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Special teams could be key for Sharks, Blues

Western Conference finalists each pack punch on power play

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

ST. LOUIS -- While preparing for the Western Conference Final, the St. Louis Blues watched extra video of the San Jose Sharks power play. They had more clips than usual of their opponents.

"That's mostly because they scored more goals than most," Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said.

The Sharks have 13 power-play goals in 12 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, converting at a rate of 30.9 percent, second among playoff teams and best among the conference finalists.

But the Blues have 11 power-play goals in 14 games, converting at a rate of 27.5 percent, third among playoff teams and second among the conference finalists.

Special teams could be the key to the series, which opens Sunday at Scottrade Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Everyone talks about how good the Sharks are," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We're the third overall team. We're right behind them."

Video: NSH@SJS, Gm7: Thornton buries rebound for PPG

Center Joe Thornton, one of the NHL's best passers, runs the Sharks' top unit from the half wall, dishing to longtime teammates Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski.  

Hitchcock said the Sharks are so familiar with each other that they are "automatic in their release points under pressure." The longer they hold the puck in the zone, the more dangerous they become. Hitchcock said you can feel the goal coming.

"It's in the extended zone time that they make you panic," Hitchcock said. "They force you into mistakes. You make tired errors."

The Blues have killed 79.5 percent of their penalties, eighth among playoff teams and worst among the conference finalists. First, they have to stay out of the box. Second, they have to win faceoffs. Third, they have to jump on loose pucks, win puck battles and take advantage of every opportunity to clear the puck.

"They do have a couple quick plays that they like to try out and set up," Blues forward Kyle Brodziak said. "We just want to make it difficult for them to get in that position where they're set up and able to hold onto the puck."

Video: STL@DAL, Gm2: Brouwer slams home PPG

And when all else fails, and Thornton has it patiently waiting for an opening?

"You've got to be aware of what's going on behind you," Brodziak said, "because he just seems to find seams that you didn't really expect or know were there."

The Blues power play features a shooting unit and a set unit, which forces penalty killers to adjust.

The Sharks have killed 82.3 percent of their penalties, sixth among playoff teams and second among the conference finalists.

"They definitely have two different units that bring two different challenges," Sharks center Nick Spaling said. "At the same time, they've got skill on both units. They've got shooters on both units. … Their power play's doing well right now and they've had a good power play all year. It's going to be fun for us tonight to have that challenge. You've got to be prepared for both, and that's what we're doing."

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