One team was expected to be here. The other? Not so much.
At least that was the in-season thought. After missing out on the playoffs on the final game of the 2017-18 regular season, Blues GM Doug Armstrong made one of the boldest offseason moves and brought in the top center on the trade market in Ryan O’Reilly while he also solidified the center ice position with the free agent signing of Tyler Bozak while the low-key addition of hometown boy – and now Game 7 OT hero – Patrick Maroon had certainly paid its own dividends.
As a result, the Blues looked primed for a bounce back year and a postseason berth. The only problem was they were sitting 30th in league standings at January 1st and were all but out of the playoff race.
Subsequently, they went on a tear as soon as the calendar flipped to 2019 and recorded the second-most points next to the Tampa Bay Lightning since the calendar flipped to the New Year.
The Sharks were also involved in some offseason wheeling and dealing as they brought in the top available defenseman Erik Karlsson, a move that placed them as Western Conference favorites.
It wasn’t the smoothest of rides as it took some time for Karlsson to gel in San Jose and the Sharks dealt with weak goaltending all season long, but here they are; right where we thought they would be.
Game 1 of this Western Conference Final checks off Friday night in San Jose and it’s time to break down these two clubs before predicting who will represent the west in the Stanley Cup Final.
First, let’s take a look at the series odds, as per MyBookie.
Blues vs. Sharks NHL Playoff Series Odds
Now, let’s break down each club, how they got here and how they can win this series before making my final prediction.
St. Louis Blues
- Regular Season Record: 45-28-9 (3rd in the Atlantic Division)
- How they got here: Beat Jets 4-2 in round one / Beat Stars 4-3 in round two
Could the Blues be the next team to fire a head coach in-season and win the Stanley Cup? The Pittsburgh Penguins did so in 2016 when they canned Dan Bylsma in favor of Mike Sullivan while the Blues ditched Mike Yeo in favor of Craig Berube this season.
It’s hard to decide who deserves more credit for the mid-season turnaround: Berube or standout netminder Jordan Binnington. While Berube is most judge by his team’s record with him as the head honcho behind the bench, we can tell Binnington’s contributions from his 1.89 GAA and .927 SV% across 30 starts and 32 regular season appearances, not to mention his 24-5-1 record.
That said, the numbers have cooled to a more human-like 2.39 GAA and .915 Sv% in the postseason, but there’s still little doubt that Binnington is giving his club a chance to win every night he takes the crease.
The Blues have largely gotten to this point on the back of Binnington and defense as they allowed just one goal in each of the final two games against Dallas while the Stars scored just four total over the final three games of the series.
It might be tougher to win that way against this Sharks team. The Stars got contributions from their big guns but also their secondary scorers in the series, but they are in no way as dangerous on offense as this Sharks team.
As a result, the Blues better be ready for more. While their own offense held up okay with an average of 2.57 goals per game against a very good Stars defensive club, something tells me more offense will be needed in round two, and that could certainly happen with San Jose not sporting the same level of goaltending or defensive blueline talent than they faced against Dallas.
The key in these playoffs for the Blues hasn’t been their offense as a while, but timely offense.
They scored a couple of late goals in Game 1 in Winnipeg to steal that one while they put a dagger in the Jets with mere seconds to go in Game 5 thanks to Jaden Schwartz’s heroics. Pat Maroon not only scored the Game 7 OT winner in round two, but also tallied a late on in Game 3 to give the Blues a 2-1 series lead.
If the Blues can continue to find the back of the net in dire situations, they could be on the way to the Cup final. If not, the offense provided from this Sharks team could take over the series.
San Jose Sharks
- Regular Season Record: 46-27-9 (2nd in the Pacific Division)
- How they got here: Beat Golden Knights 4-3 in round one / Beat Avalanche 4-3 in round two
It’s been a dramatic run for the Sharks to this point as well as they epicly – and controversially – stormed back to beat the Vegas Golden Knights on home ice in Game 7 before going the distance with the Avalanche has well and taking advantage of their home ice once again with another Game 7 victory.
As I noted above, this is a relentless Sharks offensive attack and now this group is back to full health – at least on paper – with the return of captain Joe Pavelski after that scary injury that turned the tide in that round one Game 7 comeback win.
They are strong down the middle with big-time playoff performers Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl while super-vet Joe Thornton has been a productive player himself.
Down the wings, the Sharks have plenty of offensive talent in Pavelski, Evander Kane, Gustav Nyquist, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc who is also coming into his own.
Of course, the offense doesn’t stop up front as the Sharks have arguably the top two offensive defensemen in the entire NHL on their roster in Karlsson and Brent Burns – the latter of which paced all NHL blueliners with 83 points in 82 regular season games and has repeated that point-per-game pace with 14 points in 14 playoff contests.
As good as Karlsson and Burns are at the offensive end, there’s no denying they can be soft on the back end as well. Having two defensemen who log close to 30 minutes a game that are poor defensively can have mixed results. They can produce offense or they can become liabilities defensively and this could be where the Blues get to them.
St. Louis isn’t short on depth up front either, and they certainly have the ability to expose this duo, although they don’t skate on the same pairing at even strength. Marc-Edouard Vlasic helps mask the defensive woes of Burns while Brenden Dillons stay-at-home ways allow Karlsson to roam free on the ice.
Coming off a regular season where he posted a brutal .896 Sv%, Jones was touched early and often in the first round before rebounding. He would go on to post a .904 Sv% in the first round before improving to a .916 mark in round two.
He posted a save percentage over .900 in six of the seven games against Colorado including a solid 27-save performance in the series-clinching Game 7 victory.
To win this one and advance, Jones will have to be good, but the Sharks will need to continue to receive offensive contributions up and down their lineup to put pressure on the rookie Binnington in this series.
Blues vs. Sharks NHL Playoff Series Prediction
Is it just me, or did the Sharks seem destined to go on a run ever since that fortunate opportunity to allow the Game 7 comeback against Vegas?
Sometimes all you need is a break and the Sharks certainly got that as they were on the ropes in that one.
I mean, Joe Thornton is one of the best players of all-time to have not won a Stanley Cup and I think the skates get hung up after the season whether he gets it done or not. However, I like his chances of getting it done.
Aside from the nostalgic reasoning, I have little doubt that the Sharks are the better team. They are certainly the better and more complete offense, and Karlsson and Burns haven’t been all that bad defensively in these playoffs. Jones has been better of late and Binnington isn’t posting the same gaudy numbers that we witnessed in the regular season.
Overall, the Sharks are 6-2 at home in these playoffs after going 25-11-5 at home in the regular season. Needless to say, it’s going to be tough to win in that barn and the Shark Tank will be bumping beginning Friday night.
I think we’re getting really nice odds here despite San Jose being the favorite and I have plenty of confidence in this play.