Last time, it was the Sharks in six. This time? TBD.
San Jose and the St. Louis Blues, two clubs still searching for their first Stanley Cup, are set to face off in the Western Conference Final for the second time in four years. When they met in 2016, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau helped lead the Sharks to a conference title.
Both teams are heavy, deep, and very good at even strength. San Jose needed 14 games to advance this far, defeating Vegas and Colorado in seven-game series, while St. Louis required 13 to send Winnipeg and Dallas packing. Neither the Sharks nor Blues have a significant player sidelined by injury, eliminating health-related excuses and setting the table for fierce competition.
Let’s break the series down ahead of Game 1 on Saturday night.
Sharks: Among the final four, San Jose is the only team to boast five players with at least 10 playoff points. The club is averaging 3.9 goals per game in wins and was the lone squad to finish the regular season with four 30-goal scorers.
This forward group has proven it can inflict serious damage thanks to a nice blend of high-end talent and quality depth. It starts with the Logan Couture line, which has produced 13 goals, and ends with the fourth line, which features Barclay Goodrow and his two game-winning goals. Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Evander Kane, and Kevin Labanc lead the middle six.
Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl top the list in the game-breaking ability department. The 20-somethings are modern-day power forwards who are more than capable of taking over a shift. Hertl’s been a monster through two rounds (nine goals to pace the playoffs alongside Couture), and Meier appears to be sitting on a breakout performance (three goals in 14 games).
Something to keep an eye on: Meier and Kane have found themselves in penalty trouble this spring, combining for 11 minor penalties in the playoffs. Can they straddle the line better in Round 3?
Blues: Hands up if you knew Jaden Schwartz had eight goals this postseason, including seven at even strength, and a Corsi For rating of 60 percent? Yeah, his excellent numbers have been lost in the shuffle.
Patrick Maroon dominated discussion out of the Blues’ second-round victory over the Stars – and rightfully so. The local hero scored the series-clinching goal in overtime, with his young son crying in the stands. Maroon’s been solid on a third line with Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas.
No. 1 center Ryan O’Reilly will be one to monitor. His line will most likely draw the toughest defensive assignment, the Gus Nyquist-Couture-Meier trio. If O’Reilly can hold his own and Vladimir Tarasenko capitalizes on a few five-on-five scoring chances, the Blues should be on the right track.
Brayden Schenn’s production, or lack thereof, after two rounds is concerning. Four points in 14 games (0.3 PPG) from your second-line center is simply not going to cut it if you have Cup aspirations. Luckily for Schenn, the slate is wiped clean for Game 1.
Sharks: At this point, at least one of Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, or Erik Karlsson is on the ice for nearly the entire game. It’s a gigantic advantage for San Jose, and you can bet head coach Peter DeBoer will be doubling down on the approach moving forward.
Burns has been particularly effective, banking 14 points in 14 games while wreaking havoc in open ice. The hard-hitting rover – who’s averaging 29 minutes per contest to lead all skaters – thrives in the high-stakes environment.
Blues: St. Louis has horses on the back end, too. Right-handed stalwarts Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko anchor the top two pairs, while the mobile Vince Dunn is having a coming-out party this postseason on the third duo.
Head coach Craig Berube has a big and nasty defense corps that can transport the puck with ease. Defensively, it’s all hands on deck against the Sharks. Continued yeoman’s work from Jay Bouwmeester (five assists) and Joel Edmundson (58 percent Corsi For) is required if the club plans on advancing.
Sharks: Do you believe in Martin Jones? That’s the question Sharks fans have been asking themselves all season. And the jury is probably still out.
After a disastrous regular season, Jones, the unquestioned starter ahead of backup Aaron Dell, has proven his worth these playoffs. He has a .910 save percentage overall and .928 since Game 5 of the first round. The playoffs bring the best out of Jones. Now, he must seal the deal.
Blues: Another chapter in Jordan Binnington’s dream rookie season is upon us. The 25-year-old has been instrumental in St. Louis’ incredible 2019 turnaround and hasn’t looked out of place whatsoever in the postseason.
Backed up by Jake Allen, Binnington enters the series with a .915 save percentage in 13 contests. He’s been pretty consistent from the opening puck drop of the playoffs through Game 7 against Dallas. As a bonus, his puckhandling has supplemented the Blues’ breakout quite nicely.
Sharks: San Jose’s power play, the sixth-ranked unit in the regular season, is doing all right for itself, scoring 10 times in 54 opportunities for an 18.5 percent success rate. Hertl and Couture account for seven of those 10 goals. The penalty kill has been fairly effective, operating at 80 percent.
Blues: St. Louis’ power play, the 10th-best unit during the regular season, is doing OK, too, finding the net seven times in 41 chances for a 17.1 percent clip. Tarasenko has scored four of those goals. The penalty kill has been decent, performing at 75 percent.
Sharks: Meier. There is a gear in the Swiss winger’s system that hasn’t been activated yet. Beast Mode Meier could tilt the series in San Jose’s favor.
Blues: Tarasenko. He’s St. Louis’ offensive spark plug. If he can find his touch at five-on-five and continue to drag along the power play, look out.
Sharks in seven
|Game 1||Sat. May 11||at San Jose||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 2||Mon. May 13||at San Jose||9 p.m. ET|
|Game 3||Wed. May 15||at St. Louis||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 4||Fri. May 17||at St. Louis||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 5*||Sun. May 19||at San Jose||3 p.m. ET|
|Game 6*||Tues. May 21||at St. Louis||8 p.m. ET|
|Game 7*||Thurs. May 23||at San Jose||9 p.m. ET|
|* if necessary|
John Matisz is theScore’s national hockey writer.
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