For the first time since the NHL lockout, the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues will meet in the first round of the playoffs. With the Blues having yet to win a playoff game, there hasn't been much opportunity for the two teams to meet each other in the postseason.
Prior to the lockout they were rather familiar with each other. In 1999-2000, the Blues were the best team in the league entering the playoffsChris Pronger would win the Hart Trophy that yearand they faced the Sharks in the first round. San Jose won a seven-game series that was the biggest upset that year. They'd meet twice more, with the home team (St. Louis in 2000-01, San Jose in 2003-04) winning both matchups.
St. Louis Offense vs. San Jose Defense
St. Louis Blues Offense: -12.2 GVT (21st in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks Defense: 11.4 GVT (7th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks Goaltending: 0.0 GVT (15th in the NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, -23.6 GVT
The strength of the St. Louis Blues is not their offense. Their top four performers in terms of GVT are evenly split: two goalies, two defensemen. Ken Hitchock is a defensively-minded coach and always has been. The Blues ranked 21st in the league in terms of goals for, one spot back of Edmonton and two spots back of Montreal.
That isn't to say there are no strengths. The trio of T.J. Oshie and Davids Backes and Perron provide strong two-way play. There's depth as wellthe Blues have seven forwards with a GVT greater than 5.0 this season.
Still, they're going to have a tough time against the Sharks' defense. San Jose is one of just seven teams with a defensive GVT above 10.0 on the season. A trio of high-caliber defensemenDan Boyle, Brent Burns, and Marc-Edouard Vlasicwill make things difficult for the Blues' scorers. If they get past the defense, goaltender Antti Niemi is a competent goalie and has had extensive playoff experience the last two years, including a Cup win with Chicago in 2010.
Advantage: San Jose Sharks
San Jose Offense vs. St. Louis Defense
San Jose Sharks Offense: -+0.8 GVT (13th in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues Defense: 31.2 GVT (1st in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues Goaltending: 31.1 GVT (1st in the NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, -61.5 GVT
The San Jose Sharks have a lot of high-powered names but were surprisingly mediocre at scoring goals this season, finishing 13th in the NHL in total scoring. None of their forwards hit the point-per-game mark; only Joe Thornton (77 points in 82 games, +17.3 GVT) came close. There are players on the team who have a history of better offensive showings than they had this year, and Martin Havlat's return will help, so the possibility of growth exists.
On the other hand, St. Louis is the defensive juggernaut in the game this season. Jaroslav Halak has a .925 save percentage, and that pales in comparison to partner Brian Elliott's .940 save percentage. Each recorded two wins versus San Jose this year. Worse for the Sharks, the goaltending is just the startnot only do the Blues play a defense-first, last, and always style game, but they have some of the best young defensive talent in the league.
Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in 2008, has come into his ownhis GVT sits at +17.2. Kevin Shattenkirk, acquired in trade as part of a deal that sent former first overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado, isn't far behind with a +13.7 GVT. It's a group boasting both depth and high-end talent. Of course the Sharks already know that; Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo combined for four of the Blues' 11 goals against San Jose this season.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues, by a lot
St. Louis Power Play vs. San Jose Penalty Kill
St. Louis Blues Power Play: +1.5 GVT (13th in the NHL)
San Jose Sharks Penalty Kill: -15.2 GVT (29th in the NHL)
Total: St. Louis Blues, +16.7 GVT
The Blues don't possess an overly potent power play, by NHL standards. Then again, the Sharks wish they could claim mediocre penalty-killingthey're the second-worst team in the league in that department, just narrowly ahead of 30th place Columbus. The Sharks did attempt to address this deficiency at the deadline, bringing in reinforcements in the form of Daniel Winnik and Dominic Moore, but to date they have failed to right a leaky ship.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues
San Jose Power Play vs. St. Louis Penalty Kill
San Jose Sharks Power Play: +12.4 GVT (2nd in the NHL)
St. Louis Blues Penalty Kill: +9.4 GVT (7th in the NHL)
Total: San Jose Sharks, +3.0 GVT
The Sharks compensate for their atrocious penalty killing with one of the league's best power plays. Unsurprisingly given their overall mentality and the fact that Ken Hitchcock is coach, St. Louis boasts a more than competent penalty kill.
Advantage: San Jose Sharks
Season Series Results
In four games between these two teams, the St. Louis Blues came away with four regulation wins and eight points, outscoring San Jose 11-to-3. Of course, empty net goals make those victories seem more lopsided then they really were; excluding them the scores were 3-2, 1-0, 2-0 and 3-1. Close, low-scoring games would seem to be what fans should expect out of this matchup.
Advantage: St. Louis Blues
Injuries and Intangibles
It was unclear who Ken Hitchcock would choose to start the series between the pipes, but it would seem that injury has played a hand. The Blues were forced to recall Jake Allen on an emergency basis after Brian Elliott went down with what's being called an upper-body injury. Elliott is presently listed as day-to-day, making Jaroslav Halak the probable starter. Like every team, the Blues have a few other players at less than 100%, but it is expected that with the exception of Elliott they'll dress a healthy lineup for Game One.
San Jose is also finally healthy entering the playoffs. Ryane Clowe has had a bit of time off on what are being called "maintenance days" but he's expected to be back in the lineup when the series opens.
San Jose is a good team. With Martin Havlat healthy, they're also probably a better team than the standings show. Beyond that, while every team wants two great goalies, St. Louis can only play one of their stellar 'tenders at a time. The season series was full of close gamesa little extra offensive punch could make up the difference for the Sharks.
In all likelihood, however, St. Louis is just too good to justify picking San Jose to win this series. Goal-scoring drops in the playoffs; the Blues are built to win low-scoring games. The Sharks will be competitive, but it won't be enough.
St. Louis Blues in six games
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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