The St. Louis Blues continue their healthy dose of deja vu from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a Western Conference Final showdown against the San Jose Sharks. In 2016, a dominant and admittedly exciting Sharks roster trumped the Blues in six games on their way to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
This year, things are looking to shape up much different. The Blues are one of the hottest teams in the league, coming off of a dominant end to their second-round series against the Dallas Stars. On the flip side, San Jose has looked ready to collapse in both series thus far, clawing their way towards the Conference Final. They’ve made it to round three on the back of a very strict, fundamentally-sound game plan. Today, we’ll breakdown their strengths and what the Blues need to do to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970.
Breaking Down the Sharks Game Plan
The Sharks follow a strict system in the offensive zone. They do whatever they can to get the puck into the weak-side corner and then set up their forwards very precisely. One chases the puck into the corner, often warding off two defenders in the process. The other two forwards will take their spots both in front of, and behind, the net respectively. From there, the team simply cycles the puck clockwise, until the opposing defense ends up out of position.
This is a 16U coach’s fantasy. The Sharks beautifully follow the fundamentals of cycling the puck around the zone and it has worked wonders for them. They use this constant cycling of the puck to try and open up one of two passing options. It’s very rare that they aren’t able to find either, to the point that their forecheck has very little alternative to either play.
Their favorite of the two plays is to have the man in the corner pass the puck to the point, typically off the boards. The puck travels up to a mix of Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, or Marc-Edouard Vlasic waiting for it. From there, the defenseman in question takes a hard shot towards the net. This is where the aforementioned net-front presence comes in, with a lot of the Sharks forwards showing an uncanny ability to either tip the puck or corral the rebound. These forwards also do a great job of screening the goalie, making the odds of the first shot simply going in fairly high. This play results in a significant amount of goals. Through the team’s 14 playoff games so far, star defenseman Karlsson has 12 assists simply because this play has proved so effective.
If rotating the puck up to the defense isn’t an option, the Sharks will instead move the puck from the corner to the man waiting behind the net. Against Colorado, this system worked great as most Avalanche players would chase into the corner. This left the man in front of the net wide-open more-often-than-not. If he wasn’t open, the player behind the net, now with the puck, would simply skate in front for a wide-open shot. This latter option is a favorite of Timo Meier, one of the team’s best shooters.
Like mentioned, the Sharks abuse these two plays. They spark the team’s five-on-five offense and have led to an overwhelmingly large amount of the team’s scoring. So much so that the plays are even replicated on the team’s power-play, to much success.
How to Stop It
Fortunately, it’s not a hard thing to stop if the defending team can stay disciplined. With the Sharks keeping the puck mainly in the corner or along the boards, there isn’t much of a threat until the defense chases out of position and passing or shooting lanes are opened.
If Blues players can manage to lock down the middle of the ice and the blue-line, the Sharks offensive prowess becomes relatively obsolete. This isn’t a hard thing to do as long as Blues players recognize the plays and rely solely on their positioning. This lock-down would force San Jose to try to battle their way to the dangerous areas of the ice, something that a strong and conservative defense will make very difficult.
Unfortunately, the Blues haven’t been the best about closing down the middle of the ice through their season. There isn’t much change needed to shut down the Sharks game plan but it’s still a task that St. Louis hasn’t handled well. If the defense can tighten up, they’ll force the Sharks to rely solely on fastbreaks for most of their scoring, something the Blues have defended just fine through two series so far.
San Jose has its fair share of star power, with this post-season being no exception. Five players have more than 10 points through the team’s first 14 playoff games, three more than the Blues have. These five players have led the charge for San Jose, with every aspect of play running through them. They also have Joe Pavelski, who has six points in the eight games he’s managed to play, and Kevin Labanc, who has recorded six points in 14 games. With the aforementioned system in the offensive zone in mind, it’s easy to understand just how these players impact the team’s play.
Burns, who has 14 points, and Karlsson, who has 12, are crucial players for the Sharks. Their shots are what make the Sharks cycling ability so lethal. When the team rotates the puck to the blue-line, Karlsson or Burns are often there to rifle it towards the net. This is the spark to many of the team’s scoring opportunities.
Tomas Hertl and Pavelski are the ones tasked with hanging out in front of the net. Pavelski has some of the best hand-eye coordination in the league and finds a way to tip any shot into the net, while Hertl is noticeably strong and quick enough to bury any loose puck that comes close to the net. The two combine to make San Jose one of the strongest net-front teams in the league.
The others, including Logan Couture and Timo Meir and Labanc, are surprisingly versatile. They are all able to work from both behind the net and in the corner very well. A mix of great shooting abilities and great playmaking helps propel their game, although Labanc and Couture prefer passing whereas Meier relies on his shot. The Sharks entire offense circles around these players and their ability to both make great plays in tight areas and reliably score when given the chance.
How to Stop It
Fortunately for the Blues, these seven players make up the bulk of the team’s top lines, leaving a lot to be desired from the rest. While there’s no way to stop this group when they’re hot, they take quite a bit of time to heat up. This was most noticeable in the series against the Vegas Golden Knights, as the Knights were able to shut down the Sharks when five-on-five.
This could allow the Blues a small opportunity to completely shut the Sharks down. If St. Louis can dominate the game from the opening puck drop in each game, the Sharks will have a very difficult time getting anything going. This isn’t abnormal for the Blues. They’ve made it evident that they have the ability to absolutely control a game multiple times through the playoffs, including Game 6 against the Winnipeg Jets and both Games 6 and 7 against Dallas.
This is where the Blues have the upper-hand. The St. Louis offense has been dominant in recent games and will be facing a Sharks defense that has been anything but. The best way to describe the Sharks defensive setup is simply organized chaos. They form a sort of arch, or sideways umbrella, around the middle of the zone. The strong-side winger and strong-side defenseman will pressure the opposing puck carrier along the boards. Meanwhile, the remaining three Sharks stand around the slot simply waiting for something to happen. This is a great system when simply looking at fundamentals but isn’t fit for the NHL. It leaves a lot of options open around the edges of the zone, mainly above the faceoff circles. For a team with good shooting and fast players, this is a gift.
This was evident in the series against Vegas. The Sharks were left running around like chickens with their heads cut off, as Vegas passed the puck around the zone and waited patiently with their shooting. This patience, combined with quick shots from high in the zone, was crucial for the Golden Knights early success in the series.
How to Take Advantage of This
The Blues have progressively started including their defense more, as well as allowing players like David Perron and Vladimir Tarasenko to work higher in the zone. This has allowed for a lot of great shots from places that the Sharks current gameplan doesn’t defend.
The Blues are only getting better at this, too, made evident by their Game 7 against Dallas. They hammered Stars goalie Ben Bishop with shots from the point that game, a big factor in what was an overall dominant performance.
Replicating this great shooting will be a huge factor in the Blues success over San Jose. The Sharks current defense will give the Blues shooters a lot of opportunities to score from far-out in the zone. A hefty amount of shots will also undoubtedly phase Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who was fairly inconsistent over the regular season.
In the End
Overall, the Blues have a challenge ahead of them. Yet, the Sharks made very few changes to their game plan between the first two rounds. This makes things very predictable for the Blues. If St. Louis can both adjust to a predictable Sharks forecheck that has absolutely dominated the league, and a Sharks defense that’s been very lackluster, this could be a very easy series. Yet, changes will be needed to be made to guarantee this. We’ll see if those changes come to fruition when the puck drops for Game 1 at 7 p.m. Saturday night.