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Western Conference Finals Preview: Blues Try Swimming with the Sharks

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Two snake-bitten franchises square off with the right to go the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Once every 15 years something magical happens in the city of St. Louis, all of the stars align and our favorite hate to love hockey team makes the conference finals. It really is hard to believe that it has been that long since a Blues team has made it this far in the playoffs but here we are. Likewise the San Jose Sharks haven't reached a Conference Finals in a while but come on 2011 isn't that long ago. But both of these franchises have seen heartbreak in the worst forms.

The Blues blew 2-0 series leads in the first round in two straight years and than last year couldn't beat Devin Dubnyk. Going back futher, this team had the Monday Night Miracle but couldn't parlay that into a Game 7 win. And let's not forget the 3 straight Cup appearances that ended in sweeps.

Meanwhile the Sharks blew the best lead you could ever have, 3-0, against an LA team in 2014. They also were the only victim of Blues playoff success when St. Louis bounced them in 5 games back in 2012. Neither team has ever won a Stanley Cup but after this series someone will have a very good chance.

Let's take a look at what each team brings to this series.

Forwards

The Blues are an absolutely loaded team and this postseason has shown that. Obviously they are lead by superstar in the making Vladimir Tarasenko. So far in the postseason Vladi has notched 7 goals and 6 assists and although he seemed to have disappeared during the Dallas series he still managed 3 goals and 4 assists. It shows how dangerous he can be, you can have him blanketed the whole game but give him just .2 seconds alone and he can beat you. Tarasenko's defense was a bit more shaky in the second round to start but as the series wore his play stabilized.

Rookie Robby Fabbri has looked like a seasoned vet, not the 20 year old, almost man that he is. His 13 points lead all rookies on the playoffs and his vision has created many chances for Paul Stastny and Troy Brouwer. That line has been the Blues hottest in the two rounds and with Stastny winning seemingly every face-off it will be the pivotal line of the series. Brouwer has done everything the Blues needed him to do when they traded TJ Oshie last off-season, he has scored timely goals (see Game 7 against Chicago), set up his teammates and taken a rookie under his wing and shown him how to win.

David Backes is in a contract year so this is kind of a misleading season, everyone plays better in a contract year. With that said, the Blues Captain notched 4 goals in the Dallas series giving him 6 goals in this postseason which is one more than all of the goals he previously scored in his playoff career, 5. He has also been hitting everything and centering the best defensive line the Blues have seen in recent memory. Backes, Patrick Berglund and Alex Steen have shut down the likes of Jonathon Toews (0 goals), Patrick Kane (1 goal), Jamie Benn (1 goal) and Patrick Sharp (1 goal). This guy is going to get paid after this season is over.

In San Jose the stars are still there in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau but its the new wave that is finally starting to show promise.

Logan Couture leads the NHL in points in the playoffs with 17 (7 Goals and 10 assists) after having what may be considered a down year. The 27 year old finished with 36 points in the regular season but did miss 30 games during the year. His 7 goals match his playoff career high he set back in 2011. Couture has goals in three straight games and was the main catalyst in the Sharks Game 7 victory over the Nashville Predators with a three point night.

Joe Pavelski leads the NHL with 9 goals this postseason. Pavelski had a monster year putting up 38 goals and 40 assists, he has averaged 76 points the last three years. It does help that he is playing on a line with one of the best pure passers in the game in Thornton but you also have to finish those passes and Pavelski has. He is at his most deadliest on the power play where 6 of his 9 goals have come in the playoffs. With the Blues penalty kill floundering this postseason , Pavelski could be the guy who sends the Blues packing.

Joonas Donskoi ins't as flashy as Fabbri but he is quietly putting up a very solid first season in San Jose. Donskoi finished the regular season with 36 points, just one shy of Fabbri. The two are also tied for most goals by rookies in the playoffs with 3 each. But where Fabbri has started to heat up with 5 points in his last 3 games, Donskoi has just 2 assists in that same span. But that doesn't mean you can sleep on the Finnish youngster, when he is needed he produces, ask LA in the clinching game of their first round series.

Both teams have stellar forwards lines but when it comes down to it, the Blues have a slight edge. The two top lines cancel each other out, the two rookies likewise. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward are both seasoned vets who bring just enough to the games to be dangerous. Where the true divide lies is in the bottom six. Berglund, Backes, Steen, Scottie Upshall, Kyle Brodziak and Steve Ott I will take everyday over Ward, Nick Spaling, Tommy Wingels, Matt Nieto, Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson. Blues get the edge at forward.

Defense

The Blues defense has been a point of contention this year with some really good games and some really bad games. You know what your going to get out of players like Jay Bouwmeester and Kevin Shattenkirk but its the rookies playing on the back line that draw your attention.

Colton Parayko is Chris Pronger reborn. That's right I said it. Ridicule me how you want but step back and really look at this kid. He is big, 6'6" 226 pounds, he is physical and he is skillful. He may not have that nasty streak Pronger did but when you look at his overall game its impressive. 9 goals and 33 points in his rookie season is nothing to sneeze at and the +28 rating, while a touch misleading, is still damn good in the NHL. He can also lead an offensive rush and has speed to spare if he gets caught up ice.

It's kind of crazy to say this about a 26 year old but one of the elder statesmen of this team is Alex Pietrangelo. He is the calmest defensemen on the ice for every minute he is out there and that's a lot seeing as how he leads the team in TOI. Each series he and fellow mate Jay Bouwmeester are paired up against the top forwards of their opposition and time in and out they shut down that line. Playing 14 games against Benn, Sharp, Kane and Toews combined Pietrangelo is sitting at a +6 rating. That's against 4 of the top scoring forwards in the league pretty impressive.

Fear The FinSan Jose has an equally impressive defender but he doesn't have quite the name Pietrangelo does. Marc-Edward Vlasic, who is paired with Justin Braun, has developed into a shut down d-man and the pairing has been in charge of drawing the oppositions top lines. Vlasic isn't going to be scoring a ton of goals but he does have 8 assists this postseason. Pair that with a +7 rating and you can see how dangerous a second line pairing can be.

You can't talk Sharks hockey without bringing up Brent Burns. This is a guy who has done everything any team has ever asked of him, play defense, play forward, score goals, lead a power play unit and he has succeeded at all of them. Burns is also a fan favorite, if you didn't watch the All-Star Skills you should just to see him at his best. I am not a Sharks fan but Brent Burns is all right in my book. Burns was one of the Sharks points leaders this year with 75 and he has carried that success into the playoffs where he has recorded 4 goals and 11 assists, almost doubling his career numbers.

I'd like to say that the Blues have the edge at defense but San Jose clearly has something special going on at their back line. Paul Martin's career has resurfaced and the Blues are about to see what happens if they finally open the Polak Door. I don't think either team has a decided edge on defense so this is going to be a push.

Goalie

This series will come down to this position. Both Brian Elliott and Martin Jones are playing out of their minds right now and whichever one continues their streak will put his team into the Finals.

Brian Elliott has never been "The Guy" in St. Louis, passed over for Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller and most recently Jake Allen, but when Allen went down with an injury Elliott took over, literally and statistically. It started after he came off of a 10 day injury layoff and proceeded to post 3 straight shut outs and it just went from there. Elliott's career playoff numbers weren't much to write home about, sitting at a 2.42 GAA and .913 save percentage, but this year he said screw it and has totally dominated Chicago and Dallas posting a 2.29 GAA and .929 save percentage.

It hasn't just been about stopping the tough shots, Elliott has a penchant for giving up the soft goal every game but that hasn't happened but once this postseason. And when he has had to be on, he has been on. In Game 7 against Dallas, Elliott got caught behind the net and somehow got back in time to deny a wide open goal with the edge of his left leg pad. Sure it was probably luck but he has had it so far.

His opponent Martin Jones was a steal for the Sharks when they acquired him from Boston. Jones has a sparkling 2.16 goals against average and while a bit low his .918 save percentage is right at his season average. After backing up Jonathon Quick for two years, Jones has proved that he learned what it takes to win in the postseason. San Jose let Antti Niemi walk when they acquired Jones and its looking like the best decision out there as the Blues just destroyed Niemi when he was in net for Dallas.

Jones was the go to guy for the Sharks this year playing in 65 games and posting a 37-23-4 record with a 2.27 GAA and 6 shutouts. In Game 7 against Nashville he shut out the Preds for his first career playoff shutout. The Sharks did bring in James Riemer at the deadline but that seemed more like a move to give Jones time off as the playoffs approached.

On this one my bias is going to show through, Jones has the edge when it comes to GAA and that fact that he has played less games may help but Brian Elliott is playing on another level right now. This seems to be the year of Elliott and I give the edge to the Blues.

Misc

Both teams power plays have been solid this postseason with San Jose sitting at #2 at 30.9% and the Blues at 27.9% and 3rd in the league. The Blues are going to have to be really careful as they have been one of the most penalized teams in the playoffs and their penalty kill has been suspect as of late.

The Blues seem to play better when they are getting out shot as they are averaging 28.9 shots a game for and 32.9 shots against. With San Jose resembling Dallas in their speed and ability to roll four lines look for the shot totals to be very high.

San Jose has the highest goals for average this postseason putting in 3.42 goals a game while only allowing 2.33 against. St. Louis finally has a team that can score more than one goal a game in the postseason and that's going to be key in the series. Also key will be their ability to respond in games, the Blues have found a way to let the bad moments slip away and respond whether in game or by the time the next game rolls around.

The Blues have home ice for this series but that may not be a good thing. St. Louis is 3-4 at home this season while San Jose was the best road team in the regular season at 28-10-3. The problem for the Blues is that the Sharks started winning at home this postseason as well, going 5-1 in the first two rounds. For the Blues, winning two games in Chicago and three in Dallas has given them the confidence to win no matter where they play. But the Blues will really need to come out better at home because one loss at home could be all it takes for San Jose to wrestle this series away.

If this series comes down to one statistic for me, its going to be face-off wins. The Blues have one of the best face-off setups in the league and have won 50.7% of draws in the playoffs. Paul Stastny has won an unreal 58.95% of his draws so far. San Jose on the flip side has the worst face-off percentage in the league at 46.2%. If a game comes down to winning a defensive draw to seal a game, the Blues are going to take it.

Prediction

What does this all mean you ask? This series is not going to be for the fainthearted. Tons of shots, low scoring games and likely lots of overtime. The Blues have the edge at forward and goal while San Jose has a special teams and road win advantage. When it all comes down to it I see the Blues taking this in 7 games yet again. Tell me what you think in the comments below and LET"S GO BLUES!!!!!!