Western Conference finals preview: St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

Western Conference finals preview: St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks

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We bring you the Redemption Bowl, featuring two clubs that have discarded serious playoff baggage to reach the Western Conference finals. For the St. Louis Blues, it’s their first final-four appearance in 15 years and a chance to reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1970. For the San Jose Sharks, it’s actually their fourth trip to the conference finals since 2004 but their first in half a decade — they missed the playoffs last year and two years ago suffered their infamous soul-crushing, first-round loss to the rival Los Angeles Kings after leading the series 3-0. That led to some retooling, but San Jose is still led by veteran stars Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

These two teams overcame a lot of the same challenges to get here, beginning with the first round: the Sharks beating their personal bogeymen in the Kings, the Blues finally beating wholesale jerseys their nightmare-inducing rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks. Then, with the realization that they’ve got to wake up and play some hockey while surviving seven-game scares in the second round, the Blues disposed of the high-flying Dallas Stars and the Sharks went the distance to finally shake hands with the pesky Nashville Predators.

And so here they are, the Blues and the Sharks, picked so many times by so many people over the past several years to win the Stanley Cup only to disappoint. Not anymore. Whatever happens, a Cup finals berth at long last awaits for one of these deserving, well-built hockey clubs .

How they win

San Jose: The Stars’ team speed gave the Blues headaches and, like Dallas, San Jose can wheel. Another big reason the Sharks could prevail is if their lethal power play makes a difference yet again, as it has in two straight series. The opening goal in Game 7 against the Predators was like watching a rerun: Thornton to Marleau to Pavelski in the slot. You know it’s coming but nobody seems to be able to stop it. It just so happens that the aggressive, physical Blues have averaged more than 11 minutes in penalties a game in these playoffs while the Sharks have averaged the fewest penalty minutes of any of the 16 playoff teams. If the Sharks get on the power play more often than the Blues, that could be a major difference-maker.

St. Louis: The Blues’ physical and structured game wears down teams over seven games. The Stars looked out of breath by Game 7. All those hits by the Blues are an investment right from Game 1 of a series. And the tactic works. Mind you, it’s what the heavy, physical Kings hoped to do in the first round, and what they found out is that you can’t hit what you can’t catch, the Sharks a step ahead all series long. With veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock leading the way, the Blues’ overall game is also extremely detailed. This is a team that doesn’t make as many mistakes as most teams. That can frustrate the opposition. Their fundamentals are unreal.

How they lose

San Jose: I’ve written about the Sharks’ inexperience in net two rounds in a row, but Martin Jones continues to prove himself. In his first season as a No. 1, Jones went toe-to-toe with the Kings’ Jonathan Quick in the opening round and the Predators’ Pekka Rinne in the second round and fared just fine, thank you. But if the Sharks lose, one reason might be cracks in Jones’ game.

St. Louis: Fatigue. The Blues have had the max seven games in two straight series, not the optimum recipe for a potential Stanley Cup champion. History suggests that a short series is needed somewhere along the way before getting to a Cup finals. Now, you can point to the 2014 Kings, who played 21 games in the opening three rounds, and rebuff that wisdom. But are those energy levels going to be OK starting Sunday with Game 1 in St. Louis?

Fancy stats

The Sharks had the worst home record of any of the 16 teams that made the playoffs at 18-20-3 and it was a pretty big story before facing the Kings in the first round — to the point where head coach Peter DeBoer got tired of talking about it. After dropping its opening home game of the playoffs to the Kings in Game 3, San Jose has since gone 5-0 at SAP Center, winning a huge one in Game 4 against the Kings to take a commanding 3-1 series lead and then winning all four in the homer series versus Nashville, including an emphatic Game 7 decision. So, no, the Sharks no longer have an issue at home.

Series MVP

San Jose: The Blues did a good job getting to Stars top blue-liner John Klingberg in the last round, but I’m not sure exactly how you neutralize a beast such as Brent Burns. If the Sharks advance to the Stanley Cup finals, the man who can rack up 20 shot attempts on some nights will be one of the major reasons.

St. Louis: Alexander Steen needs to win a Selke Trophy as top defensive forward one day. Look at his defensive work in the opening round against Chicago’s big boys and then again in the second round versus the stars of the Stars. Steen is a two-way monster who deserves more praise for his immense impact on the Blues’ success. If St. Louis gets to the Cup finals, you better believe Steen will be at the heart of it.

Bottom line

This is a contrast in styles, with the Sharks being a free-flowing team that can motor while the Blues play a structured, disciplined and physical game. Both have depth everywhere. To me, this series gets decided by a hair. Blues in seven.

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