After both surviving the second round in seven games, the Blues and Sharks face off in the Conference Finals both still hoping to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. For the Sharks, this is pretty much where they expected to be after adding Erik Karlsson to an already strong core during the offseason.
The Blues also made waves during the offseason. They were active in free agency, bringing in players such as Tyler Bozak and Patrick Marron, as well as trading for top center Ryan O’Reilly. Many expected them to return to the playoffs after missing by just a single point last season but they stumbled big time out of the gates.
As of January 2, they were dead last in the NHL with one of the league’s worst offense. Their goalies combined for a .901 save percentage, 5th-worst in the league. Then, Jordan Binnington happened. He got his first career start, a 3-0 win against the Flyers, and never looked back. He then won 13 of his first 15 starts, limiting the opposition to two goals or lower 13 times. Since he took over on January 7, no team scored more points than the Blues
Both teams have had a very different path, but their key to success is the same: a strong possession game and outstanding goaltending.
Puck Possession Battle
During the regular season, the Blues and Sharks were top 10 teams in both offensive zone possession time and scoring chances off the cycle. In a league that’s seemingly getting quicker ever year, these two teams prefer to turn up the pressure by cycling the puck endlessly in the offensive zone, trying to find an opening and tiring defenders.
For the Blues, this was even more true in their Round 2 matchup against the Stars. Dallas got most of its offense off the rush and even won the slot shot battle 99-91, but the Blues essentially lived in the Stars zone and refused to leave, dominating the zone time in every single game.
It should come as no surprise to see that the Blues led all teams in Round 2 with 159.6 pass completions in the offensive zone, well ahead of the second-place Hurricanes (125.5) and almost lapping the Stars total (92.7). All that cycling helped Jaden Schwartz take the playoff lead with four deflection goals.
Speaking of deflections, no team redirected more shots on net than the Sharks in the regular season and will get Joe Pavelski back in the lineup for (knock on wood) the full series after he missed most of Round 2. Pavelski is arguably the league’s best at deflecting shots and he has been for quite some time
Pavelski adds another net-front option to a team that’s already loaded with them. Timo Meier (15th), Tomas Hertl (26th), Gustav Nyquist (40th), and Melker Karlsson (46th) also finished top 50 in deflected shots.
As mentioned earlier, Jordan Binnington’s performance since getting the starting gig essentially saved the Blues season and his strong play has continued in the postseason. The rookie may only have 43 starts to his name between the regular season and the postseason, but he looks completely unfazed by the bright lights of the playoffs.
Martin Jones didn’t have as good of a regular season and was very up and down in Round 1, but he bounced back against the Avalanche. He kept his team in games with highlight-reel saves and robbed Colorado’s big guns multiple times.
Not surprising to see both goalies near the top of our actual to expected goals against leaderboard.
The Sharks and Blues may have taken different paths to where they are now, but they are very similar teams. Both have some of the best possession game in the NHL and their starters are playing at their very best. They say the best defense is a good offense, this saying fits this series like a glove. Whoever is able to dominate the possession game on offense will also take away their opponent’s biggest strength.