The San Jose Sharks are preparing for Game 2 of the Western Conference Final after piling up six goals en route to a Game 1 beat down of the St. Louis Blue. After a back-and-forth first period, the Sharks took command of the game and blew the doors off St. Louis to the tune of a 5-2 lead before ultimately cruising to a 6-3 win. The important thing about this game is that San Jose laid the blueprint for winning the series.
The Blues are much more comparable to the Sharks’ first round opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights, than they are to the Colorado Avalanche the Sharks faced in round two. Colorado throws a super powered top line out, then hopes for the best from their depth players. The defense is also led by a dynamic duo and then holds on tight for the other pairs.
St. Louis and Vegas are much more balanced and have depth up and down a lineup that can do damage with any line. Much like Mark Stone, the Blues have game-breaking Vladimir Tarasenko ready to snuff out the Sharks’ hopes and dreams at a moment’s notice. But it doesn’t stop there, as evidenced by the Blues’ third line of Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak and Robert Thomas. All of this leads to needing to be sharp on every shift and matching depth with depth.
In Game 1, this depth was on display and will be a key that San Jose has to continue through the series. It seemed that every line was giving the Blues fits and getting chances on net. Joonas Donskoi’s addition to the fourth line has been a godsend. His ability to maintain possession in the offensive zone was something sorely lacking through these playoffs, but having him create opportunities means St. Louis cannot have the 45-second breather afforded to opponents in previous series. Donskoi will make them pay and it’s only a matter of time before Melker Karlsson pops in some of his goal-front chances.
Moving up the lineup, Timo Meier was obviously the man of the match. If Meier is going to continue asserting himself physically and regain some of his 30-goal scoring form from the regular season, there’s going to be almost no answer for that line. Meier ascending into a Tomas Hertl-esque player this series will be something to watch for as the games wear on.
Not only did Meier score a dandy, but the third line regaining its form will also be key to matching the Blues depth. The Avalanche’s speed throughout the team seriously hindered the Sharks’ third line effectiveness. Joe Thornton, at near 40 years old, can still hang everywhere except in the speed department. He was never a speedster, but after 21 seasons and two knee surgeries, he stood no chance against Colorado.
St. Louis, however, is much more keyed in on physicality and doesn’t have the overall team speed of the first two opponents. If Pete DeBoer can continue to work the matchups and shelter the third line against true burners, the third line can come back to the dominant depth line displayed all season.
That Blues physicality brings us to the next piece of the blueprint: There is no need to chase the hits. None. Don’t do it. If the Blues are going to go out of their way to try and pancake every player, the Sharks have to let them. Often times these hits are of the “hit the player who just made a play” variety. The Sharks are going to have to hang on until the last moment and make the smart play; it’s going to hurt, but it will create dangerous offensive chances. Doing so means they can use the Blues’ physical style against them and leverage the obvious hit chasing into opportunities.
Now, I am not saying don’t hit anything. Obviously if the option presents itself, lay the hit. But what the Sharks cannot do is think that they need to even up the hits category and start pulling themselves out of position. This comes down to discipline and out-thinking the opponent. A dominating 6-3 win will help keep that discipline in check, as the fruits of their game plan bore out to a big win.
Finally, pepper Jordan Binnington. He is an almost 26-year-old rookie goaltender that has had a dream season. The only way to find out if he truly is a late bloomer is to continue to get good looks every night and drive the offense right at him. In the Blues-Stars Game 7 thriller, Binnington went relatively untested until deep into overtime. San Jose needs to make sure he sees a better offensive effort than Dallas gave him, because the goal should be to try to get Jake Allen into the game.
To his credit, Blues Head Coach Craig Berube will be incredibly reluctant to put Allen into the game even in relief, as we witnessed in Game 1. The moment the Sharks can get Allen to play is the moment the series is in deep trouble for St. Louis. That will be a team confidence rattler and could be the morale breaker the Sharks need to put away the Blues. Until then, the Sharks need to continue chipping away at Binnington and hope that he cracks.
Game 1 was the perfect start to a series for San Jose, which isn’t uncommon, as they’ve won the opening game of each postseason series so far. The focus now is to not continue to repeat recent history and give up Game 2.
The difference in this series and with this win is that San Jose laid down a clear, repeatable blueprint of how to beat their opponent: Match the depth, leverage the Blues’ physicality and try to crack the Binnington code. The Knights were too good of a team to have a clear blueprint against. Nathan MacKinnon is a skating Hart trophy and cannot be simply stopped. The Blues, however? The blueprint is there for getting back to the Stanley Cup Final.