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St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks @NHLdotcom
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GAME: St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks.

PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference quarterfinals; Game 1.

TIME: Thursday, 10 p.m. EDT.

The San Jose Sharks' turnaround has been nothing short of amazing.

After finishing with one of the NHL's worst records last season, the Western Conference's second-seeded team gets a chance to prove itself in postseason play as it opens a first-round series with the St. Louis Blues.

The Sharks finished second-to-last in the West last season, but head into these playoffs as the Pacific Division champions with a franchise-record 104 points.

The Sharks wound up with the NHL's third-best record, and finished with six victories in their final seven games.

"We find a lot of ways to surprise you," said the Sharks' Brad Stuart, who developed into one of the league's best at his position this season. "We're not a surprise to ourselves, though. Nobody has really expected us to do much all year, but as long as we're confident in this room, that's all that matters."

Stuart finished the regular season with nine goals and a career-high 39 points, both tops among San Jose defensemen. He quarterbacks the Sharks' power play, and his passing is just as good as his powerful shot.

Stuart has also been exhibiting the mental discipline and maturity necessary to become a star defenseman. He's rarely caught out of position anymore, and has emerged as a leader for the young team.

"He's a guy who's going to be a big star for this team in the future," Sharks center Vincent Damphousse said. "He's one of those guys that's elevated his game to get us to where we are today."

Depth is one of San Jose's biggest strengths and coach Ron Wilson said he will not shy away from experimenting with his lines to find the best matchups.

"You'll see a lot of mixing up and riding the hot hand," Wilson said. "Players have to be prepared. If it is not a good night, they have to step aside. I won't hesitate to make a move if a guy is a detriment that night. Hopefully not, but it is my job to read that."

Evgeni Nabokov has also played a major part in the Sharks' resurgence, posting 31 wins and a 2.20 goals-against average.

St. Louis brings a wealth of postseason experience to the first-round matchup. The Blues have qualified for the playoffs each season since 1980, a 25-year streak that's the longest active run in the four major professional sports.

"I think we're ready to go," said St. Louis right wing Mark Rycroft, who has returned after an 11-game absence with a leg injury. "We looked at this game as a chance for some of us to shake the rust off. But the team has played very well in the last 15 games or so."

The Blues are used to breezing into the playoffs, so they're hoping the late push that got them in this year will give them some early momentum in the postseason.

In ninth place in the Western Conference when coach Joel Quenneville was fired on Feb. 24, St. Louis rose to seventh under Mike Kitchen.

"We've been playing must-win games for more than a month," Blues right wing Jamal Mayers said. "We put ourselves in a hole, but we're having some success of late and hopefully that can continue."

Chris Pronger anchors St. Louis' defense. The offense is far from explosive, having scored just 191 goals - the fewest among playoff teams.

This is the third time in five seasons the teams have met in the postseason. Each team has won one series. In 2000, the eighth-seeded Sharks upset the Blues in the first round. In 2001, the fourth-seeded Blues beat the Sharks to open the playoffs.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Blues - 91 points; 7th seed. Sharks - 104 points; 2nd seed.

TEAM LEADERS: Blues - Keith Tkachuk, 33 goals and 71 points; Doug Weight, 51 assists; Reed Low and Mike Danton, 141 PIM. Sharks - Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Cheechoo, 28 goals; Nils Ekman, 33 assists, Marleau, 57 points; Scott Parker, 101 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Blues - Power play: 17.9 percent (61 for 341), 9th in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.6 percent (312 for 369), 15th. Sharks - Power play: 16.6 percent (56 for 337), 13th. Penalty killing: 85.3 percent (272 for 319), 7th.

GOALTENDERS: Blues - Chris Osgood (31-25-8, 3 SO, 2.24 GAA); Reinhard Divis (4-4-2, 2.76). Sharks - Nabokov (31-19-8, 9, 2.21); Vesa Toskala (12-8-4, 1, 2.06).

REGULAR SEASON SERIES: 2-2. San Jose outscored St. Louis 4-1 en route to winning the last two games of the series. Marco Sturm had three goals in the four games for the Sharks, while Chris Pronger had a goal and two assists for the Blues.

Associated Press
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