For additional insight into the Western Conference Final series between the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues, NHL.com has enlisted the help of Mike Johnston to break down the action.
Johnston, 59, was most recently the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, compiling a 58-37-15 record during his tenure. He was coach and general manager of Portland of the Western Hockey League from 2008-2014. He rejoined Portland this week as coach and GM. He also has been an assistant for the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks.
The Western Conference Final will be an interesting study in contrasts, Mike Johnston believes.
He sees the San Jose Sharks as a team based on transition and willing to attack whenever the opportunity presents itself. The St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, are very structured, more physical and look to wear opponents down.
"They've done it two times now with Chicago and Dallas, taking each of those series to a Game 7," he said. "That's how they will approach this series as well."
With that said, St. Louis can, and will, score goals.
"They have added some skill guys to their structured game in the past couple of years and they are a bit different because of it," Johnston said. "They've added Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and now Robby Fabbri, and they have rounded out their defense with Colton Parayko.
"Now, they have some skill, some depth and some goaltending and they are a dangerous team."
Johnston also believes St. Louis is bursting with confidence, particularly after dispatching the rival Blackhawks in the first round.
"I always felt that if St. Louis could get through the first round and that mental hurdle of beating Chicago, they would be dangerous," he said. "Once they did that, they could start to believe it was their time."
But the Sharks also have earned the right to be confident.
"Every time they have been challenged, they found an answer," Johnston said. "You saw that against Nashville, and that was really important for them to be able to answer each time."
Video: STL@DAL, Gm7: Brouwer nets beautiful tic-tac-toe play
Here is Johnston's position-by-position breakdown:
The depth of the Sharks is intimidating. The top line of Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl has been dominant throughout the postseason, but other players have stepped up at various times.
Logan Couture scored a franchise record 11 points in the series against Nashville. Joonas Donskoi, a rookie, has seven points this postseason. Patrick Marleau scored some big goals against the Predators. Joel Ward had a goal in Game 7 to further cement his reputation as a big-game player.
The Blues have five forwards - Tarasenko, Fabbri, Schwartz, David Backes and Troy Brouwer - with at least 10 points this postseason.
But it is the physical element many of the Blues forwards bring that most impresses Johnston, especially at this time of year.
"I think in pure goal-scoring, it is probably the San Jose Sharks that have the advantage, but when you combine skill and physical play, it's St. Louis that has the advantage," he said.
That advantage may be countered by San Jose's No. 1 power play.
Video: NSH@SJS, Gm7: Pavelski beats Rinne on the power play
The development of Colton Parayko gives the Blues a slight edge in this category as they are deeper on the blue line than the Sharks, in Johnston's mind.
Parayko, 6-foot-6, 226 pounds, plays 20 minutes a game and has two goals and five points this postseason. He is a 23-year-old rookie playing in his first Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"Right from the beginning of the year, he has been good," said Johnston, who coached against Parayko early in the season when he was still with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "For such a big player, he has great mobility, and that has served him well."
Johnston has been impressed with San Jose's top-four throughout the playoffs. Brent Burns is the trigger man that makes the Sharks' offense run and Paul Martin is a solid No. 2 and perfect complement to Burns. Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun are the shut-down pair and have excelled in that role so far.
Video: CHI@STL, Gm7: Parayko rings it in off the post
Martin Jones was a question mark heading into the playoffs. He isn't any longer.
Jones is 8-4 with a .918 save percentage and 2.16 goals-against average. His first playoff shutout came Thursday in a do-or-die Game 7 against Nashville.
Johnston is convinced Jones is the real deal, even if this is his first run as a starter in the postseason.
"He has showed calmness and poise," he said. "He's not going to falter now."
That said, Brian Elliott, the St. Louis starter, has more experience, which is why Elliott gets the slightest of nods in the eyes of Johnston.
Elliott is 8-6 with a .929 save percentage and 2.29 goals-against average in 14 starts this postseason.