It’s looking a lot like 2016 out west with a San Jose and St. Louis rematch in the Western Conference Final. As the Blues and the Sharks prepare for Game 1 on Saturday, they find themselves in a familiar position, with each team returning 11 players from their 2016 playoff rosters. The Sharks won that series three years ago and went on to lose in the Stanley Cup Final to the Penguins. Will San Jose make its way back to the big dance this year, or will St. Louis continue its quest to end its 52-year Cup drought? Here’s a look at everything you need to know before Game 1:
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The Sharks finished the regular season with one of the worst goaltenders in the league, but second in the Pacific Division standings. It looked like Martin Jones initially carried over his uninspiring regular-season play into the opening round, having been pulled twice, but then suddenly something clicked. San Jose powered past the Golden Knights in a Game 7 that future generations will know by heart and came out on top of another seven-game series against the Avalanche.
As for St. Louis, we’ve all heard the story several times by now, but for very good reason. The Blues fired coach Mike Yeo back in November, with Craig Berube taking his place. St. Louis was in the league’s basement back in early January before going on a 30-15-5 run that featured ridiculous saves from rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington and a lot of Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” The Blues took down the Jets in six and the Stars in seven to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2016.
At the conclusion of the second round, San Jose had the top three point-scorers of the playoffs in Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Brent Burns. Then the world was reminded of the team’s depth when captain Joe Pavelski came back from his horrific head injury and immediately found himself on the score sheet in Game 7 against the Avalanche. San Jose has 10 players who have at least two goals these playoffs and five with 10 points.
Offense hasn’t been nearly as abundant for the Blues this postseason. Despite having just 11 goals in the regular season, Jaden Schwartz leads the team with eight goals and has 11 points this postseason. Vladimir Tarasenko has five goals, four coming on the man advantage, and Ryan O’Reilly has nine total points. St. Louis’s third line was the story at the end of round two, with Pat Maroon scoring the series-winner against the Stars and rookie Robert Thomas getting numerous scoring chances.
Advantage: San Jose
As Burns tied his team’s leading forwards in points, Erik Karlsson has been close behind at 12. Burns and defensive partner Marc-Edouard Vlasic have been behemoths for San Jose’s blue line and Karlsson has started to finally look like himself again after looking hesitant throughout the first round. This is a dangerous trio. It’s also worth noting that San Jose’s penalty kill a 91.3% success rate in the second round, allowing just two power-play goals to the Stars.
Captain Alex Pietrangelo has been the offensive leader for St. Louis’s blue line with 11 points, but Colton Parayko will be the one tasked with shutting down San Jose’s offense in this series. Parayko and defensive partner Jay Bouwmeester were matched up against Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor in the opening round, and then Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov in the second. Both were fairly tall tasks, and the Blues allowed just four goals in their last three games against the Stars, a level of defensive they’ll want to have in Round 3.
Advantage: San Jose
Many counted San Jose out this postseason simply because of goaltending. And Jones proved them right at the beginning by allowing 13 goals in the first four games against Vegas, a span in which he was pulled twice. But since, then, Jones has a 2.13 GAA and a .928 save percentage, and has been coming up with big saves.
Ever since he was given the chance to play back in January, Binnington has been marveling the hockey world. The Calder Trophy finalist’s immediate impact gave the Blues new life as they quickly climbed out of the basement and into the postseason. Backup Jake Allen hasn’t played since April 3, with Binnington playing every minute these playoffs, posting a 2.39 GAA and .915 save percentage through the first two rounds.
Advantage: St. Louis
SAN JOSE WINS IF…
The depth scoring continues and Jones continues to ascend. Burns, Couture and Hertl have been leading the way in quantity, but the score sheets have been sprinkled with names from all throughout the roster. If Jones keeps coming up with the big saves with that stellar defense out in front of him, the Sharks could find themselves returning to the Stanley Cup Final.
ST. LOUIS WINS IF…
The goaltending and defense suffocate San Jose’s offense. Binnington’s magic in net is what unlocked St. Louis’s potential to embark on this incredible run. If the rookie goaltender and his defense can frustrate the Sharks’ top scorers, the Blues could be a step closer to reaching their first-ever Stanley Cup.
Like the first two rounds, this one won’t be easy for San Jose. Binnington has been remarkable for St. Louis, but the Sharks’ experience and offensive depth will be too much for the rookie goaltender. The (Game) 7s have been lucky for San Jose so why not one more for the Shark Tank to enjoy?
Sharks in seven