NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Western Conference Finals Preview
Brett Talley breaks down the Western Conference Finals featuring the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues.
The Western Conference Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will begin tonight in San Jose as the Sharks host the St. Louis Blues. The Sharks are -135 favorites in the series. The Sharks finished second in the Pacific Division with 101 points, while the Blues finished third in the Central with 99 points.
If you’ve watched a single Blues game this postseason, you’ve undoubtedly heard about how they turned their season around. On January 2 they were dead last in the league, yet here they are in the final four. Their turn around didn’t really start until February when they won their first 10 games after the All-Star break.
From February 2 to the end of the regular season St. Louis dominant. At 5v5 (score and venue adjusted) they were sixth in the league in CF% (Corsi For percentage) and second in the league (and first in the West) in percentage of the high danger scoring chances generated in their games (HDCF%). Said another way, they generated the fourth most high danger chances and allowed the seventh fewest.
While St. Louis is arguably the hottest team in the league over the last few months, the Sharks have been pretty damn good themselves in that time frame. From February 2 on the Sharks were seventh in CF% and eighth in HDCF%. Over the course of the full season they were first in CF% (St. Louis was 10th) and fourth in HDCF% (St. Louis was second). San Jose deserves credit for being consistently above average at 5v5 all season.
When it comes to special teams, these teams are evenly matched. When you add up power play and penalty kill success rates, San Jose finished fourth in the league at 104.42 percent and St. Louis was eighth at 102.57 percent. San Jose is a bit better with the power play, and St. Louis is better on the kill.
The real difference between these teams (other than San Jose’s year-long 5v5 excellence) is goaltending. Jordan Binnington got his first start for the Blues on January 7. To that point St. Louis ranked third-worst in save percentage. San Jose was just as bad as they ranked just one spot ahead of St. Louis in SV%. From January 7 on, the Blues ranked fourth in SV% while san Jose ranked 30th.
Binnington finished the season 12th among 67 qualified goalies in Goals Saved Above Average while San Jose’s Martin Jones ranked 66th. Jones has been slightly better in the playoffs with a .910 SV% compared to his .896 SV% from the regular season, but Binnington is still outplaying him in the playoffs with a .915 SV%.
Moving on to the individual matchups, it’s not surprising that the teams in the conference finals both go three deep with their forward lines. San Jose’s lines are a bit more settled than St. Louis’, but here are their most used line combinations from their last three games courtesy of Left Wing Lock.
San Jose’s best possession line in the playoffs has been the Logan Couture line. Their best defensive pair has been Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. That fivesome plays a lot together both at home and on the road. If picking Blues skaters in a DFS contest, you’d like to pick Blues that won’t see much of that quintet at even. At home the Couture line tends to see the opposing top line, so the Tarasenko line will draw the tough matchup there. They may well draw the same matchup primarily in St. Louis, but Ryan O’Reilly’s line should take a share of the shifts at home against the Couture line.
Both of St. Louis’ top six lines are excellent possession units, so the Couture line may draw tougher matchups all series long. Of the top six lines for the Sharks, Tomas Hertl’s line could be poised to do more damage. The Blues are strong up and down the lineup in terms of possession, but if they have a weakness, it’s the heavily used defensive pair of Jay Bouwmeester and Colton Parayko. They tend to see the opposing second line in home games, which sets up well for the Hertl line, and the Hertl line saw the most of Colorado’s second D pair at home in the last series.
As for the bottom sixes, the advantage belongs to St. Louis’ third line of Tyler Bozak, Robert Thomas and Pat Maroon. That line was excellent in the series against Dallas and had a healthy nine combined points. The line also gets some run together as the second power play unit, which gives them stack appeal in DFS.
On the blue line, you know about San Jose’s stud defensemen Burns and Erik Karlsson. St. Louis has their own stud D-man in Alex Pietrangelo. If you watched Game 7 of the STL-DAL series, you know St. Louis like to run things through the point, which is why Pietrangelo was tied for the team lead in shots on goal in the series. If there’s a sneaky D-man in this series, it’s St. Louis’ Vince Dunn. Dunn can carry the puck well for a D-man and sees work on the second PP unit.
The pick: St. Louis in 6.