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Blues / Sharks Round 1 Series Preview

by Staff Writer / St. Louis Blues




The San Jose Sharks bring a wealth of playoff experience into their first-round Stanley Cup Playoff series with the St. Louis Blues. How will that serve them this season?

The Blues dominated this season with air-tight defense and goaltending, and an opportunistic offense.

The Sharks, however, feature three 30-goal scorers as well as Joe Thornton, among the elite set-up centers in the League.

So can the Blues' youthful exuberance and loyalty to coach Ken Hitchcock's defense-first system carry them in the playoffs like it did in the regular season? Or will the knowledge and experience gained by the Sharks in back-to-back conference finals trips carry San Jose forward?
The Blues aren't going to throw out forwards with eye-popping numbers. None of them are among the League leaders in any offensive categories, but all are effective and used in many different situations.

Captain David Backes led the team in goals and points, and also should get plenty of consideration for the Selke Trophy.

T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald, Alexander Steen and David Perron round out a cast that is consistent across the board. The Blues are balanced, which has been a primary weapon of attack on a game-by-game basis. They will be tough to defend for any team in the postseason. If McDonald and Steen find that extra gear that make them dangerous off the rush, it opens the ice for players like Perron and Oshie.

Patrik Berglund, who once again is coming on strong at the end of the season, thrives when playing with McDonald. The big Swede seems to be regaining the form that saw him play the best hockey of his career at last summer's World Championship.

Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, who have won the Stanley Cup three times between them, provide that veteran stability the majority of these players on the Blues roster needed when they were swept by Vancouver in the first round in 2009.

Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski cracked the 30-goal mark during the regular season, but the Sharks are not as deep or high-powered offensively as they were the past two seasons, when they reached the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks lost a combined 48 goals and 105 points in offseason trades that sent Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota. Martin Havlat, who came to San Jose in the Heatley deal, was expected to fill some of that offensive void, but missed three months with a hamstring injury. He did, though, provide a spark when he returned March 15.

Joe Thornton's goals were down, but he once again was one of the NHL's top assist men, and he turned in another solid season defensively. Patrick Marleau scored 30 goals for the sixth time in seven seasons, but it's the first time in four seasons he had fewer than 35 goals and 70 points. Ryane Clowe's numbers were off this season, also.

The Sharks lost some more firepower when they traded forward Jamie McGinn at the deadline to Colorado for forwards Daniel Winnik and TJ Galiardi. But after slow starts, Winnik and Galiardi added some punch to the third and fourth lines. The line of Winnik, Tommy Wingels and center Andrew Desjardins often was one of San Jose’s best during the stretch run.

Alex Pietrangelo, who has gained considerable notoriety as a potential Norris Trophy candidate, has emerged as the team's blue-line anchor. The fourth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft eclipsed the 50-point mark for the first time in his career and led the team in average ice time per game at 24:43, more than three minutes per game than any teammate, and he earned those minutes at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties. Pietrangelo quickly is becoming the total package.

Kevin Shattenkirk, considered the "throw-in" in last season's trade that landed the Blues forward Chris Stewart, also has emerged as a rising blue-line star by equaling his 43-point output from his rookie season. He finished second to Pietrangelo in minutes played per game (21:36).

The lack of defensive depth hurt the Sharks severely in the 2011 playoffs and helped prompt a series of offseason moves to solve that problem. They traded with Minnesota for defenseman Brent Burns and added free agents Colin White and Jim Vandermeer. With those three and five holdovers -- Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Douglas Murray, Jason Demers and Justin Braun -- the Sharks go eight-deep on the blue line.

The Sharks expected to get more offensive firepower from Burns, a physical player with a big shot who had a solid if unspectacular regular season. Boyle's offensive numbers were down, too, and Murray battled injuries. Vlasic has been the most consistent of the bunch, and the up-and-coming Braun turned out to be one of the team's best down the stretch.
Jaroslav Halak started as the No. 1, struggled early, but finally found his game and finished in the top seven in the League in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.  Elliott, who signed a one-year, two-way contract last summer, beat out Ben Bishop for the backup job and has thrived all season. His 1.56 GAA was the best by any expansion-era goalie who played more than 35 games, and his .940 save percentage is a single-season League record.

If the Blues get the kind of goaltending in the playoffs these two gave them in the regular season, it's going to be slim pickings for the opposition. The Blues led the League with 1.89 goals-against per game and allowed a League-low 102 5-on-5 goals.
If recent playoff experience matters, than the Sharks are in great shape with Antti Niemi in goal. Niemi played 22 postseason games two years ago for Chicago when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and 18 more last year as the Sharks reached the Western Conference Finals.

Niemi is used to performing on the big stage. What's more, he's a workhorse. Typically, the more he plays, the better he gets, which is huge during the postseason grind.

Niemi does not rank among the NHL's elite goaltenders statistically, and he has had a handful of postseason meltdowns, but he also has proven capable of bouncing back after rough nights in the playoffs, another plus for the Sharks.

Considering what Ken Hitchcock has done since taking over for Davis Payne, who was fired Nov. 6, the Blues' veteran bench boss undoubtedly will be in the running for the Jack Adams Award.

Hitchcock took over a team that was 6-7-0 and 14th in the Western Conference, and immediately changed the culture, leading the team to second in the conference and making them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Todd McLellan is no stranger to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In his three seasons as a Red Wings assistant, Detroit made three playoff trips, reaching the Western Conference Finals in 2007 and winning the Stanley Cup in 2008. McLellan has led the Sharks to the playoffs in all four of his seasons in San Jose. They reached the Western Conference Finals the past two years, losing to Chicago in 2010 and Vancouver in 2011.
Special Teams
An Achilles heel early in the season, the penalty kill finished seventh in the League thanks in part to a stretch where the Blues flirted with the Washington Capitals' League record of 53 straight kills. The Blues made it to 51 in a row before their streak was snapped March 13 in Chicago. Both the penalty kill and power play were once 30th in the League, but the power play finished 19th. It's been a tale of two special teams for the Sharks. They boasted one of the NHL's top power plays, which is not surprising considering their wealth of skilled players. But on the flip side, the penalty kill ranked 29th this season. The Sharks traded for Winnik, Galiardi and Dominic Moore in part because of their experience as penalty-killing forwards, but it's taken a long time to incorporate them into the man-down units.
Series Changer

Andy McDonald, St. Louis -- It's no secret that when McDonald has been in the lineup, the Blues' offense becomes much more dynamic. When McDonald returned late in the season after missing 51 games with a concussion and another six with a shoulder contusion, he had 18 points in 19 games and the team averaged 2.74 goals per game. The key is keeping McDonald healthy.

Logan Couture, San Jose -- After a fast start, which earned him his first selection to the NHL All-Star Game, Couture tailed off down the stretch, finishing the regular season with just one goal in his final 13 games. The Sharks desperately need him to get on another hot streak in the postseason.

What If ...

Blues will win if ... Halak and Elliott continue to turn away the opposition and the team grinds out wins. The Blues are at their best when they win a 2-1 or 3-2 type of game. If they get into 4-3 or 5-4 type shootouts, it doesn't bode well. Their motto has been limiting the opponents. That will have to carry over to the postseason.

Sharks will win if ... They get scoring from all four lines. Last year the Sharks were so deep that Joe Pavelski centered the third line. This season he's a top-line forward. The Sharks can't survive without offensive help from outside of their top six forwards -- Pavelski, Marleau, Thornton, Couture, Havlat and Clowe.

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