Tomorrow night the Sharks and Blues will renew their playoff rivalry in the Western Conference Finals. The teams will be meeting for the sixth time in the playoffs with the Sharks holding a 3-2 series lead and having won the only other Western Conference Final in 2016. Interestingly, the teams have alternated series with the Sharks winning the 1st, 3rd and 5th meetings. The Blues won the 2nd and 4th which might suggest they should take the 6th. Two of the series went five games, two six games and one seven games so the trend suggests a seven game series.
If you are trying to draw some conclusions from the Sharks 2-1-0 (1 OT win) record this season against the Blues, doing so might appear to be a fool’s errand.
In November, the teams traded 4-0 shutouts but both games involved the teams’ backup goaltenders, Chad Johnson and Aaron Dell and the Blues loss was without Jaden Schwartz. In March, the Blues lost to the Sharks 3-2 but they were without Vladimir Tarasenko and David Perron and had Jake Allen in net while the Sharks were without Erik Karlsson. Game One will be the 1st time that Jordan Binnington faces the Sharks.
In the 2019 playoffs, the Blues and Sharks are neck and neck on the power play, 11th and 10th respectively, both down from their regular season spots of 10th and 6th. The Sharks penalty kill is 9th while the Blues is 12th.
Much like the regular season, the Blues have been good in goals against per game, 6th while the Sharks have struggled, 11th out of 16 teams. Also, like the regular season, the Sharks have been good in goals per game,, 3rd, while the Blues have struggled a bit, ranking 10th out of 16.
Both teams limit shot with the Blues allowing the 3rd fewest in the playoffs and the Sharks 6th fewest. Both teams were in the top four in the regular season. The Blues are 7th in shots for per game this playoff season while the Sharks are 10th.
Minutes may eventually become a factor for the Sharks as Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlassic, Karlsson and Justin Braun are averaging 100 minutes per game. The Blues top four of Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester and Vince Dunn are averaging only around 87 minutes a game.
So far this playoffs, the Blues have 15 players who have scored while only 12 Sharks have.
Shark players’ success against the Blues
Joe Thornton has been great in his career, averaging 1.04 points per game in the regular season (0.10 higher than his career average) and 1.09 in the playoffs (0.32 better than his playoff average).
Logan Couture is another Sharks forward to steps up in the playoffs, increasing his points per game average from 0.77 to 0.86 with an even higher playoff average against the Blues at a point a game. Tomas Hertl does as well, going from 0.60 in the regular season to 0.72 in the playoffs and 0.83 against the Blues in the playoffs.
Joe Pavelski is more curious as his point per game average dips from 0.79 to 0.53 in the playoffs but he has average 0.82 against the Blues in playoffs. Timo Meier and Evander Kane perform similar to their career averages when they face the Blues.
Burns, Karlsson and Vlasic all have struggled against the Blues, posting point averages against the Blues that are less than their career averages. Karlsson has the biggest differential with 0.83 points per game in his career regular seasons but only 0.60 against the Blues.
In net, Martin Jones is 5-4 with a 2.00 goals against average and a 91.9% save percentage during the regular season against the Blues. His playoff statistics against the Blues are similar, going 4-2 with a 2.22 goals against average and a 92.0% save percentage.
Blues players’ success against the Sharks
Much like the Sharks defense, a number of Blues forwards have struggled against their counterparts. Tarasenko averages 0.07 points per game less than his career average. Worse than that, his playoff point per game average against the Sharks is half his career playoff average. Tarasenko’s points against the Sharks in the playoffs were two throw away goals at the end of the elimination game, well after the result was effectively decided.
Ryan O’Reilly’s playoff average against the Sharks s 0.17, significantly less than his 0.62 overall playoff average. Brayden Schenn’s regular season average against the Sharks is 1/3 of his career average, 0.21 compared to 0.63. Robert Thomas is still seeking his 1st point against the Sharks.
Pat Maroon has enjoyed a lot of regular season success against the Sharks, 0.74 point per game average as compared to his 0.46 career average, but has struggled against them in the playoffs where his average dips to 0.17, less than 1/3 of his overall playoff average.
Perron has enjoyed strong playoff success against the Sharks, doubling his playoff point per game average to 0.82. Dunn and Pietrangelo have elevated their play against the Sharks having a better point per game average against the Sharks than their career averages.
Comparison of the 2016 and 2019 Teams
The Blues are generating more shots, suppressing more shots, and allowing fewer goals with a bigger goal differential even with worse performing special teams.
The Sharks on the other hand are scoring less per game even though they are generating more shots. They are allowing almost a third of a goal more per games while allowing more shots and their power play efficiency has fallen about 25% while their penalty kill is slightly improved.
For the Blues, Schwartz, and Tarasenko are key forwards returning. Schwartz has increased his playoff production by 20% while Tarasenko has fallen 50%.
Paul Stastny has been replaced with O’Reilly with similar statistics. David Backes has been replaced with Brayden Schenn with a decrease in production of about 50%. Maroon has taken a similar role as Troy Brouwer though his production has been about half. Jori Lehtera and Patrik Berglund have been replaced with Tyler Bozak and Perron with similar production.
On defense, Pietrangelo’s production has ramped up approximately 70% while Parayko is at Kevin Shattenkirk levels and Bouwmeester and Dunn have moved up to 2016 Parayko levels.
For the Sharks, Pavelski, Thornton, Couture, and Hertl return as key components of the series. Pavelski and Thornton are three years older and declining. Pavelski was down 0.10 points per game in the regular season and 0.20 in the playoffs while Thornton was down 0.30 points per game in the regular season and down 0.41 in the playoffs (almost half of his playoff production level).
Couture is still performing well and Hertl has improved since 2016, increasing his regular season points per game from 0.57 to 0.96 and his playoff ratio from 0.55 to 1.00.
Joel Ward and Patrick Marleau and their combined 1.08 points per game are gone, replaced by Kane and Gustav Nyquist who have combined for 1.07 points per game this playoff season. Meier and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Labanc make the 2019 version of the Sharks much more dangerous. Meier is averaging 0.71 points per game in the playoffs while Labanc is averaging 0.43.
Of course, the addition of Karlsson may be the biggest upgrade for the Sharks, replacing Paul Martin. Karlsson has 12 assists in 14 playoff games. Burns is still averaging a point a game though with a higher goals per game ratio while Vlassic is still averaging half a point a game but also with a much higher goals per game ratio.
While Jones has been better lately, the goalie’s save percentage has decreased from 92.3% in 2016 to 91% in 2019.
Review of 2016 Western Conference Finals
The Blues opened the series with a 2-1 home win, scoring a power play goal and being perfect on the penalty kill. Hertl had the loan Sharks goal while none of the Blues scorers are still with the team. The Sharks soundly beat the Blues 4-0 in game two with two power play goals from Burns and stopping all six Blues power plays. In the two games at home, the Blues were lucky to win one.
The Blues lost game three 3-0 as the Blues rookies made costly giveaways and their veterans kept hitting iron or the goalie’s logo. Hertl had two goals. The Blues evened the series with a 6-3 win with goals from players no longer with the team other than Pietrangelo. Special teams keyed the win with two power play goals and a perfect penalty kill.
The Blues would lose games five and six by a combined score of 11 to 5, giving up 27 shots in each game though this included a lot of empty net goals. Poor goaltending and very questionable officiating put the Blues in too big of a hole to climb out of in game five, losing by a goal once you adjust for empty net goals. In game six, the Blues were down four before they scored, never really in the game beyond the middle of the 2nd period.
Poor goaltending, some undisciplined play and rookie mistakes doomed the Blues in 2016. These are three areas that have been greatly improved so far in the 2019 playoffs. Blues fans hope this continues in the upcoming series.
I expect another close, tight series that my heart says will go to the Blues in six or seven games.
NHL Champions for Charity Playoff Edition
In what I hope becomes a Hockeybuzz tradition, Hockeybuzz Sharks blogger Steve Palumbo
and I placed a wager on the series. If the Blues win, Steve has agreed to make a donation to the Gateway Area Multiple Sclerosis Society
(@mssociety on twitter) whose mission is help each person affected by MS in St. Louis address the challenges of living with MS. They help by raising funds for cutting-edge research, driving change through advocacy, facilitating professional education and providing programs and services that empower people with MS and their families to move their lives forward. If the Sharks win, I will donate to the Hydrocephalus Association
(@HydroAssoc on twitter) whose mission is to connect individuals to larger communities that can provide support and understanding, to educate national and state policymakers, the medical community, and the general population, and to advance treatment and eventually find a cure for Hydrocephalus.
I hope that our wagers will inspire players and fans to pledge donations for each win their team makes in the NHL playoffs.
NHL Champions for Charity Regular Season
Given that the Predators pulled out the division title, all be it not without some controversial officiating in the last couple of games, Best Buddies Tennessee https://www.bestbuddies.org/tennessee/
is the beneficiary. Best Buddies Tennessee is dedicated to establishing a volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As a side note, I recently got to experience a Best Buddies even in the St. Louis area that was led by the Eureka high school football team. It was a lot of fun and brought a lot of joy to those involved.
It’s a great day for hockey.