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Western Conference Finals Playoff Preview

Let’s just go ahead and call this the Redemption Series.

In one corner, we have the St. Louis Blues, who have either won the Central Division or finished in second place for five consecutive seasons.  The first four years of that stretch saw them get swept in the second round by the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and then eliminated in the first round in each of the last three seasons.  Before the 2015-16 season began, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock figured to lose his job if the team didn’t at least get past the opening round.

In the other corner, there’s the San Jose Sharks.  One of the NHL’s poster boys for stellar regular seasons followed by perennial playoff disappointment, the Sharks entered this season with some of the lowest expectations they’ve had in recent memory after missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 2003.  Their last playoff memory before this spring was 2014’s opening round when they became only the fourth team to blow a 3-0 series lead en route to losing in seven games to the rival Kings.

Usually there might be one underdog or redemption story by this point of the playoffs, but hockey fans are in for a treat with the Western Conference Finals as we get two teams that have completely flipped the narrative about their ability to perform in the postseason.  This is San Jose’s first trip to the conference finals since 2011’s five-game loss to the Vancouver Canucks.  They have never been to the Stanley Cup Final.  St. Louis is here for the first time since 2001, when they dropped a five-game series to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche.  They haven’t been to the Stanley Cup Final since 1970.  Two awesome stories of playoff redemption.  It’s kind of a shame that only one of them gets to advance.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

San Jose – They made quick work of the L.A. Kings in the opening round in just five games after many people (including myself) had that series going the distance.  Plenty of pundits (reluctantly raises hand) also had the Kings knocking the Sharks out in the opening round, but San Jose quickly proved the doubters wrong.  They followed it up by knocking out the Nashville Predators in seven games in what was only the fourth playoff series in NHL history in which the home team won every game.  It was a grueling, back-and-forth series that saw the Sharks lose twice in overtime (including the only triple OT game of the playoffs) before ending it in dominant fashion in Game 7, as they closed out the series with a 5-0 win.

St. Louis – They cleared a major hurdle in the first round when they took down the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in an epic seven-game series that became an instant classic.  The Blues nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, but were able to bounce back and finish off the series on home ice with a 3-2 win in Game 7.  What followed was another seven-game showdown, this time with the Central Division Champion Dallas Stars.  However, the finish of that series was much more anticlimactic, as the Blues tied the NHL record for biggest margin of victory in a Game 7 on the road by defeating Dallas 6-1.

KEYS TO THE SERIES

Brian Elliott vs. Martin Jones – Going into this year’s postseason, neither team’s goaltender had a great deal of playoff experience.  Elliott entered this year’s postseason with just 19 games of playoff experience.  Jones entered having never started a playoff game before as he had served as Jonathan Quick’s backup in L.A. before arriving in San Jose.  Despite the lack of big-time playoff experience from both goaltenders, both of them have delivered so far in the playoffs.  Elliott has been sensational for St. Louis, posting a .929 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average to go along with one shutout.  In the few instances when he’s had bad games (both of the team’s Game 6’s), he’s bounced back with stellar Game 7’s, stopping 62 of 65 shots in each of the Blues’ series-clinching wins.  While Jones hasn’t had as many spectacular, jaw-dropping saves as Elliott, he’s given the Sharks solid, reliable goaltending in the playoffs for the first time in a long time.  He sports a 2.16 GAA and a .918 save percentage in the postseason.  For a team that has averaged a league-high 3.42 goals-per-game, its been easy to overlook Jones’ contributions, but when San Jose has needed a big save, Jones has been there.

Depth matters, but your best players matter more – In the postseason, there’s always chatter about which unsung forwards will rise out of nowhere and make huge contributions to a team’s playoff run.  And both of these teams have guys that fit that description, such as Joel Ward for San Jose and Troy Brouwer for St. Louis.  But when it comes down to it, your star players must play like stars in order to make a serious push for the Stanley Cup.  So far, both the Sharks’ and Blues’ star players have come to the forefront in this year’s playoffs.  Joe Pavelski is tied with Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov for the league-lead with nine goals (including three game-winners), while Logan Couture leads the league with 17 points (7 goals and 10 assists) and Norris Trophy finalist Brent Burns has 15 points.  Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who have come under a lot of scrutiny over the years for coming up short in the postseason, have delivered so far with 11 and nine points, respectively.  Meanwhile in St. Louis, Vladimir Tarasenko has paced the Blues with seven goals and 13 points.  Rookie center Robby Fabbri has emerged with 10 assists and 13 points, while captain David Backes has contributed six goals and six assists, including three game-winners, two of them in overtime.  Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, Paul Stastny, and Alexander Steen, who all missed significant time in the regular season due to injuries have come back to chip in solid contributions during the playoffs.  Schwartz has 11 points, while Stastny has nine, and Berglund and Steen each have eight.  The line of Stastny, Brouwer, and Fabbri was particularly impressive against Dallas, combining for 23 points in the series.  Whichever teams can continue to get offensive production from its best players will likely be advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Which team will continue its success on the power play? – Not only have the Sharks and Blues scored the most goals in the playoffs, they have the top two power play units of all the teams left in the postseason.  San Jose has converted a remarkable 30.9% of it’s power play chances, while St. Louis has been successful on almost equally impressive level at 27.5%.  Both teams do a tremendous job of puck movement, wasting little time before putting the puck on net.  Each team has defensemen with excellent shots from the point, as Burns is willing to shoot the puck from anywhere at anytime.  The Blues have the likes of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and rookie Colton Parayko, guys that are great at creating chances from the blue line.  San Jose’s passing and creativity really shows on its power play, as Thornton, Pavelski, and Couture have been monsters with the man-advantage this postseason.  St. Louis loves to cycle the puck and wear teams out down low when they’re not getting shots from the point from its excellent defensive corps.  While both teams have solid penalty killing units, they will have their hands full in this series with each others power play.  If either the Blues or Sharks can make the other pay for taking penalties, it could go a long way in deciding who wins this series.

SERIES OUTLOOK:  Both teams are coming up long, grueling seven-game series that ended with both the Sharks and Blues putting a lot of doubts to rest during decisive Game 7 victories.  Now that each team has made it to the Western Conference Finals, the pressure is off to some degree after being disappointments in the postseason for several years.  While the Sharks have five players left over from their last conference finals appearance in 2011 (Thornton, Marleau, Pavelski, Couture, and Marc-Edouard Vlasic), the Blues have only four players (Brouwer, Scottie Upshall, Steve Ott, Robert Bortuzzo) that have ever been to a conference final series, none of them with St. Louis.  On paper, this is a very evenly-matched series that features two teams with potent special teams play, deep forward groups that combine speed and size with a ferocious forecheck, and deep defensive groups that are capable of generating offense from the blue line.  The goaltending is also very evenly matched, but I believe that will be the difference in this series, as Brian Elliott has been the backbone that has held the Blues together, capable of stealing a game or two in this series.  While I believe that Jones is capable of backstopping the Sharks to a series victory, I’m going to take the Blues to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final in 46 years.

PREDICTION:  Blues in 6

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