No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 7 San Jose SharksWhat's the story here?
After being the first team (of many) to fire a coach this season, the St. Louis Blues took off under Ken Hitchcock and never looked back. Here are two things that say it all about this balanced, everyone-helps-out Blues team: Its tied-for-leading points scorer is also its best defensive forward (David Backes), and its All-Star goaltender, who led the NHL in save percentage and was second in shutouts, Brian Elliott, isn't even the no. 1 for the playoffs. (That'll be Jaroslav Halak.)
The San Jose Sharks have made it to the Western Conference finals for two years running, but you probably wouldn't know it if you only watched them this season, when they had trouble forming any sort of identity and barely made the postseason. But everything resets now, and the Sharks, with players like Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, and Joe Pavelski, are chock-full of guys who know how to win. Sophomore Logan Couture is one of the league's rising stars, and since the All-Star break he's been on a .84 point-per-game pace. (Thornton's has been a killer 1.12.) Oh, and Martin Havlat, whom the team specifically traded for this offseason in order to give them some better playoff presence, is returning from a groin injury at just the right time.The big questions:
Are the conference finals going to be as good as it ever gets for the Sharks? Can a team full of glue guys stick together? Will St. Louis's young kids rise to the playoff occasion, or get too rattled by a loss? Will Antti Niemi regain the form that brought him the 2010 Stanley Cup in Chicago, or will he be outplayed in net by the two-headed St. Louis monster of Halak and Elliott?Any bad blood?
"The Blues and Sharks have provided one of the great rivalries … " Oh, wait, that's in "Super Rugby."
The NHL's Blues and Sharks have been matched up in the playoffs three times before, with the two trading first-round exits in 2000 and 2001, but they haven't seen each other in the postseason since 2004, and there are very few holdovers from those days.
The most hate-fueling thing to have happened between these two of late was Joe Thornton's November 2010 hit on the Blues' David Perron, which concussed the St. Louis forward and kept him out of the game for over a year. Since his return, though, he's been one of the team's best players, and there doesn't seem to be too much bad blood: "Just got a very classy text from Joe Thornton wishing me good luck for tonight!" Perron tweeted in December before his first game back. "He is a class act! Nap time and then game on!"Fun fact:
The St. Louis Blues' defense has been so good that, according to ESPN.com number-cruncher Alvin Chang, "if they win the Cup, they'll radically reshape the power meter formula going forward.
" I don't entirely know what that means, but it sounds serious.So what'll it be?
The Blues have beaten the Sharks four times this season, and they're defensively oriented and a disciplined team, which bodes well for the playoffs. But if the Sharks can win a few games early, the Blues might lose their cool. Unless San Jose can turn on the scoring early and often, they could find themselves hard-pressed to generate offense. This might be the end of an era for San Jose, and the start of a new one for St. Louis. Blues in six.Representative song:
Jimi Hendrix, "Are You Experienced?" Among the teams who remain, the San Jose Sharks have the second-most playoff games under their belts, trailing only the Detroit Red Wings: Fourteen players have played in 30 or more postseason games, and only one has skated in zero. (It helps that the team has advanced to the conference finals the last two years.) Compare this with the St. Louis Blues, who have the second-fewest "second season" appearances — at 486 showings, less than half of the Sharks' 1,076-game total, with a whopping 18 St. Louis skaters having seen time in 10 contests or fewer. No other team has a roster that green. But the inexperience talk could turn out to be overblown. The Blues have a Cup-winning coach in Ken Hitchcock behind the bench; a guy in net, Halak, who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010 with Montreal; and a pair of grizzled veterans on the ice: Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott have three Cups between them.