Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - St. Louis vs. San Jose
If defense wins championships, then the league just might want to consider giving the St. Louis Blues the Stanley Cup right now.
The Blues 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, when they were swept in four games by the Canucks. St. Louis also enters the postseason as Central Division champions for the first time since 2000, though that didn't bring much success come playoff time either. The Blues did not make it out of the first round, losing to the Sharks.
St. Louis hopes it is better equipped right now under 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.
Halak, who began the season as the undisputed No. 1 over Elliott, an offseason pickup who had to battle for the reserve role, he struggled early and Elliott caught fire en route to being selected as an All-Star. They became the first tandem in NHL history to record at least six shutouts each in the same season, with Elliott's nine ranking second in the league.
Though it appears he could do no wrong, Hitchcock opted to go with Halak in the first round, announcing his decision on Wednesday. Though Elliott led the league with a 1.56 goals-against average and .940 save percentage while also setting franchise records in shutouts and a 241 minute, 33 second shutout streak, Halak owns 21 career playoff appearances to Elliott's four and ranked fifth in the league with a 1.97 GAA. He has also shown a tendency to get streaky, having posted a career-high eight-game win streak from Feb. 23-March 11, with six of those wins coming on the road.
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. Elliott is also nursing an upper-body injury, but it isn't believed to be serious or anything that could prevent him from playing.
Though the decision has been made, it will be interesting to see just how Hitchcock juggles his goaltenders.
Leading the unit in front of the goaltender is Alex Pietrangelo, who has emerged as not only the top defender for St. Louis but one of the better blueliners in the league. Pietrangelo set career highs in goals (12), assists (39), points (51) and games played (81), with the 22-year-old fourth overall pick of the 2008 draft also leading all NHL defensemen with six game-winning goals.
Pietrangelo will log plenty of minutes in this series, probably around 24-25 a night, as he contributes on the power play as well as to a penalty kill unit that ranked seventh in the league (85.8 percent) and set a club record by killing off 51 straight penalties from Feb. 14-March 13.
Kevin Shattenkirk, a former first-round pick of the Avalanche acquired during the 2010-11 season from Colorado, also emerged as an offensive threat this season, posting nine goals and 43 points in 81 games.
Hitchcock will likely keep the duo split, with Pietrangelo pairing with Carlo Colaiacovo and Shattenkirk playing with assistant captain Barret Jackman.
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 on won't lean on one star or one line to get it done in this series.
In fact, only captain and excellent two-way center David Backes (24 goals, 30 assists) and winger T.J. Oshie (19G, 35A) finished with more points on the Blues than Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. Those two will make up St. Louis' top line with David Perron, who finished second on the club with 21 goals.
St. Louis saw nine different players reach double-digit in goals and Oshie's 35 assists led all of the team's forwards.
A healthy Andy McDonald, who missed 57 games this year due to head and shoulder injuries, gives St. Louis a much better second line between Patrik Berglund and Alexander Steen.
St. Louis is also blessed with a wealth of experience in its lower lines with the presence of Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott, who have both won Stanley Cup championships and have combined to play in 252 postseason contests. Langenbrunner has logged 33 goals and 86 points in his playoff career, with Arnott having 31 goals and 72 points.
One area that may give the Blues trouble is the power play, which connected at only 16.7 percent.
SAN JOSE SHARKS (7th seed, West)
REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 43-29-10
2011 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Los Angeles 4-2 in conference quarterfinals; defeated Detroit 4-3 in conference semifinals; lost to Vancouver 4-1 in conference finals
(Sports Network) - What the San Jose Sharks may lack in scoring depth, they more than make up for in playoff experience. None of that may be more important than having a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in Antti Niemi.
The Sharks have made it to the Western Conference finals in consecutive seasons, but have had trouble finishing and have won just one game in those series. They regressed a little bit in claiming their eighth straight postseason berth, 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 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.
Ryan Clowe, Michal Handzus and Martin Havlat have also logged plenty of minutes in the playoffs, though the latter two will be doing so for the first time with the Sharks. San Jose should be curious what it gets from Havlat in the postseason after getting the winger from Minnesota for Dany Heatley in a trade this past offseason only to see Havlat miss 39 games with a lower-body injury. He did manage five goals and 12 points in the final 13 regular-season games after returning from injury.
Though Thornton's numbers have declined since his rapid pace at the onset of his Sharks career, he still tied for third in the NHL with 59 assists, while Logan Couture (31), Joe Pavelski (31) and Marleau (30) all reached the 30-goal mark. There was a big drop off after that, with Thornton (18) and Ryane Clowe (17) representing the only other San Jose forwards to reach double-digits in goals.
San Jose will hope to get production outside of its big six from the third line of center Daniel Winnik and wingers Andrew Desjardins and Tommy Wingels.
One area in which the Sharks could dominate this series is on the power play, where they ranked second in the NHL at 21.1 percent. Couture and Marleau led the way with 26 and 25 points on the man advantage, respectively, while Thornton had 19 assists.
Defensemen Brent Burns and Dan Boyle also chipped in on the power play from the back end and lead a deep Sharks core of defenders. Burns was part of an offseason overhaul that also saw the signings of Colin White and Jim Vandermeer. White brings 111 playoff games of experience to the group, while Boyle has 56 points in 84 career playoff games.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic is one of the Sharks more consistent blueliners as he led the unit with a plus-11 rating and was second with 23 minutes and nine seconds of ice time. Douglas Murray also lends experience, while 25-year-old Justin Braun is the youth of the group and got into just one playoff game a season ago.
As good as San Jose's power play was, the penalty kill ranked 29th out of 30 teams in the regular season (76.9 percent).
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.
Further proving Hitchcock had a tough choice to make in net, both Halak and Elliott beat the Sharks twice this season and each had a home shutout. Elliott allowed two of the three goals.
Niemi, meanwhile, had a 2.03 GAA in his three starts versus the Blues.
Two of San Jose's three goals against St. Louis came from defensemen Mitchell and Burns, while Pavelski, Boyle, Thornton, Couture and Marleau all went without a point in the four-game series.
San Jose also struggled in its defensive zone against St. Louis blueliners. Pietrangelo led the Blues with five points off two goals and three assists in the season series, while Shattenkirk added a pair of tallies and four points. Oshie, McDonald and Perron all scored and logged multiple points in the series.
The Sharks may have the edge in the experience, but Hitchcock has his team playing a successful system and has a huge edge in the goaltending department. If Hitchcock can keep his players in line with the plan, the Sharks could be in line for an early exit.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Blues in 6