sharks are a difficult team to stop. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun don't draw the same attention, but the Preds found out what an effective shut-down pair they can be. The duo will likely see plenty of Jori Lehtera and the top line. Brenden Dillon and Roman Polak will have to see protected minutes, but they'll exact a toll with their physical play.
Goaltending: Are there cracks appearing in Martin Jones's armor? The rookie goaltender has exceeded expectations through two rounds, outplaying experienced internationals in Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne, and he pitched a shutout on Thursday night in his first career Game 7. But Jones also allowed four goals in three of the final five games of the Nashville series, and he came up on the short end of both overtime decisions. The Sharks' defense has done a decent job of limiting chances, but he's struggled with the high-quality shots he's faced. His .791 save percentage at even strength is the worst of the four remaining goalies and well below what Brian Elliott adds ( .856) to the Blues. Jones saw traffic in the Kings series, but nothing like what the Blues will bring. He has to improve his numbers on those premium opportunities for the Sharks to advance.
Keys to a Blues victory
Offense: The Blues are coming off a series in which they outscored the NHL's top offense 25-14, so they've clearly found their groove. They'll come at the Sharks with a deep and varied attack—they had seven players record at least six points in the series against the Stars. All three scoring lines are capable of leading the assault, although the Paul Stastny-Robby Fabbri-Troy Brouwer unit is the one to watch. The trio combined for nine goals and 23 points in the last series and shut down the Jamie Benn line in the process. They can come with speed, but are at their best when they get pucks deep and work the cycle. The Sharks like to play physical as well, but they don't have the heft to match up with the Blues. If Brouwer and David Backes (4-4-8 against Dallas) can establish a presence down low, the Blues will have their way.
Vladimir Tarasenko was the team's top weapon during the regular season, but he comes into this series as a bit of an X factor. He averaged a point per game against Dallas, but rarely asserted himself the way he can. With his quickness and that lightning-fast release, he could be a difference maker, but he has to work his way out from under heavy cover first.
Defense: The Blues have the best blueline standing. They're deep, they're big, they're very quick on their feet and they can take the punishment as well as they can dish it out. They're a strong possession group, keying exits with passes more often than dumps, which helps fire the attack. Alex Pietrangelo has been massive through the first two rounds, playing a key role in shutting down Benn and Jonathan Toews. Along with Backes, he's their leading Conn Smythe candidate. He's averaging just a hair under 30 minutes per game, so he'll see time against both the Thornton and Couture lines. Jay Bouwmeester has struggled a bit. He needs to find another gear. Colton Parayko continues to impress, both with his imposing physical game and his play under duress. Nothing fazes this kid. He could see more minutes this round.
Goaltending: It's steady as she goes with Elliott. The veteran has really had just the one bad start in the playoffs—Game 6 against Dallas—but he rebounded with a 32-save effort in Game 7. He's stood his ground against two high-octane offenses and has been nails on the type of in-tight chances that San Jose rode to glory against the Preds and Kings. Add in his veteran experience and he gives the Blues an edge between the pipes.
This sets up as a fascinating match-up. The Blues have already taken down one free-flowing team in the Stars, but the Sharks boast a better defense and more reliable goaltending. San Jose, meanwhile, has already knocked off a highly structured, physical opponent in Los Angeles, but St. Louis is more efficient and boasts a deeper attack. All things considered, it's a toss-up, and in that case I have to go with the goalie I trust the most. Blues in 7.