The San Jose Sharks have an intimidating opponent in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That's generally the case once you get to the playoffs because every team there had to earn their way, but it's definitely worth noting, given that the team in question came out of nowhere. At the beginning of the season, if you'd have said that any team was fearing the St. Louis Blues come playoff time, you'd have been laughed at.
But now the Blues are No. 2 seeds in the conference and more than that, boasted a 4-0 record against the Sharks this season. They finished with 109 points, with a 49-22-11 record, significantly better than the Sharks at 96 points with a 43-29-10 record. We'll have some in-depth previews going forward, but first, let's take a look at what Brodie Brazil had to say over at CSN Bay Area, where he gives "key themes" to the game.
First, he brings up the issue of experience vs. inexperience, and it's possibly the most notable:
Experience vs. Inexperience: This has already been pinpointed in initial comments by both respective head coaches. Todd McLellan's franchise has qualified for the playoffs eight straight years now, and is the only NHL team to reach the conference finals each of the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, Ken Hitchcock's franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 2002, and hasn't won a playoff game since April of 2004. The "recent experience" aspect could be a factor in terms of players knowing what to expect in a magnified compete level, and also in a 7-game series situation, where the ability to mentally overcome odds is key.
This is incredibly significant, no matter how good you are in the regular season. It's true that the Sharks lack that extra swagger in that regard since they haven't, you know, won the cup during those eight-straight appearances. Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dan Boyle and all of those guys are battle tested, even if they have their ups and downs.
On top of that, Antti Niemi, despite being young, falls under the category of "experienced," given that he led the Chicago Blackhawks to a Cup victory prior to joining the Sharks when Chicago was going through some cap troubles. Niemi had a great series (though he was helped along by Chicago's excellent defense) and wasn't too shabby for the Sharks in the playoffs last season, either.
Compromising the St. Louis system: It's clear the Blues earned the second seed in the Western Conference with their defensive play. Not only slowing teams through the neutral zone, but also in front of their own blue paint. When the puck gets low in their d-zone, forwards collapse and help out the goaltender in "protecting the house". If the Sharks and Todd McLellan can successfuly strategize and execute a plan to counter this system, they will win the series. St. Louis does not show the goal scoring potential to keep up with San Jose -- should this series become an offensive shootout.
That's all well and good, but I actually disagree to an extent - the last bit. St. Louis does have the goal scoring potential to keep up with San Jose, given the spotty defense of the Sharks and the on-again, off-again play from Niemi. In fact, this ties in well with the above statement - if the experience does end up playing a factor, then Brazil's statement will hold true, to an extent.
The extent being that if Niemi is on his 'A'-game, then yes, the Blues don't really have that extra offensive pop to put the puck in net. But if he's not, the Blues probably have a solid chance of keeping up with the Sharks offensively. Either way, it's probably not going to be an offensively-charged game.
There's two other themes (even if they're a couple days old) and should make for some solid reading heading into Thursday's matchup.