GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 23: Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues watches from the bench during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on December 23, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
The St. Louis Blues have a superior full-team defensive game that should be enough to dispatch the San Jose Sharks.
The St. Louis Blues have been here once before -- a regular season favorite facing a low-seeded San Jose Sharks. The year was 1999-2000, the Blues had won their first (and still only) President's Trophy as the top regular season team, and their goaltending had won the Jennings Trophy but not without reservation. (Would you bet on Roman Turek, even if he flashed shiny hardware?)
This year's national broadcasts will highlight how that Blues team bowed out in a seven-game upset to the Sharks -- but the coda to the story is the Blues avenged that upset by dumping the Sharks in the first round the very next season.
Yes, there's some playoff history here -- the Sharks also dumped the Blues in the final pre-lockout season -- but it's pretty ancient. The Sharks have spent the last four seasons winning their division and entering the playoffs as favorites only to disappoint. The Blues have spent the last six seasons recovering from a lockout bottoming-out that featured utter abandonment by their NBA-chasing owner. Now the two franchises meet again, heading in different directions.
The Blues have no stars who top leaderboards. They don't even have a 25-goal scorer this year. But they run three, sometimes four lines deep with an offense that comes at you in waves. David Backes is a two-way force and should-be Selke candidate, T.J. Oshie is an all-around threat, David Perron is always dangerous, Andy McDonald provides major secondary scoring, and Alexander Steen (when healthy) is a two-way threat in his own right.
From the back, Alex Pietrangelo and to a lesser extent Kevin Shattenkirk offer plenty of offensive supply without giving up chances in their own end. The only reason Pietrangelo won't be a Norris Trophy finalist is because the media hasn't hyped him to critical mass yet.
The Sharks have stars, both declining and emerging. Patrick Marleau (30 goals) and Joe Thornton (77 points) represent the former, fellow 30-goal scorers Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are the latter. These four have carried them multiple rounds each of the last few seasons.
From the back, Dan Boyle provides plenty of puck movement and offense but gives up quite a bit in his own end.
Edge: Sharks, if you want high-end offense. But the Blues outscored the Sharks 11-3 in the season series.
The Sharks made a big offseason trade for Brent Burns to really round out their top four and add to Boyle and Douglas Murray. Burns has delivered as billed, and the Sharks only give up 2.5 goals and 28.6 shots per game -- both good for top 10 rankings in the NHL.
The Blues complement Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk with Roman Polak and Barret Jackman as effective shutdown forces. But the real key to their league-leading 1.89 goals and 26.7 shots allowed per game is their overall commitment to team defense. Those skilled forwards who can't even manage 25 goals? It's because they're minding their own end rather than chasing glory.
When Ken Hitchcock took over the Blues just 13 games into the 2011-12 season, he famously said the awful powerplay would be fixed "in one practice." He lied. It took all season for the powerplay to steadily improve, and they now generate enough shots to be a consistent threat.
The Sharks, however, score on more than 21% of their powerplay chances and it's no fluke: They generate by far the most shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-4 time in the league.
On the penalty kill it's the opposite story: The Blues have a top-10 penalty kill, while the Sharks rank 29th, allowing a goal 23% of the time.
The Sharks wisely went cheap with their goaltending last season when they picked Antti Niemi up off the discount bin ... then promptly gave him a pricey long-term contract. This season he has played like ... Antti Niemi: Fine, not spectacular. His .915 save percentage and .926 even-strength save percentage are just okay.
The Blues boast two goaltenders who gave performances that were surprisingly good -- but so good it's hard to explain them away as flukes. Brian Elliott (.945) and Jaroslav Halak (.938) have the highest even-strength save percentages in the league. They are certainly helped by the Blues' defensive scheme, but the team would have to collapse or both goalies implode to take the shine off this banner year.
SHARKS WILL WIN IF ... either Elliott or Halak makes a Blues fan say "Roman Turek," if Thornton and/or Marleau take over the series, with Pavelski and Couture not-so-quietly making it possible, and if Boyle adds enough offense without giving it all back in his own end.
BLUES WILL WIN IF ... they just play like they did pretty much all season long.