SAN JOSE – It’s safe to say that the St. Louis Blues
have had San Jose’s number this year.
The Blues are 3-0 against the Sharks entering the fourth and final game of the series Saturday night at HP Pavilion. They beat the Sharks 4-2 in San Jose when Davis Payne
was still the coach, and they shut them out 1-0 and 3-0 in St. Louis under coach Ken Hitchcock.
The numbers don’t lie, but the Blues are approaching Saturday night’s game as if they were looking up at San Jose in the Western Conference standings rather than the other way around. Hitchcock said there’s zero chance of his team having a letdown on the final leg of its six-game road trip because of the “respect” it has for the Sharks.
“San Jose plays us tough,” Hitchcock said after the Blues’ morning skate at HP Pavilion. “They’re a hard team for us to play against. They’ve got weight, they’ve got size up front. They lean on you pretty hard. They get our attention all the time. In a lot of ways, I know they’re a difficult opponent, but our players really like playing against them because it really tests your competitiveness.
“I think both teams play with similar structure, we use similar terminology, we use a similar style of game. We measure ourselves. Any time it’s Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose or Chicago, we measure ourselves to see if we’re ready for the test, so any time we play these teams, those four teams, we get pretty excited.”
The Blues enter Saturday night’s game with 87 points and the fourth spot in the West – three places ahead of San Jose, which has gone 3-6-1 in its past 10 games and is coming off a 1-0 loss Thursday night to Buffalo. St. Louis is 4-1 on its road trip, but suffered a 2-0 loss Thursday at Vancouver.
The Sharks see Saturday night’s game against St. Louis as a chance to prove they’re still one of the West’s elite teams, despite their recent slide.
“They’ve been the hottest team in the League since Hitch took over there,” Sharks forward Ryane Clowe
said. “We need a game like that tonight to get us back on track, just a sound game against a real good team. It’s going to be a great test and we all know that. We got to pass that test. If we can create some chances and prove to ourselves that we are a dominant team, too. Especially if we get power-play opportunites – they’ve had our number in that area. We got to get that going tonight if we get those opportunities.”
During their 3-0 loss on Feb. 12 at St. Louis, the Sharks went 0-for-4 on the power play while the Blues scored a pair of power-play goals. The Blues killed all six penalties during their 1-0 win against San Jose on Dec. 10. The Blues PK units come into the game on a hot streak. St. Louis has killed 24 straight penalties during a span of nine-plus games.
was in goal for the Blues during that Feb. 12 shutout, and he’ll be in goal Saturday night against San Jose and goaltender Antti Niemi
. Halak has six shutouts this season to go with a 1.94 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. Niemi (2.43, .914) has five shutouts and allowed just one goal in his past two games, snapping out of a slump.
In other words, goals should be scarce, as they usually are when St. Louis plays. The Blues lead the NHL in goals-against per game (1.91) shots-against per game (26.2) and shutouts (12). St. Louis will face a Sharks team that has scored just 15 goals in its past eight games and just one in its past two games.
“They’re a tough team to play,” Sharks forward Logan Couture
said. “They come hard on the forecheck. Great defensive team, haven’t given up very many goals all year. To beat them you have to play one of the best games that we’ve played all year and step up tonight.”
Former Shark Scott Nichol
, now a fourth-line center for St. Louis, said the Blues are “really buying into” Hitchcock’s defense-first system.
“We all just kind of stick together, playing a hard game, a heavy game,” Nichol said. “It’s been working out for us.”
Hitchcock said he expects to see the Sharks at their best, especially on a Saturday night at HP Pavilion.
“Teams that have been there before, they know when the light’s at the end of the tunnel,” Hitchcock said. “They’ll be there at the end. They’ll play at a high level. It’s hard for teams that keep going back to the same well year in and year out. The players know when to crank it up. There’s a month left in the season, I’m sure they’re going to crank it up and go to another level. That’s why we want to test ourselves. We think they’re going to play at that level now, and we want to test ourselves.”
Here’s how the lineups could look Saturday night:
– Joe Thornton
– Logan Couture
– Patrick Marleau
– Joe Pavelski
– Dominic Moore
– Torrey Mitchell
– Michal Handzus
– Jim Vandermeer
– Dan Boyle
– Douglas Murray
– Colin White
Sharks coach Todd McLellan
will miss his third straight game after suffering a concussion Sunday at Minnesota when he was hit by a stick, the team announced. Assistants Jay Woodcroft and Matt Shaw will fill in behind the bench. The Sharks had an optional skate Saturday morning, so there were no line rushes, and Woodcroft said the lines had yet to be set. Couture is expected to return to the lineup after missing two games with a lower-body injury, and Murray might be back after missing eight games since being hit in the throat with a puck.