San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues: Top Matchups to Watch This Series

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIApril 12, 2012

San Jose Sharks vs. St. Louis Blues: Top Matchups to Watch This Series

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    In a matter of hours, the St. Louis Blues host the San Jose Sharks for a clash that will define both teams.

    The records and the seeds do not matter. There is no doubt the Blues are favourites, but this is one of the top picks for a true upset, as well (i.e. not those that are almost evenly-matched).

    But the Sharks actually have almost all the intangibles. They came into the playoffs stronger, are more desperate, the underdog yet the team with playoff success.

    You would think from the choker label on them that they had not been to two consecutive conference finals. The Blues have not won a playoff series in nearly a decade and career-Shark Patrick Marleau personally has been a part of beating them twice in the first round.

    This series can be had for either team. The one that pulls it off gains respect.

    Are the San Jose Sharks a waning star that never burned quite brightly enough to be a Stanley Cup finalist? The St. Louis Blues are a rising star, but are they ready for prime time right now?

    If San Jose can rise up and teach a lesson to an upstart team, they can begin to excuse the regular season as one big hiccup. If St. Louis can avenge the city's last two series defeats and the theft of Kyle Wellwood, they are contenders, not pretenders.

    Series this even often go to the team that wins the most big matchups. In each of the following situations, I give you the matchups to watch that will forecast the outcome of the series.

Bench and Trainers

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    The matchup between these elements of the game are split, with a slight overall advantage to the St. Louis Blues.

    Ken Hitchcock has a Stanley Cup ring. Whether it was legitimate is another matter, but his two conference titles were. What he has done with this team is, as well.

    Todd McLellan has a .500 playoff record and has never had more than nine wins in any postseason. His San Jose Sharks have horribly underachieved this season.

    Whether or not he is to blame or how much more time he should have before he has to prove anything, it is hard to give the coaching battle to him over Hitch. Look for his team to be better prepared, better disciplined (though probably taking more penalties) and more fundamentally sound in their own end.

    McLellan will end up eating tough line matchups for four of the seven games. His constant juggling of linemates works just often enough for him to keep trying, but ultimately will not help his team win the series.

    Where the Sharks may have the advantage is the training staff (injuries), but it is not much of one. The most significant injury for either team is Blues goalie Brian Elliot: Though pronounced ready, his play is uncertain enough for them to use Jaroslav Halak, but he is also among the top dozen goalies in the world.

When the Sharks Have the Puck

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    This game could be decided in the faceoff circle.

    The St. Louis Blues do not need to win half the draws, but they need to be close. During the season, the San Jose Sharks got the puck 323 more times than their foes via faceoffs, while the Blues were just plus-39.

    San Jose is a dominant team in the circle because it values it as a puck-possession team. It goes beyond honing the craft: Most lines have two natural centremen, and the top line has three who are all quite good at it. They can cheat and send the next guy in if they are tossed.

    The Blues have the advantage of getting the line matchup they want in four of the seven games. They need to contain that top line's faceoff wins in the Blues' zone.

    They also need to lean on their advantage in giveaways and takeaways to neutralize those extra Sharks possessions. Teams that have the puck more will obviously turn it over more. Every turnover eliminates a chance for a score, and some turnovers create scores for the inflicting team.

    San Jose lost 172 more possessions in this way than their opponents, while the Blues gained 120. St. Louis is only around the middle of the pack in both hits and blocked shots because their positioning is that good before the other team is on the attack.

    Once the Sharks have the puck, they need to get it to the net while the Blues' defence is still moving. The Blues defended the middle of their zone well during the regular season, forcing the Sharks wide and limiting second-chance opportunities.

    Only one team (Pittsburgh) averaged more shots on goal than San Jose. However, no team gave up fewer goals than St. Louis in large part because no team gave up fewer shots.

    The Sharks' blue line has to get pucks beyond the forwards high in the zone. The forwards have to win the battles with Blues defenders to the pucks.

When the Blues Have the Puck

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    If there was only one man on the attack and five San Jose Sharks on the blue line, they would fail to defend it aggressively enough.

    Only three teams had fewer hits than the Sharks despite their status as one of the world's biggest rosters. Only part of this was because San Jose is so good at possessing the puck. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a wider shot differential than the Sharks but nearly a third-again the hits.

    They are too timid. This passivity starts with the forecheck in the offensive end, extends to players entering the Sharks' zone and usually applies to the space in front of the net.

    This allows the opposition to set up how they want. The good thing for San Jose is it is among the best shot-blocking teams in the NHL. It finished seventh in the NHL and faced fewer shots on goal than any of the six teams ahead of them.

    Blues shooters will struggle to get past those blocks, and beware of those that may start the Sharks' break. If they can get sustained pressure, San Jose will start making trips to the penalty box.

Sharks Short-Handed

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    The St. Louis Blues famously dominated the regular season series. They won all four games with two shutouts and a combined score of 11-3.

    Except two of those were into empty nets. Five of the remaining nine scores St. Louis had during the season were with the man-advantage.

    After a slow start, St. Louis has been a great team on the power play for months. Other than 20-some games in the middle of the season, San Jose has been horrible on the penalty kill, finishing second-worst in the NHL.

    One of San Jose's problems is preventing the other team's entry into the zone. It also struggle to clear pucks. When you are outnumbered, the shot-blocking just leaves a guy open for a loose puck and a one-on-one shot with the goalie.

    The Sharks have to win faceoffs. The blue line has to get to rebounds and the forwards have to get the puck cleared. It only takes five or six clears to kill a penalty. If the Sharks take them one at a time, they can minimize the Blues' success.

    Staying out of the box would be even better. While the Sharks play better with an edge, their passivity does have its advantages: San Jose was shorthanded less often than any other team and 57 fewer times than the Blues.

Blues Short-Handed

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    If the St. Louis Blues spend much more time in the penalty box than the San Jose Sharks, they will regret it. San Jose has the best power play since the All-Star break and was second throughout the season.

    The Sharks' draw are tied for the 13th-most power-play opportunities. That is not impressive for a team so elite at puck possession.

    Nothing about the Blues is undisciplined. Not only are they fundamentally sound in their own end, but they do not take an inordinate number of penalties. As a team that is young and relatively physical, being seventh in both penalty-kill percentage and fewest power-play goals allowed is stout.

    It also shows they are not as vulnerable to San Jose's power play as most of the league. Thus, the Blues should score more special-teams goals than the Sharks.