SAN JOSE, Calif. — The similarities between 2016 and 2019 for the Blues and San Jose Sharks are more than minimal, considering there are 11 players on each roster that will be part of both rosters when the puck drops on Saturday.
But when the Western Conference Final starts with Game 1 on Saturday at SAP Center (7 p.m.; NBC, KMOX 1120-AM), there will be plenty of noticeable differences between the Blues and Sharks, who will meet in the conference final for the second time in four years.
“It’s tough to compare players two years later, three years later,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said. “I know the core of both teams is probably the same, but you’ve got a different coach on the other side [Craig Berube], you’ve got [Jordan] Binnington.
“The one thing I look at when I look at St. Louis is I think they’ve done a good job of integrating some of their young guys, impact young guys into their lineup. I think you’ve got two totally different teams than you saw two or three years ago, other than a lot of the core players are the same.”
San Jose won in six games in 2016 to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history before losing in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blues, in search of their first final appearance since 1970, would like to turn the tides this time around, but it won’t be easy.
The Blues reached this point by eliminating conference foes Winnipeg (six games) and most recently Dallas (seven games). San Jose got here by winning a pair of Game 7’s, against Vegas in the first round overcoming a 3-1 series deficit and 3-0 deficit in the third period of Game 7, and then winning in seven games against Colorado.
Both teams play four lines balanced, both teams rely on a strong defensive group, with back end players that like to filter into the offense and experience to get through the tough challenges.
“To say differences, I don’t think there’s a lot,” Blues center Brayden Schenn said. “Both teams are playing tight defensively, getting scoring from the back end, all four lines. Teams are built the same … To name one thing off the top of my head, I think it’s hard. It’s going to be tight defensively, a tight matchup. Both buildings are tough to play in and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Blues are going to have to be mindful of San Jose’s blue liners, particularly Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, both who like to make an impact on the offensive end. Burns (14 points) is second in the league behind Boston’s Brad Marchand in playoff points (15).
But that’s OK, because the Blues had the challenge of containing Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien and Dallas’ John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen.
“There’s some similar aspects in terms of Burnzie and Karlsson but they’re a little bit different, different in the way they play but again, Winnipeg had Byfuglien and I think every team is built now that can score from the back end,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Obviously those guys in Dallas were pretty good. They did a great job creating that offense but it seems like a lot when talking over their team were pretty similar. You can’t really defend those guys with one or two guys. Those guys are elusive, they’re quick, they can make plays.”
Then there’s some of San Jose’s top offensive forwards, like Couture, Joe Pavelski, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane and Timo Meier. But that also will not deter the Blues, who went up against Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine of the Jets, and Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov of Dallas.
“We’ve obviously played some high offensive teams,” Pietrangelo said. “We played that top line in Winnipeg pretty well, Dallas same thing. They generate a lot from their back end. This is not going to be a one-line shutdown. This is going to be a team that can score throughout their lineup. We’re going to have to find a way as a collective group to chip in defensively because they score from every angle. I think if we play in the offensive zone like we’ve been doing, controlling the game, it seems like it’s the best way for us to shut down those big lines.”
Home ice disadvantage? Not so fast. The Blues are 5-1 on the road in these playoffs and outside of Game 4 at Dallas, have been solid on enemy ice, and it’s because they don’t allow the opposition to dictate pace.
“The key for us is to just focus on the style of game that we play, our brand, play tight, eliminate their time and space and play them physically and hard,” Blues forward Alexander Steen said.
What the Sharks should expect is the Blues to make this a physical series, one in which every inch of the ice will be difficult to get to. Dallas was able to early in the series play a free-style game, one in which they had some success. But when the Blues buckled down, began to chip and check and close gaps in the neutral zone, it became increasingly difficult for the Stars to get to their game.
Pavelski said the Sharks can play both ways. Whoever can get to their game first should be an edge.
“Each team’s built differently,” Pavelski said. “I think our team’s built where we’ve got many layers. We can play a physical series or we can play a little bit more skilled series as well. But there is a certain way we want to play the game and we want to dictate in certain areas.
“St. Louis is a good team, and they are physical and they are physical and they’ve got good size to them. It should be a little bit more physical.”
The Blues have found that balance of positive physicality and that of running around on the ice with negative results, and they know that.
“We have guys that can be physical, but we can’t be running out of position or things like that,” Blues forward David Perron said. “Otherwise you spend too much energy for no reason.”