A couple of perpetual also-rans who we had reason to believe had been passed by time, meet in the Western Conference final — and someone’s going to get a crack at breaking their curse in a couple of weeks.
This is a rematch of the 2016 West final, which was won by the San Jose Sharks in six games. For both the Sharks and St. Louis Blues it represented their best playoff runs of the 21st century, and ever since they just haven’t had the same potential.
The Sharks followed up their loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final by being eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in Round 1. Then last year, San Jose was skated around by a new Vegas Golden Knights team. Patrick Marleau is gone, Joe Thornton is nearing the finish line and there were all sorts of issues with their goaltending.
The Blues lost eight standings points in 2017 and never led their second-round series against the Nashville Predators. Last season they missed out on the playoffs entirely, and in 2018-19 sat at the bottom of the Western Conference standings at Christmas.
Since 2000, the Sharks and Blues have the second- and sixth-most cumulative standings points in the league, but no Stanley Cups to show for it. This year is as good a chance as any.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
St. Louis: 51.50 CF% (10th), 53.04 GF% (10th), .921 SV% (12th), 8.1 SH% (14th), 1.002 PDO (13th)
San Jose: 54.87 CF% (1st), 50.93 GF% (14th), .897 SV% (31st), 9.03 SH% (5th), .987 PDO (27th)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
St. Louis: 21.1 PP% (10th), 81.5 PK% (9th), 244 GF (14th), 220 GA (5th)
San Jose: 23.6 PP% (6th), 80.8 PK% (15th), 289 GF (2nd), 258 GA (21st)
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
St. Louis: 17.1 PP% (11th), 75.0 PK% (12th), 2.62 GF/G (10th), 2.54 GA/G (6th)
San Jose: 18.5 PP% (10th), 80.8 PK% (9th), 3.07 GF/G (4th), 3.07 GA/G (11th)
St. Louis: 1-1-1
San Jose: 2-1-0
HOW THEY GOT HERE
St. Louis: With somewhat of a wasteland in the Central Division — as frontrunners Nashville and the Winnipeg Jets faded in the second half, and the defensive Dallas Stars were an afterthought wild card — the Blues are the ones left standing.
Usually, controlling play at 5-on-5 is a major determining factor in how far a team goes in the playoffs. The past five winners have all been among the best come playoff time in this regard, and the Blues’ 55.56 goals for percentage at 5-on-5 contrasts a Sharks team that has been outscored at evens.
In Round 1 against Winnipeg, they were actually outscored by one at 5-on-5, but were helped through by a power play that clicked at a 26.3 per cent rate. It was a back-and-forth series against the Jets, with St. Louis grabbing the first two on the road and then dropping the next two at home. Then Jaden Schwartz woke up and changed the direction of the series.
Just as it was looking as though Game 5 was going to go to overtime, Schwartz scored his first of the series, batting in a mid-air pass with 15 seconds left in regulation. He scored the first three goals of Game 6 too — one in each period — and the Blues moved on.
In Round 2, they outscored the Stars by six at 5-on-5, which was needed considering their power play went ice cold, converting on just two of their 22 opportunities.
But the toughest thing about the Blues may be their defence, which has locked down its opponents to a ridiculous degree in two elimination games. In Game 6 against the Jets, Winnipeg managed only five shots in the first period and one in the second. And in Game 7 against Dallas, the Stars had four shots combined in periods two and three.
San Jose: The Sharks continued their rivalry with Vegas, a thrilling seven-game series that included the nicknames “Muffin Man,” “Grandpa” and “Loudmouth” lobbed around as trash talk. San Jose had to climb back from a 3-1 series deficit, and not only did that but also overcame a 3-0 hole in Game 7 to win the series.
And for the cherry on top, it ended in controversy.
The Sharks traded wins with a willful Colorado Avalanche team until Game 7 tipped the scales in their favour.
At the trade deadline they already had a good offence then added to it with Gustav Nyquist, and their three attacking lines are paying off now. Even without Joe Pavelski for the first six games of Round 2, San Jose scored 20 goals against Colorado and got at least three goals in five of them. Pair that with Martin Jones out of nowhere playing outstanding and San Jose is having everything fall into place at the right time.
Blues X-Factor: Pat Maroon
Yes, I’m going to do the easy thing and pick the Game 7 hero from last round. But Maroon isn’t the choice here just because he scored the double-overtime winner.
Look, the game has changed considerably and long gone are the days when you could freely use a roster spot on a five-minute face puncher to police the ice and not be worse off for it. Teams like the Los Angeles Kings, who didn’t adapt quick enough and got left behind speedier competition, have to change their way of doing things to have success again.
But playoff hockey is a different animal that demands certain aspects regular season action doesn’t. “Heavy hockey” is still a worthy piece of a playoff roster, but the connotations of it need to be updated. You need two teams to win it all: one for the regular season and one for the post-season. To deny that is to completely ignore what we’ve seen this playoff season.
The most important thing you need is skill at the top of the lineup. The leading scorers in these playoffs aren’t the low-lineup grit guys — it’s Nathan MacKinnon, Logan Couture and Brad Marchand. But Maroon and San Jose’s Barclay Goodrow are among two of the eight skaters with two game-winning goals this post-season. The further along we go, the more referees will put whistles in their pockets. Whether or not you agree that’s right is irrelevant — it’s the reality of the playoffs.
Maroon is coming off the best moment of his career, scoring the series-winning goal in front of his hometown and his son Anthony. With a one-year contract, he’s still proving that he deserves more term and money from someone this summer, so we’d expect the high of Round 2 to carry over to the conference final. Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly need to get a goal for the first time since Round 1. Vladimir Tarasenko needs to score at least his second even-strength goal of the post-season. We know that.
But Maroon is the X-Factor. He’s got another big goal — or big screen leading to a goal — in him.
Sharks X-Factor: Erik Karlsson
How much is he worth as a unrestricted free agent this summer? And how much is that being determined by these playoffs?
Injuries remain a concern, but it seems so long ago there were worries about his slow start to the season. He hasn’t scored a goal yet these playoffs, but leads all players with 12 assists, nine of which were primary. But while Karlsson brings that breakout flash and an ability to create sudden offence, when he’s on the ice San Jose is allowing more than it’s getting.
Of all the remaining defencemen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he has the second-worst 5-on-5 shot share next to teammate Brenden Dillon. Karlsson has the third-worst goals for percentage and fourth-worst scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 as well.
The Blues have been excellent on the cycle throughout the playoffs, carrying the play and applying immense pressure in key moments. Karlsson can bust out a big play at any time, but could he lose the war of attrition?
Radim Simek, leg (out)