NHL Round Three Playoffs Preview: St. Louis vs. San Jose

Tomorrow night the Western Conference will shift West by two time zones to the Bay Area, where the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues will break their stalemate of being tied 1-1. So far, the way the last game was played, winning 4-0, the Sharks are starting to look like the stronger team going into Game 3.

If you look at their top line, they have played a more refined game, but the Blues’ Alexander Steen’s unit has also done some amazing work this playoffs, which helped keep Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Jamie Benn at bay. So many experts were wondering how this match up would play out, especially for his line when it gets matched up against the most impactful offensive trio in the playoffs who have dominated other teams.

Who are the Sharks’ deadly trio? Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, hands down are winning the matchup with the Blues’ big line of Steen, David Backes and Patrik Berglund. Thornton’s line didn’t score 5-on-5 in Game 2 but spent an impressive night mostly in the Blues’ zone.

“They’re a good line,” Pavelski said of Steen’s trio. “They’re playing hard. You’ve just got to match that intensity. You’ve got to work and support and we’ve been able to do that. You just can’t take your foot off the gas. You’ve got to stay with your game.”

The Sharks have been able to take some of the shine and sheen off Steen. Now with home ice advantage at the shark tank, the Sharks will own the last line change for Games 3 and 4, and San Jose coach Peter DeBoer will probably want to shield his top line from Steen who is one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards, to get a more favorable matchup for his guys.

But despite home ice or how well Thornton’s line has played in the opening two games, the coach might not want to change anything, and DeBoer isn’t known to chase matchups anyway. And his team is responding.

“After Game 1, there were questions about our depth and our third line, and guys responded pretty well to that,” second-line center Logan Couture said after Game 2, reiterating a statment DeBoer also made to media after their 4-0 victory about the team’s forward depth.

Centre Chris Tierney had a dynamic game on Tuesday night for San Jose, taking the challenge to win personally. It’s questionable how much offensive production the Sharks are going to get from that third line overall, but their defensive play and moves with the puck in Game 2 were near perfection. If Tierney’s third line can play either the Paul Stastny line or the Jori Lehtera line and neutralize them, then they’re half way to winning, even if that third line doesn’t score at all.

Tierney played so well in Game 2 that he has quieted the discussion about whether second-line San Jose winger Patrick Marleau should be put back into the third-line center role that he’s played most of the season. And thenm if you look closely, the Sharks’ fourth line has bite too.

Sharks center Tommy Wingels opened the scoring in Game 2 where his fourth line, along with Nick Spaling and Dainius Zubrus, played like first liners and not just because of that opening goal. They kept the Blues on their heels all night.

“I think our four lines match up as well any anybody’s,” said Zubrus. “What was said and what was talked about before the series, we didn’t pay any attention to that. I think one of our team’s strengths is depth. We have four lines that are committed to doing jobs and doing what they are supposed to. When we roll four lines, I think we match up pretty good. I think it’s important for us to keep that energy going. Our line, we got in on the offensive zone in the first period and second period we had a chance.”

Wingels said it’s important for his line to contribute offensively when it can.

“It’s very important,” Wingels said. “We talk, as a line and as a team, how as a fourth line can we be effective. Maybe most nights it’s creating energy. It’s punishing the defensemen in the offensive zone. It’s forechecking hard, winning battles, playing well defensively.

“That all being said, we have the confidence as a line that we can score. We can wear their D down. We can play in the offensive zone. [In Game 2,] I thought we did a great job of that.”

Another factor that could win the Sharks Game 3 is home cooking. San Jose has a horrible home record and was only 18-20-3 on home ice during the regular season, which is actually the worst record of any of the 16 playoff teams that entered the postseason, so they’ll be looking to redeem the Shark Tank’s magic.

They’ve done well so far by going 5-1 at home during the playoffs, which included some dominating games against the Nashville Predators in Games 5 and 7 of the second round.

Many have asked the players, ‘what changed?’

“The roles have kind of been reversed here in the playoffs,” Couture said. “It’s tough to say. SAP Center is different come playoff time. It’s full, it’s loud, it’s an intimidating building, and that definitely helps.”

If St. Louis is going to have a chance to win Game 3 they will have to avoid taking penalties which has continued to burn them. St. Louis cannot win this series unless they start to show more discipline, especially more than they did in Game 2. They cannot just give the Sharks freebie power plays which they are so effective on. San Jose will make the Blues pay, as Brent Burns did twice Tuesday night if the Blues continue to take dumb penalties.

The Los Angeles Kings learned that lesson quickly in the opening round of the playoffs, that trying to get under the Sharks’ skin won’t work, it’ll just get you in the box. San Jose has turned the other cheek in these playoffs for the most part and has not taken useless penalties nor retaliated. So the Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock should probably pull agitator Steve Ott out of the lineup for Game 3 and put more finesse in their game. The veteran winger has against other teams been very effective at driving the other team crazy, like against Dallas in the last round. But that tactic won’t work against this controlled and poised Sharks team who are looking at the prize ahead and won’t be easily sidelined.

Our Pick: Sharks over Blues, 5-3