NHL Playoffs 2012: Fact or Fiction for San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues
The San Jose Sharks came into the 2011-12 season as one of the five favourites to win the Stanley Cup. The St. Louis Blues came in as a team expected to break its two-year playoff absence, only to likely get knocked out in the first round.
As it turns out, they did a role reversal.
The Sharks were playing their 81st game before they even locked up a playoff spot. Two days later, they were eliminated from a chance to repeat for a fifth time as Pacific Division champs, even though the point total needed was the second lowest of any division in the NHL. They locked up the seventh seed in the last game of the NHL season.
On the other hand, the Blues started slow and fired coach Davis Payne a month into the season. From the time Ken Hitchcock took over until the end of March, St. Louis was the best team in the league.
During that time, they not only secured a playoff spot, but the title of one of the NHL's two best divisions, claiming a top-two seed. Only an April slide kept them from capturing the Presidents' Trophy, something they were not eliminated from until only a couple hours remained in the NHL season.
Sharks fans eager for different results in May are looking for reasons for optimism. In this article, I will explore the myth or reality of the top 10 assumptions going into the first-round matchup, starting with the two that appear to work against the Sharks...
Blues Gain Advantage for Dominating Head-to-Head: Inconclusive
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In the head-to-head matchups, the St. Louis Blues beat the San Jose Sharks all four times. They had two shutouts and an 11-3 total goal margin.
However, the New Jersey Devils once beat the New York Rangers in a series after being swept in the regular season. While I was not about to count up so many head-to-heads league-wide, even limiting them to last season, I thought it would be interesting to see how the Sharks have fared in the regular season against the teams that eliminated them in the playoffs since the lockout.
- During the 2010-11 season, they had just one win in four games against the Vancouver Canucks.
- In 2009-10 they had just one win in four games against the Chicago Blackhawks.
- In 2008-09 they had four wins in six games against the Anaheim Ducks.
- In 2007-08 they had four wins in eight games against the Dallas Stars.
- In 2006-07 they took three of four from the Detroit Red Wings.
- In 2005-06 they had just one win in four games against the Edmonton Oilers.
In all, the Sharks had 14 wins in 30 regular season games against the teams that eliminated them from the playoffs. Three winners had won the season series and two had lost it. Both favour the Blues, but by too narrow a margin to be definitive.
Blues Advantage That Defence Wins in the Playoffs: Fiction
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We all know that the playoffs are about defence. Goals are harder to come by this time of the year and the better team in its own end usually wins.
Except that is all false.
This was true before the lockout, when refs swallowed their whistles in the playoffs.
However, in each of the last four seasons, a higher percentage of teams have scored at least three goals in the playoffs than did during the regular season. In the last two seasons, a higher number have scored at least three in the playoffs vs. the regular season despite only 53.3 percent of teams even making it there.
Of course, this season is trending more to the defence that preceded the lockout, so you never know...
Blues Great Home Team vs. Playoff Home-Ice Disadvantage: Inconclusive
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No team earned more points at home this season than the St. Louis Blues. However, road teams seem to win more often than home teams in the playoffs.
If that were true, the San Jose Sharks would be in a great position for their first-round series. But is that perception or reality?
Road teams do often win in early rounds. This becomes less and less the case as each round passes, but this examination is of the first round. Without doing exhaustive research to quantify this, we can look at the Sharks in the first round under coach Todd McLellan (note that San Jose was the higher seed in all three, as St. Louis is this season):
- 2009: The home team went 4-2, with the Sharks going 1-2 both home and away.
- 2010: The home team went 4-2, with the Sharks going 2-1 both home and away.
- 2011: The home team went 1-5, with the Sharks dropping two of three at home but winning all three on the road.
Overall, that makes the home team record in the first round for the Sharks' last three seasons 9-9. The Sharks are just 4-5 at HP Pavilion and 6-3 on the road, but two of those teams were division rivals used to playing in the other's rink, and none of them came into the playoffs with the the kind of record St. Louis has.
Sharks Experience Is a Big Advantage: Fact
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Experience is not the benefit in the playoffs everyone thinks it is. This is quantifiable without looking up the average age of every recent matchup, since the last three Stanley Cup champions were younger than their opponents.
However, that could be because by the end of a long playoff, youth is more beneficial than experience. The San Jose Sharks have shown this extends even to the second round, as they beat the most experienced team in the league in each of the last two playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings.
But the real examination is the first round, since that is the matchup being examined. Since the Sharks have been the more experienced team the last two years but also the highest seed, that does not apply to a situation wherein the higher seed is less experienced; we need to compare apples to apples.
So how often does the less experienced team finish with the higher seed? It did not happen at all in 2011, but it happened three times in 2010 and four times in 2009.
Three of the four higher seeds won in 2009 (the Sharks being the lone exception, with the lower-seeded Ducks having recent championship experience), but all three lost in 2010. While 4-3 is not a high margin, considering lower seeds usually lose, that is legitimate cause for optimism in San Jose.
St. Louis Is in Trouble Without a True No. 1 Goalie: Fiction
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The St. Louis Blues have one goalie who was in the All-Star Game this season and another who was outstanding in carrying his team to a conference final two seasons ago. The controversy is considered a black mark on the Blues' chances.
Rarely does a team enter the playoffs with a goalie rotation. However, in the rare instances that the regular season does feature such an arrangement, they do fine when they get there.
In 2003, the Minnesota Wild rotated Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. The two backstopped the sixth seed all the way to the Western Conference Finals until they were Gigged, as in Jean-Sebastien Giguere allowing just five goals in four games.
In 2006, the San Jose Sharks played both Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala throughout the season, only settling on Toskala in the final month. He was not the reason the Sharks were ousted in the second round.
In 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers had no goalie and the Montreal Canadiens came into the season with two players starting nearly equal numbers of games. They met in the conference finals, with the Flyers never settling on one netminder and the Habs hitching their wagon to Jaroslav Halak for the playoffs.
We do not know if the Blues will settle on one goalie or continue to rotate, but there may be no controversy in picking Halak, because Elliot has not been totally healthy.
Sharks Health Is an Advantage: Inconclusive
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The San Jose Sharks seem to have a healthy squad, while the St. Louis Blues will start with a couple players at less than total health. But can we trust this to be true?
Despite Rick Tocchet and the Great One's Wife, Janet Jones-Gretzky, being involved at various levels in betting on NHL games, the league continues to leave itself vulnerable to inside information influencing the games by allowing teams to be evasive or misleading in injury reports.
It is quite possible the Sharks have key players who are limited and the Blues might get everyone back to full capacity within the week. Of course, one key injury during the series could tip the scales, and that cannot be forecast.
Sharks Have More Depth Than in Years Past: Fiction
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There is a pervasive idea among the faithful of the San Jose Sharks that this year's roster has more depth than in the past.
This only comes from short-term memory. The counterpoint is not merely to show how much worse the team is, but to compare the actual personnel.
This year, the Sharks have felt compelled to play Colin White whenever there is an injury on the blue line, and sometimes when there was not. True, he will not play unless someone is not performing or injured, but that shows a thin blue line.
Last season, the seventh defenceman was Justin Braun. At that point in his development, he was probably no better than White is now. Thus, with Jim Vandermeer also available, there is no doubt the Sharks blue line is better than last year, but the improvement in depth is minimal.
The blue line was supposed to be the strength of this team after trading away forward Devin Setoguchi for defenceman Brent Burns. Losing Setoguchi gave the Sharks one less top-six forward, and trading away Jamie McGinn diminished their seventh forward, as well.
The Sharks cannot even settle on which checking forwards belong on the third line because no one is setting themselves apart. Newcomers T.J. Galiardi, Daniel Winnik, Dominic Moore, Brad Winchester and Michal Handzus have not performed better than Kyle Wellwood, Jamal Mayers, Ben Eager, Scott Nichol and Jamie McGinn.
In previous seasons, San Jose has had Jeremy Roenick, Logan Couture, Manny Malhotra, Mike Grier, Travis Moen and Patrick Rissmiller, who performed better for at least one season than anyone on the checking lines for the Sharks is right now. Plus, the Sharks have an untested backup goalie.
Pressure on the Blues Is an Advantage to the Sharks: Fiction
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The idea that the San Jose Sharks have less pressure coming in as a lower seed is true. The Blues are expected to win, and the underdog usually can play more freely.
But that is not the only factor in pressure. The reality is that there is no way the Sharks have less pressure than the Blues.
St. Louis is a younger team that will get more chances. They had lower expectations when this all started. If they lose in the first round, it will be disappointing, but not crushing.
People in San Jose will lose their jobs if the team loses in the first round. They have failed too many times to get leeway, and the step backwards they appear to have taken is unacceptable. Many of the players have peaked already and their chances will not get better.
The good news is that that pressure has a counter-force that's at least as important. It can be argued that the Sharks' bigger problem has been complacency, not pressure. The urgency to win may actually be a bigger motivator for them.
Thus, while it is fiction that the pressure is off the Sharks, it can be argued they are better off having it.
Sharks Have Advantage Fighting Their Way into Playoffs: Fiction
The common assumption is that teams that fight their way into the playoffs are better prepared for it. But results just do not bear that out.
You need go only as far as the San Jose Sharks to know that fighting their way in does not work. They were out of the playoff picture after the All-Star break in 2006, 2008 and 2011. They went 21-20 in those seasons and were always done playing before the last week of May.
Teams are just as likely to be fatigued battling their way back. That is what Doug Wilson acknowledged happened to San Jose last season.
A simple look at the records of second seeds against seventh seeds since the lockout tells you all you need to know: 10-2 over the 12 series.
Teams That Go in Hot Are More Likely to Win the Stanley Cup: Fact
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Finally, let us explore the idea that teams benefit from going into the playoffs hot. Having momentum like the San Jose Sharks do (7-3) is always preferable, but the numbers do not reflect an appreciable advantage in winning one's conference.
Since the lockout, Stanley Cup finalists have had anywhere from seven to 15 points in their final 10 games, averaging 12.33. Only one-third of Stanley Cup winners in that time had the seven wins or 14-plus points the Sharks did this season.
That being said, the only round that concerns this matchup is the first.
In the three seasons Todd McLellan has coached the Sharks, 14 of the 24 first-round winners entered the first round with a better record over their previous 10 games, and two came in equally. The composite records of the first-round opponents were an average of over one point better.
However, last season arguably favoured the colder team. Only three of eight advanced, but the average record of the the winners was actually lower than that of the losers in those 10 games.
Still, all four times over the three years (and twice last) that a team had the same three-point edge the Sharks do over the Blues in the last 10 games, they won.