By Mary Walsh
AP photo: St Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott stops a shot from the San Jose Sharks Patrick Marleau 12 as Blues defenceman Cotton Parayko 55 watches on Sunday night in the third period
The Western Conference Final is upon us. Past results reveal that the San Jose Sharks and the St. Louis Blues have followed very similar paths to this point, and neither team is a clear choice for favorite. Even intangibles cannot give us a hint. Both San Jose and St. Louis are hungry for success. The Sharks have never made it to the Stanley Cup Final, and the Blues have not been there since 1970. They both unseated recent Cup winners in the first round. They both defeated up and coming teams in the second round, by the a five goal margin, in the seventh game. The likeness is uncanny, and utterly proper. The final teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs should be equals, it is only right that the results be entirely unpredictable. The results of the Stanley Cup Final could be easier to predict, especially with the Eastern teams taking such heavy casualties after just one game. I predict that the Western team will win the Cup, and that team will be from a city named after a saint.
A glance at the current NHL Leaderboard shows three Sharks leading in playoff scoring categories. In points, goals, and assists, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns top those charts. Logan Couture is in the top three in all of those categories, while Pavelski and Burns are top five in two. The Blues have two players in each of these categories, with Vladimir Tarasenko listed in the top five in points and goals, Robby Fabbri top ten in points and assists, and David Backes ranked fifth in goals. The teams are pretty close when it comes to high ranking for their top scorers.
Those numbers tell us which players the opponent will zero in on defensively. They also tell us, by omission, which players previous opponents probably spent most of their defensive energy on. For the Sharks, Joe Thornton did not rack up quite as many points as he might be expected to, especially being one of Joe Pavelski’s linemates. Joel Ward fell from fifth to eighth on the team in goals. Tomas Hertl dropped from fourth to ninth on the team in goals. Patrick Marleau should have produced more, especially since he spent so much time not on a line with Couture or Thornton. I say that because he should have been able to slip under the radar of the Kings or the Predators, if the top lines drew top defense away. So either Marleau did get the defensive attention he can deserve, or he just was not playing that well. Either way, he is one who could suddenly start producing in this series.
Even if underproducing players do not break out, how many goal scorers has it taken to get the Sharks this far, compared to the Blues? The Sharks have seven players with three or more goals in these playoffs. Apart from the league leaders mentioned above, the Sharks have four goals from Marleau, three each from Thornton, Chris Tierney, and Joonas Donskoi. Joel Ward, Tomas Hertl and Melker Karlsson have two each. Matt Nieto and Tommy Wingels each have one tally.
For the Blues, eight players have scored three or more goals. Tarasenko has seven, Backes has six, Troy Brouwer has five, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund each have four, while Robby Fabbri, Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stasny each have three. Seven more St. Louis skaters have one or two goals. During the regular season, Tarasenko also led his team in goals, and the rest of the top six were essentially the same as they have been in the playoffs: Backes, Brouwer, Fabbri and Steen.
Though none of the Blues defensemen can challenge Brent Burns in the scoring department, St. Louis has gotten more points from their defense than the Sharks have. They have four defensemen with four or more points, Kevin Shattenkirk leading there with ten points. The Sharks have four defensemen with three or more points, Justin Braun and Paul Martin having just three.
The Blues have three more goal scorers than the the Sharks have, but the Sharks have scored .28 more goals per game. The Blues have given up a few more goals (2.43) than the Sharks have (2.33), if you go by games played. One could argue that the Sharks should not have it held against them that they did not give up goals in games they did not play by defeating the Kings so quickly. But since the Blues and the Sharks will play the same number of games in this series, games played is probably a better measure than total goals against.
The Sharks’ 30.9% power play is the best among teams in the final four. The Blues are right behind them with a 27.5% success rate. The Sharks’ penalty kill is a couple of ranking spots higher than the Blues, with San Jose at 82.3% and St. Louis at 79.5%. Either of those special team rankings could be reversed in the course of a single game, so again the teams are darn close.
The Blues gave up more shots (31.3) per game than the Sharks did (28.5) , but not many more. The Blues played Chicago and Dallas, while the Sharks played Los Angeles and Nashville. The habits of their respective opponents may have skewed those figures. During the regular season games, the Sharks consistently outshot the Blues, but usually by a fairly small margin.
In the playoffs, faceoff win percentages are be heavily influenced by the opponent, but it is still worth looking at. The Blues have been better at 50.7 % than the Sharks at 46.2%. Both teams were better during the regular season, but the Blues were a little better there too at 51.3% to the Sharks’ 50.7%. Thornton and Hertl are the only Sharks who have won better than 50% of their faceoffs in the first two rounds, and Hertl has only taken 20 draws. For the Blues, Paul Stastny, David Backes and Jori Lehtera took the lion’s share of faceoffs in both the regular season and the playoffs, and all three are over 50%. Paul Stastny won an impressive 59% of his draws in the first two rounds.
Could it come down to goaltending? Brian Elliott gives the Blues and edge in save percentage (.929-.918), Jones has the edge in goals against average (2.16-2.29), and they each have one shutout. Elliott is the more seasoned starter, but he has never gotten so far in the playoffs. Jones has seen his team win a Cup, but was only there as a backup. Both teams have above-average backups, but only the Blues’ Jake Allen saw any ice time in the first two rounds. Again, and again and again, the Sharks and the Blues look so close on paper that neither clearly has an edge.
The victor will be the team that bests their best first.