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Round 3 Preview: Blues vs. Sharks

by Staff Writer / St. Louis Blues

The St. Louis Blues again needed seven games to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series, defeating the Dallas Stars 6-1 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001. It also took the Blues seven games to defeat the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

The San Jose Sharks also needed seven games to advance to the conference final; they defeated the Nashville Predators 5-0 in Game 7 of the second round to advance to their first conference final since 2011.

Neither team has won the Stanley Cup, but one team will be four wins away following this series. Will it be the Sharks and Joe Pavelski, who enters the series with a League-tying nine playoff goals? Or the Blues and Vladimir Tarasenko, who is tied for third with seven goals?

FORWARDS

Blues: The line of center Paul Stastny, right wing Troy Brouwer and rookie left wing Robby Fabbri accounted for 23 points against the Stars in the second round, including a goal and two assists each in Game 7.

Coach Ken Hitchcock commended that group for being two-way players.

"They're committed to create scoring chances from work, not just from skill," he said. "When you've got it, it's like gold. When you have players who have it, it's gold because as you move further along [in the playoffs], it gets harder and harder to create scoring chances off the rush or just off of possession. … It's what you want at this time of year from your top players."

Hitchcock moved Alexander Steen, whom he calls his "best 200-foot player," to play between Jaden Schwartz and Tarasenko, and Jori Lehtera is fitting in nicely between Patrik Berglund and David Backes.

Left wing Scottie Upshall and center Kyle Brodziak have been the mainstays on the fourth line, and the Blues have been able to use veteran Steve Ott, who played Game 7 against the Stars, along with Ryan Reaves and Dmitrij Jaskin, who saw his first action of the playoffs in Game 5 against Dallas and scored the winning goal.

Sharks: Second-line center Logan Couture had a huge series against Nashville with 11 points, setting a franchise record that had stood since 1994 when Igor Larionov had 10 points in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings. Couture had six goals and five assists, giving him a NHL-leading 17 points through two rounds of the playoffs. Couture said he feels "fresh" after missing 30 games during the regular season because of a broken right ankle and internal bleeding from a thigh injury.

Patrick Marleau was reunited with Couture for the final three games of the series, moving from third-line center to second line left wing, and had two goals and two assists in that span. Marleau, Couture and skilled rookie Joonas Donskoi give the Sharks a dangerous second line in addition to the top line of center Joe Thornton, Pavelski and Tomas Hertl. The top line scored seven of San Jose's 16 goals in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. Pavelski had five goals against the Kings and added four more against Nashville, giving him nine through two rounds.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, as he did in the first round, relied heavily on all four lines. Bottom-six forwards Joel Ward and Chris Tierney each had two goals in the second round and Tommy Wingels and Melker Karlsson had one each. DeBoer used the same lineup for the first nine playoff games before replacing Wingels with Dainius Zubrus in Game 5 against the Predators. Wingels returned in Game 7, replacing Matt Nieto, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury.

"We're not here without that depth," DeBoer said. "I think you look at the teams that are left standing, they're there because of their depth. That's been a message since Day 1 that you're not just here to watch the big guys play. You're here to contribute and you're a big piece of this."

DEFENSEMEN

Blues: Alex Pietrangelo is the leader in minutes played among remaining players in the postseason at 29:41. He and his partner on the left, Jay Bouwmeester (25:07), were saddled with keying on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks in the first round and Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp of the Stars in the second round. Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester will undoubtedly see a lot of San Jose's top scorers, Thornton, Pavelski and Couture.

Kevin Shattenkirk, third among defensemen with 10 playoff points, has predominantly played with rookie Joel Edmundson, but also has seen time with rugged Robert Bortuzzo. Rookie Colton Parayko and Carl Gunnarsson have made up the third unit and complement one another well.

Sharks: After getting two goals and six assists against the Kings, Brent Burns had another strong series with two goals and five assists against Nashville. Burns' combination of size, speed and strength made him a difficult matchup for the Kings and Predators. Burns, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, is having a career year, and part of the credit goes to new defense partner Paul Martin, who signed with the Sharks as a free agent during the offseason. Martin is a skilled passer and makes sure to defend in San Jose's zone when Burns goes on the rush.

DeBoer has used the same six defensemen for all 12 playoff games and has relied on all three pairs. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun continued to serve as San Jose's lock-down tandem, but Vlasic played a bigger role on the rush in the second round. After having one assist against Los Angeles, Vlasic had seven assists against Nashville and will take a five-game assist streak into the conference final.

Former Blues defenseman Roman Polak and Brenden Dillon provide some much-needed muscle on the blue line and are playing significant minutes. Polak has averaged 16:43 of ice time per game and Dillon 15:19. Polak leads the team with 38 hits, and Dillon is tied for second with 36. Polak has blocked 25 shots, and Dillon has blocked 24.

GOALTENDERS

Blues: Brian Elliott is having the best postseason of his nine-year career with more wins (eight) than in the previous four playoffs (six) and his best playoff save percentage (.929).

Elliott was pulled in Game 6 against the Stars in favor of Jake Allen after allowing three goals on seven shots, but rebounded with 31 saves in Game 7.

"We're going to have to ride him a couple more times throughout these playoffs, but he's a guy we can rely on," Brouwer said of Elliott.

Elliott's 419 saves are the most in franchise history in one playoff season. Curtis Joseph had the previous high of 411, set in 1992-93, according to hockey-reference.com.

Sharks: Martin Jones capped the second round with his first career playoff shutout in his 12th career playoff start, making 20 saves in Game 7 against Nashville. Jones is 8-4 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. The Sharks' decision to part ways with Antti Niemi after last season and acquire Jones from the Boston Bruins in a trade has paid dividends all season and playoffs.

Jones outplayed Jonathan Quick in the first round and Pekka Rinne in the second, and has maintained his calm, cool demeanor, despite mounting playoff pressure.

"We know what [Jones] brings," DeBoer said on before Game 7 of the second round. "Jonesy brings the same mentality. You wouldn't know if it's a training-camp game tomorrow or it's an elimination game. He's really that kind of guy."

Backup goaltender James Reimer, who went 6-2 during the regular season after coming to the Sharks from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a Feb. 27 trade, did not play in the first two rounds.

COACHES

Blues: Hitchcock, who guided the Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999 and a runner-up appearance the following season, will be coaching in a conference final for the first time since he was with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004. He's 2-2 in conference final series. Hitchcock is ninth on the all-time playoff wins list with 84.

"It's a chance of a lifetime," Hitchcock said after the Blues defeated the Stars. "You can't pass it up. You just can't pass it up. To play in a conference final, I know as a coach here in Dallas, I took it for granted and it was a big mistake. I left here thinking that all you do is play in conference finals, Cup finals and went to Philadelphia and we had good early success there and that's all you do. That was 2004, [and I've] never been back since. That's 12 years. Sometimes you can play your whole career and never get to play in a conference final. It's pretty impressive."

Sharks: In his first season with the New Jersey Devils in 2012, DeBoer led them to the Stanley Cup Final; he has the Sharks in the conference final in his first season in San Jose. DeBoer has maintained an even-keeled, confident approach throughout the playoffs and his players have followed suit. The Sharks responded with their best game of the playoffs in Game 7 against Nashville.

"I think the biggest thing is rely on your foundation," DeBoer said before Game 7. "You build it all year. We know what we have to do, we know what our good game looks like. It's on us to bring that. We're confident if we bring that, we'll be in a good spot."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Blues: A strong point in the regular season, the penalty kill will have to be good against the Sharks, who have the top power play (30.9 percent) of the remaining playoff teams.

The Blues' power play has been sharp, with an efficiency of 27.5 percent.

Their No. 1 power-play unit consists of Steen and Shattenkirk on the points, Tarasenko and Schwartz on the half-walls and Backes in the slot. The No. 2 unit consists of Pietrangelo and Parayko on the points, Stastny and Fabbri along the half-walls and Brouwer down low.

Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester are the anchors on the penalty kill. Backes, Schwartz, Stastny, Steen, Berglund, Upshall, Brodziak, Gunnarsson and Parayko are part of the unit.

Sharks: San Jose's power play, which ranked third in the NHL in the regular season, was lethal in the second round. San Jose went 8-for-21 on the power play against Nashville after going 5-for-21 against Los Angeles. Against the Predators, Couture had three power-play goals, Pavelski had two and Thornton and Burns each had one. The top power-play unit of Thornton, Couture, Pavelski, Marleau and Burns has been together for years, and that experience shows.

"It's a great weapon," DeBoer said of San Jose's power play. "It keeps the other team honest. It's won us games, which is what you need it to do. Special teams are a huge part of the playoffs."

The Sharks penalty kill gave up three goals on 20 chances in the second round. They were 10-for-10 in the final four games. San Jose killed 11-of-14 penalties in the first round against the Kings. Overall, the Sharks have scored 13 power-play goals and allowed six.

SERIES CHANGERS

Blues: David Backes, forward -- With 12 points, the captain is having the best postseason of his career and he will be a key against the Sharks' big forwards. Backes' six goals -- three of which have been game-winners -- in 14 games are more than the five he had in his previous 29 playoff games. Backes not only provides St. Louis with a net-front presence, but he is relied upon to kill penalties and defend against top offensive threats.

Sharks: Brent Burns, defenseman -- is a rare player who can physically dominate at even strength and on the power play. He consistently joins the rush and gets shots on goal from the point with a hard and accurate wrist shot. Few players are in better physical condition than Burns, and the longer the Sharks' playoff run goes, the more dominant he should become.

WILL WIN IF...

Blues: Elliott continues his amazing playoff run and St. Louis wins the special teams' battles. Elliott already has a shutout victory against the Sharks in San Jose this season and has one in the playoffs. His continued play will be instrumental in helping them attempt to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970.

Sharks: They continue to show the resolve and resiliency they did in the first two rounds. The Sharks exorcised some demons in the first round by defeating the Kings. In the second round, San Jose bounced back from an overtime loss in Game 6 to rout Nashville in Game 7, the Sharks' first elimination game of the playoffs.

"When we got pushed to the limit, it was nice for me to see how we would respond, because you never know until you're in that spot," DeBoer said. "We had a great response."

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