The St. Louis Blues will open the postseason on home ice tonight, when they welcome the San Jose Sharks to Scottrade Center for Game 1 of the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Blues are the second seed in the West after winning their first Central Division crown since 2000. However, that last division title didn't bring much success come playoff time, as St. Louis wound up losing in the first round that year to San Jose.
St. Louis allowed a league-low 165 goals this season, using a two-goalie attack and a steady defense to reach the playoffs for only the second time in the post-lockout era and for the first time since 2009. The club's regular- season success had a lot to do with head coach Ken Hitchcock, who led the Blues to a 43-15-11 record in the 68 games he coached after taking over for the fired Davis Payne.
Even though the Blues come into the postseason fresh off a 109-point regular season and having put together one of the top home records in the NHL (30-6-5), Hitchcock still had a very difficult chose to make: who to start in net. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott combined to capture the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals and totaled 15 shutouts between the two of them this season. That tied a modern NHL record and was two better than the club mark set by Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante in 1989-69.
Though it appears he could do no wrong, Hitchcock has opted to go with Halak in tonight's Game 1, announcing his decision on Wednesday. Though Elliott led the league with a 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage while also setting a franchise record in shutouts with nine, Halak owns 21 career playoff appearances to Elliott's four and ranked fifth in the league with a 1.97 GAA.
"To me, [the goalies] have been the story of our hockey club," Hitchcock said. "When your leading scorer hasn't gotten to 60 points yet and you're in first in the division, that's quite an accomplishment. We've done it with checking, we've done it with defense and more importantly, we've done it with goaltending."
In the postseason, Halak has gone 9-10 with a 2.48 GAA, while Elliott went just 1-2 with a 4.14 ERA in his lone postseason appearance while with the Senators.
While the Blues thrived in allowing less than two goals per game, they only managed to net 2.51 tallies on average to finish in the league's lower tier. However, one advantage that St. Louis has it that it gets contributions from a variety of different players and won't lean on one star or one line to get it done in this series.
The seventh-seeded Sharks made it to the Western Conference finals in each of the past two seasons, but had trouble finishing those playoffs strong and combined to win just one game in those series. They regressed a little bit in claiming their eighth straight postseason berth in 2011-12, needing to win seven of their final nine to qualify and did so for the first time in five years without a Pacific Division title.
San Jose will be looking to wipe the slate clean now that it is playoff time and no club may be better equipped to do so. The Sharks have eight players on their roster, five forwards and three defensemen, who have appeared in at least 60 games in the postseason and goaltender Antti Niemi has a Stanley Cup championship to his resume after capturing a title with the Blackhawks in 2010.
That should give the Sharks plenty of confidence in their goaltender despite an up-and-down regular season that saw Niemi go 34-22-9 with a 2.42 goals- against average and six shutouts. The 28-year-old Finn has already made 40 postseason appearances in his career despite just 170 regular season games and has won 24 of them with a 2.89 GAA and two shutouts.
Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton have been key to San Jose's current string of playoff appearances and have put up points in the second season. Thornton has set up 64 goals in 109 playoff games, while Marleau has 52 goals and 36 assists in 124 games.
Not only will the Blues have home-ice advantage in this series -- a huge plus given that they set club records in home wins, points and also logged a franchise-best 21-game home point streak this season -- but they swept their four-game series with the Sharks and took both games in St. Louis in shutout fashion.
Not only did the Blues outscore the Sharks 11-3 this year, but they allowed just one power-play goal in 15 short-handed situations.
The Sharks were just 17-17-7 as the visiting team during the regular season and Saturday's Game 2 will also take place in St. Louis.