1. Steal An Early Game On The Road
It doesn't need to be the first game, but it pretty much has to be one of the first two. A 2-0 series hole is a lot to climb out of and sets the table for what will undoubtedly be a pair of tough must-win games at HP Pavilion. We've crunched the numbers pretty heavily over the last couple days so let's go with the psychological route here-- two straight losses to this Blues team, bringing the Sharks overall record to 0-6 against them this year, is an element that compounds the already inherent difficulty of winning 4 out of your next 5.
As both Detroit and Chicago showed us last season it's hard to count any team out in the postseason even if a 3-0 series deficit is in play. The Sharks won't be toast if they drop the opening two, but they'll be in the toaster, and that makes this key enough to land in our number one spot.
In other words, "Just win the game!". Or something like that.
2. Fight off the forecheck with quick and intelligent reads from the first defenseman back.
The Blues come harder than just about every team in the League on the forecheck, throwing wave upon wave of forwards at the puck carrier deep in the zone. They do an excellent job of creating turnovers off of this aspect of their game, and a large reason as to why their possession numbers are so strong is because of how hard they make teams work for 200 feet.
One thing the Sharks have done very well at times throughout this season is get a quick release from the zone off a dumped puck. The first defenseman back will locate the puck and swing a quick pass up to a forward who is stationed along the side boards. The forward who receives the puck will then look middle far-side and locate a passing lane for a player that's begun to circle back around-- most forechecking teams in the NHL will pinch hard down the wall and force their opposition to use the middle of the ice, which makes this pass important in that it has to be right on the money and quick so you don't get tied up in a possession battle.
If that pass connects you have speed coming out of your zone and push opposing defenseman back. This gives you a better chance of making a clean zone entry. The Blues do an excellent job of limiting odd-man opportunities so there aren't going to be many of those available even with a perfect breakout, but beating the Blues forecheck consistently is a very good way to nullify what is one their strongest assets.
Where this play starts is with the first defenseman back who's retrieving the puck-- obviously you're going to want to see guys like Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brent Burns getting to these pucks first because they're some of the better puck movers on the team. It's going to be interesting to see how St. Louis goes after San Jose on the forecheck. I think it starts with him instructing his players to dump the puck to the side away from guys like Boyle.
A player like Douglas Murray is very strong on the puck, but that half a step he has behind Boyle means he's more liable to be hemmed down in a puck battle when the first Blues forechecker hits. This slows the Sharks breakout and turns the game more into the muckfest that St. Louis enjoys.
In a series like this, which is going to be filled with a lot of puck battles and tactical coaching battles, watching which side the Blues attack on the forecheck and how the Sharks adjust as it moves along is going to be exciting as hell to watch.
3. Speed in the neutral zone.
This is an element of the Sharks game that has been lacking during previous playoff runs, but the additions of Martin Havlat, TJ Galiardi, and Dominic Moore have added players into the mix that give the Sharks much more of a speed element. Generating speed in the neutral zone primarily comes from how you break out of your zone, but the ability to get this from other areas is important as well.
Namely, you have to make damn sure your passes are connecting despite the fact that the Blues cut off passing lanes. And as much as you want to stretch the ice with some home run bombs, it's going to be those short passes made to forwards who are locating holes on the fly and jumping into those spaces.
What makes the Blues so strong defensively outside of their tendency to encourage one forward to stay high in the offensive zone while they're forechecking is that St. Louis has really bought into the whole "defensive responsibility" thing as a team (kids these days!). Every Blues forward is going to be committed to providing that back pressure which causes turnovers, either through taking the puck away themselves or forcing a bad pass which their defenseman can intercept.
4. First Line Needs To Be The Difference.
We covered this in our review of the Sharks forward lines. For all the Blues (deservedly) vaunted forward depth, they just don't have the horses at the top of the lineup that San Jose does. Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau are all-world players who push the play in the right direction against opposing team's top lines every single night they hit the ice.
This is the one area where the Sharks have the distinct advantage over St. Louis, and to win this series, they'll need to take full advantage of it.
5. Special Teams Need To Be Special
Considering that the Blues penalty kill that finished 7th in the NHL on the penalty kill, functioning at a 85.8% kill rate, scoring on the power play isn't going to be an easy task. But San Jose's man-advantage was one of the best in the League, converting on 21.1% of their opportunities this season. The top line is probably the most dangerous PP units in the NHL outside of a healthy Vancouver Canucks squad and the return of Martin Havlat from injury improves the second line's ability to score goals by default.
Where San Jose has struggled this season is on the penalty kill, where the 29th ranked PK posted a pedestrian 76.9% success rate over 82 games. The Blues power play isn't especially dangerous (coming in at 19th and converting on 16.9% of their opportunities), but during the season series they did a number on San Jose in both 5v4 and 5v3 situations.
St. Louis gets a ton of their offensive production from Alex Pietrangelo (who looks like he could be a future Norris candidate) and smooth-skating Kevin Shattenkirk, so pressuring the puck at the point is going to be essential. San Jose is usually content to sit back on the penalty kill and let the play come to them-- do they switch it up this series and establish aggressive puck pressure? With two deadly weapons from the point, I think they might.
In a tight playoff series like this the battles will often comes down to how your special teams perform. We expect the same from this series.