SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 15: Brent Burns #88 of the San Jose Sharks skates to get control of the puck over David Backes #42 of the St. Louis Blues in the third period of an NHL hockey game at HP Pavilion at San Jose on October 15, 2011 in San Jose, California. The Blues won the game 4-2. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
This series is going to be a dogfight.
St. Louis is probably the best team in the NHL outside of Pittsburgh with a healthy Sidney Crosby, and a first round matchup against a team this deep is by far the most difficult test the Sharks have faced in the opening round in quite some time. In 2010 the Sharks went up against a Colorado Avalanche squad that had played well over their heads all season, and in 2011 the Sharks faced a Los Angeles Kings squad that had just lost elite centerman Anze Kopitar to injury.
Both series ended up going six games, a testament to both the randomness of playoff hockey as well as the inherent nature of what makes this time of year so damn special-- any team can win on any given night. Upsets happen, and the Sharks are going to have to bank on that fact because for the first time in a long, long time they're going to be headed into the opening round as the underdogs.
The thing is, that notion has nothing to do with their overall talent.
As we've talked about all season, San Jose is a much better team than what their point totals may indicate-- they control possession, they have elite talent at the top of their lineup, and their third and fourth lines are rounding into form with the additions of Daniel Winnik, TJ Galiardi, and Dominic Moore. They have a ton of depth at the forward position, some excellent defenseman in Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Dan Boyle, and Brent Burns, and a goaltender in Antti Niemi who has come on strong as of late. The pieces are there for this team to make a deep Stanley Cup run and they should be considered an undeniably elite Western Conference team.
St. Louis has all those pieces in play as well. They achieved 109 points and a +45 goal differential this season despite playing without Alex Steen, David Perron, Andy McDonald, and Matt D'Agostini for very long stretches of the season. Those players are a veritable second line on the vast majority of NHL teams, and to achieve what they did without their services is a point that should not be casually glossed over. Alongside David Backes, TJ Oshie, Chris Stewart, and Vladimir Sbotka (the list literally goes on and on), the Blues round out what is probably the deepest forward group in the NHL. Parlay that with defensemen like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Barret Jackman and you have a tough team top to bottom with no perceivable holes.
What it comes down to is this-- the Blues have a little more forward depth than the Sharks, they have a little more defensive depth than the Sharks, and they have two goaltenders who split starts all season and ended up finishing in the top 10 in SV%. This isn't your typical first round matchup for San Jose, and one where starting on the road for the first two games is going to be a huge factor in all this plays out-- they're going to need to get a win in those first two games or risk really playing with fiure.
Where San Jose has the edge is in their top end talent. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski have both had phenomenal seasons for the Sharks, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture cracked the 30 goal mark, and Martin Havlat plus Ryane Clowe round out a very formidable top six. Those players are probably going to be the ones who decide this series either way for San Jose, as St. Louis' insane depth doesn't boast as many superstars in the lineup who can put up a three point game.
Either way it's going to be an absolute treat to watch-- can San Jose solve a Blues team that held them to a mere 3 goals during the season series? How do both of these teams match up now that they are healthy? And who wins the coaching battle, the brilliant Ken Hitchcock or the equally formidable Todd McLellan?
It's all on the line on Thursday at 4:30 PST.
And we couldn't be more excited to get it underway.