Can Sharks keep momentum in playoffs?

April 9, 2012

The No. 2 vs. No. 7 match-up of the Western Conference quarterfinals is a familiar battle. The San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues have faced off three times since the Sharks came into the league in 1991.

In fact, had St. Louis managed to win the Presidents' Trophy this season and had the Sharks finished eighth, we would have been in for an exact reboot of the 1999-2000 first round series.

Back then, the upstart Sharks knocked off the top-seeded Blues in seven games.

This time around, however, is nothing like 2000.


Lower-seeded San Jose isn't a typical bottom seed. Many had the Sharks penciled in as a top-two seed for the fifth consecutive season.

St. Louis, on the other hand, was thought of by many to be a playoff bubble team, not a division winner.

Both teams are facing unfamiliar circumstances.

Starting the postseason on the road has the Sharks swimming in relatively uncharted waters. San Jose hasn't begun the playoffs without home ice since the 2006-07 season, when they were the five seed taking on the Nashville Predators.

Meanwhile, the youthful Blues squad has limited playoff experience outside of veterans Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins and Scott Nichol. And this young group will now have to deal with the expectations and pressure of being a high seed.

However, if you ask Cup winner and Sharks alternate captain Dan Boyle, playoff experience may be overrated.

"I'm not a huge believer in that," chimed the defenseman when asked about the difference in experience between the two clubs. "They obviously don't have as much experience across the board as we do but I don't think that's a big factor."

In fact it may not be any factor when you consider the experience of veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock, and playoff veterans like Arnott and Langenbrunner. It's highly unlikely for San Jose to have any edge based on the old "been there, done that" argument.

Where San Jose may hold an advantage is in the fact that they are playing better hockey to end the regular season. The Sharks rolled off seven wins in their final nine games down the stretch. St. Louis meanwhile lost their hold on the No. 1 seed and chance at home ice throughout the playoffs by winning just four of their final 11.

St. Louis may have swept the four regular-season games between the two clubs, but given the manner and timing of those games (one in early October, two decided solely by 5-on-3 power play goals) you can really throw those out the window.

Furthermore, the Blues have yet to see the latest version of the Sharks, who have finally found an ability to roll all four lines. In the final contest between the two teams in the regular season, San Jose essentially benched its fourth line for 40 minutes of that game.

With the up-and-down regular season behind them, rugged winger Ryane Clowe likes where his Sharks team is at.

"We're playing at an elite level right now. The big factor is everyone's going, we're showing our depth. [If] you're on the outside looking in you might have thought this is a fragile team or something because we're in a unique position. But that quiet confidence has [always] been there. Especially now with everyone going, we're winning, we're beating good teams, we're playing at a high level, you have got to be confident about that. The fact we're starting out on the road, I don't think it's a bad thing, I think guys look forward to that."

San Jose may be entering the playoffs hot but St. Louis isn't a division winner by accident. The Blues have two elite goaltenders in Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. Combine excellent netminding with a shut-down system under Hitchcock and the Blues understand how to win.

Almost immediately after Hitchcock took over, the Blues took off. Throughout most of the season it was a widely held thought across NHL circles that the Blues were in fact the best team in the league in the true sense of the word "team." Their players play within themselves and don't make too many mistakes. They can certainly frustrate teams like San Jose into playing a "boring" brand of hockey.

Time and time again we hear opponents of Hitchcock's teams reply, "that's Hitchcock hockey" when asked why a particular game was rather dull for the spectators.

And that certainly could spell trouble for this Sharks team, which has historically struggled against teams that can clog the neutral zone and turn the game into a slow, grinding type game. Many will argue that the Vancouver Canucks would have been a better matchup for San Jose.

That said, the key to this series, (as it is in most NHL games) is which team will score first. The winning percentage of teams who score first in hockey is historically higher compared to other sports and in this series in particular it will play an even bigger role.

With the contrast in styles, dictating the tempo of the game is paramount and getting off to a strong start and scoring first will make all the difference in the world.

The Blues score first and they can dictate the style with their methodical ways and strong forecheck. Then they can wait and capitalize on San Jose mistakes with the Sharks having to play catch-up.

But if the Sharks can get out to a lead, St. Louis will be forced to open up its game to an extent and the Blues do not want to put that dangerous San Jose power play on the ice.

If that happens frequently, the Blues could be hitting the golf courses fairly quickly.

While playoff hockey is indeed unpredictable, it would be surprising to see the team that scores first lose even once in this series.

Sharks head coach Todd McLellan noted the importance of getting out of the gate quickly:

"We know there will be energy in that building. And their [St. Louis'] start will come from that. We'll have to play that 10 minute game and then go from there. Playing with the lead is great to say it but you have to go out and earn it against a team that doesn't give up much."

Prediction: Sharks in six.