The Western Conference Final features two teams who have held high expectations on this stage before just to see gut-wrenching heartache end their season time and time again. Over the past decade, both the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks have been considered contenders for hockey’s ultimate prize, yet neither team has ever been able to fulfill their destiny and the two franchises share a combined zero Stanley Cups to their name.
For St. Louis, they advanced to the Cup Final in each of their first three years of existence from 1968 to 1970 but haven’t been back since. San Jose’s only trip to the Finals in their 27 seasons was in 2016 when they beat this very team in the Western Final but lost the championship to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. For one of these teams, they’ll have the rare chance to make history once again while the other will add another season of unmet expectations and heartbreak.
(Check out the Eastern Conference Final here)
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL
Sometimes, the best team doesn’t always win. We could maybe have said that about the San Jose Sharks after their opening round series win over the Vegas Golden Knights where they were outplayed 5-on-5 and gave up eight powerplay goals. They appeared to be exiting the postseason early but staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports history when they erased a 3-0 deficit late in the third period of Game 7 with four powerplay goals on a controversial five-minute major penalty call.
We could maybe have said that again after another seven game series win over the Colorado Avalanche where they were arguably the second best team statistically but again benefitted from controversy after an apparent game-tying goal in the second period of Game 7 was overturned for a subjective offside call.
And it’s possible we may say it again after the Western Conference Final.
Many would say the Sharks are fortunate to be here and while there’s an argument to be made there, with each passing game it continues to feel more and more as if San Jose is destined to win their first-ever Stanley Cup for not only the franchise, but for the legendary Joe Thornton.
The St. Louis Blues could also lay claim to be the second best team in each of their two series after losing the Expected Goals battle to both the Winnipeg Jets in round one and the Dallas Stars in round two. As has been the case all through the season though, the Blues have been an incredible comeback team under the guidance of head coach Craig Berube and his ability to make the correct adjustments. After dropping games 3 and 4 to Winnipeg and appearing to be in trouble, the Blues made the right adjustments to slow down the Jets attack and win the final two games of the series. The Stars also looked to have the upper hand after consecutive wins in games 4 and 5 but again Berube made the proper adjustments and used a suffocating defense to shut down the Stars attack and take the final two games of the series.
The Sharks and Blues are an interesting matchup in that we have two teams who play a similar style, and each dispatched a team in the previous round who played the same way. Dallas and Colorado were both quick strike teams who attacked off the rush and the Blues and Sharks had to adjust to slow them down. To their credit, they both did an excellent job in doing so. In this round, we have two teams who prefer a more methodical approach to generating offense with their strong cycle game but are certainly capable of having their defense jump into a play to create scoring opportunities.
In head-to-head meetings this year, much like the Eastern Conference Final two of the three regular season meetings were early in the season and should be discarded. And even the third meeting in March which saw San Jose win in overtime doesn’t carry relevance. That final meeting saw Jake Allen in net for St. Louis who were without Vladimir Tarasenko, David Perron and Carl Gunnarsson, while the Sharks were minus Erik Karlsson and Evander Kane. In fact, San Jose has never even seen Jordan Binnington. It’s usually wise – but in this case even more – to completely disregard the regular season meetings.
For two teams who utilized a slow-it-down clog the neutral zone game plan last round, the top offensive stars on each side have been leading the way. This series will feature the three leading goal scorers in the postseason with San Jose’s Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl tied for the lead with nine goals and St. Louis’ Jaden Schwartz third with eight.
Both teams have also seen big offensive contributions from their blueline with Brent Burns tied for second in playoff scoring with 14 points and Erik Karlsson with 12 for the Sharks and Alex Pietrangelo tied for the Blues scoring lead with 11 points.
Last round, both teams were forced to adapt to their opponents faster attack and slow things down. Here, we have two teams with similar styles, so we may see them willing to open things up more in a back-and-forth style, at least to start the series.
San Jose and St. Louis are both capable of putting the puck in the net with their top-end stars, but the Sharks have the better arsenal of depth scorers with seven players with at least three goals and five players with 10 or more points this postseason. The Blues have played one less game but have just four players with three or more goals and just Schwartz and Pietrangelo have hit the 10-point mark with Ryan O’Reilly next at nine.
It’s not a large advantage, but it’s enough to give San Jose the edge in the offensive category.
The two defenses here have seen outstanding underlying numbers all season with little to separate them other than the actual goals, and that can be attributed to the difference in each team’s goaltending. The Sharks were near the bottom of the league during the season in goals allowed thanks to the tandem of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell who both had terrible regular seasons. The defense itself was elite with Marc-Edouard Vlasic leading the way as one of the best shutdown defenders in the league and despite some issues during the season, he’s back on his game now and will make life difficult for Jaden Schwartz. Here in the playoffs, the numbers have slipped across all categories which can partially be due to playing two powerful offenses in Vegas and Colorado, but the defense as a whole hasn’t been as sharp as in the regular season.
The Blues have steadily improved their defense throughout the season and it’s carried into the playoffs as they made excellent in-series adjustments to suffocate the Jets and Stars late in each series. With Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko leading the way, the team employs no other outstanding individual but four interchangeable guys who can play anywhere in the lineup with Vince Dunn, Carl Gunnarsson, Jay Bouwmeester and Joel Edmundson (although I personally think Dunn is outstanding and underrated).
Both defenses are also strong at contributing on the offensive end as the Blues led all teams in goals from defensemen during the season and the Sharks of course countering with Burns and Karlsson. I expect we’ll see the defense be just as important on the offensive end this series and why scoring could be higher to begin with both teams making the necessary adjustments as the series wears on and games becoming tighter.
Two elite units here when they’re at the top of their game but based on current form this past month, the Blues get the edge in the defensive category.
The San Jose powerplay has been excellent all season but they’ve been relentless here in the playoffs and with the Blues holding the defensive edge 5-on-5, the Sharks are going to have to find success on their man advantage this series.
That may prove to be more difficult than they like though as this St. Louis team has done an amazing job at maintaining their discipline and staying out of the box. The Blues have drawn 13 more penalties than they’ve taken which is tops in the postseason by a wide margin. Columbus and Colorado are next with +7 and only four teams in all have a positive penalty differential (Toronto being the other). The Sharks, meanwhile, are 12th among playoff teams at a -3 differential.
San Jose’s powerplay has the clear edge in the special teams matchup but if the Blues continue to play with discipline the Sharks biggest edge in this series could be all but negated.
On the other side, the Blues powerplay was heating up towards the end of the regular season and carried that success into the first round against Winnipeg where they scored five goals, but it was shut down by Dallas’ outstanding defense with just two goals over 37 minutes of man advantage time.
The Sharks penalty kill had struggled all season but have been excellent in the playoffs at limiting shots and scoring chances, although the goal totals have still piled up. St. Louis should be able to have more success again against this unit and this could be a key matchup in deciding the series. It’s fair to believe the Blues actually hold the edge despite the teal sweeping the stats in the chart.
Keep an eye on the penalty differential and the Blues powerplay finding success. If they continue to stay out of the box, the edge in special teams is a lot closer than the overall stats suggest and may even swing to the Blues side.
As previously mentioned, these two teams spent the second round defending the same type of opponent which meant they gave up a lot of scoring chances off the rush and dangerous shots from the slot. On the offensive end, both the Blues and Sharks prefer to create offense from cycling the puck and shooting from the outside, looking for screens and deflections. Attacking off the rush isn’t really their style but with similar attack patterns, it will be interesting to see of either team tries to be more aggressive off the rush.
The edge in the key stats is even entering the series but the team who establishes the more aggressive approach may gain a significant advantage.
Both Martin Jones and Jordan Binnington have been exceptional at times this postseason and both have played a large role in their team’s success to this point, so it may come as a surprise to know they sit first and second in total goals allowed through the first two rounds.
Binnington had a fantastic regular season earning a Calder Trophy nomination for top rookie of the year, despite only joining the league in January, but the rookie has shown inconsistency here in the playoffs. That being said, he’s come up huge late in each series when the pressure has been at its highest. After losing two straight to Winnipeg to even that series, he allowed just two goals in each of the final two games to close it out. Against Dallas, when his team trailed three games to two, Binnington shut the door allowing just two goals over the final two games. He’s been calm and collected all season, showing the poise of a veteran Hall of Famer. He hasn’t been as sharp early in each round but has got stronger as each series progressed.
Jones had a nightmare regular season and his playoff numbers don’t look too impressive as a whole as he’s been below average from a statistical output, but we’ve seen Jones put on an unbelievable performance game-to-game since Game 5 of the Vegas series. It’s fair to say the Sharks wouldn’t be here right now if not for the play of Jones.
Statistically, Binnington and the Blues get the edge in net but there’s reasons to be cautious about both. Binnington is still a rookie and the deeper we get into the playoffs, the bigger the moment. Jones is the veteran who’s been here before, but one always wonders if the real Martin Jones will suddenly emerge (the regular season not very good version).
In this case, it might be better to trust the rookie over the veteran.
FINAL WORD: Like Boston-Toronto and San Jose-Vegas in the opening round, this is the closest we’ve seen to a true coin flip series and picking a straight up winner isn’t easy. I believe the Blues hold the smallest of edges thanks to their suffocating defense and ability to maintain their cool which should negate the Sharks largest edge. Based on what you’ve read above, you’d probably expect St. Louis to be the pick here.
However, there’s something mysterious around the magic of the Shark Tank and Game 7s this year and if it gets that far, it’s hard to pick against San Jose at home. Analytically, the Blues are likely the slightly better team and should be the pick to win this series – but – (this will sound really cheesy) this year just feels like the Sharks are destined to get back to the Finals. I’ve learned over the years to never tempt the Hockey Gods, so, sometimes cheesy wins, as does the second-best team.
SERIES PICK: SAN JOSE IN 7
SERIES WAGER: NONE (Whether you’re currently holding Futures on these teams or not, the recommendation would be to hold off on a pre-series wager here until after Game 1 and then look at grabbing the loser at a nice plus price. The expectation is for this to be a long back-and-forth series which should present a plus price on both sides at some point)
FUTURES WAGER: NONE (This is a freeroll for us with Futures on both sides to win it all. We own a preseason Cup Futures ticket on St. Louis for +3061 (half-unit) and a Western Conference Champions ticket for +600 which we added prior to Round 1. Our San Jose Cup Future was also added prior to Round 1 for +1400. If you still don’t currently own a Futures ticket on either of these teams, the recommendation would be to not place anything now. I expect both teams to be trailing at some point in this series and since you can grab Cup Futures between each game, you should be able to get better than the current +300 price on either side available now at BetOnline)