The San Jose Sharks weren't expected to need to fight for their playoff lives in the final week of the regular season, but that's what happened. The Sharks beat the Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars twice apiece in the final week to clinch the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, and their reward in Round 1 is a matchup with a team they couldn't beat in four regular season match-ups: the St. Louis Blues.
In fact, the Sharks scored just three goals in those four meetings, with two shutouts. The Blues are an unreal defensive club, and the Sharks are absolutely going to need to break that up if they want to advance past the Western Conference Quarterfinals and go deep into the postseason.
We asked Mr. Plank of Sharks blog Fear The Fin a few questions about the team as they prepare for the playoffs.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Sharks heading into the postseason?
The Sharks have great underlying numbers and are going into the postseason with a lot to play for this season as their core is aging. The addition of Martin Havlat has provided skill, speed, and creativity to their second line, while Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are capable of playing up against the opponent's top line every single night and coming out ahead. I also like the moves they made at the deadline to add some depth when they acquired Dominic Moore, Daniel Winnik, and TJ Galiardi.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding the Sharks heading into the playoffs?
How the goaltending is going to hold up, and whether or not San Jose can beat St. Louis' stifling team defense and excellent goaltending tandem. The Sharks scored a mere three goals against the Blues in four games this season, and while you can kind of throw those results out the window in the postseason, I think it speaks volumes about how good at controlling possession this Blues team is. They're the second-best team in the NHL in my opinion (behind a healthy Penguins squad) and have depth to burn.
3) If there's one player on the Sharks that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
Does Joe Pavelski count? He always comes up big in the postseason and has had a phenomenal season thus far for San Jose. If you're looking for someone off the radar make sure to watch Justin Braun -- he's an excellent young defenseman who has just began to come into his own and could thrive in the spotlight.
4) When all's said and done, the Sharks' playoff chances hinge on ...
Goaltending. Antti Niemi can either be lights out or lights on (behind him), and that varies on a series-by-series basis. He's had a strong run in March and looks to be hot heading into the playoffs, but will be tested against a strong Blues team who throws wave after wave at you on every single shift.
5) Give a prediction. How far will San Jose go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
If they get past St. Louis I think they can beat anybody in the Western Conference and will take a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Like I mentioned though, the Blues are probably the second best team in the NHL this season. If I had to rank this series I'd call it a coin flip and give the advantage to St. Louis based off home-ice advantage. There's a reason they play the games though, and with this Sharks team you never know what you're going to get. It's an excellent test for them right out of the gate.