Three Keys to Victory: San Jose Sharks at Blues

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The Blues play tonight at the Scottrade Center, opening up their first-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. Of the potential draws the Blues could have pulled, the Sharks would seem to be the most favorable for the Note; the Blues absolutely dominated San Jose this year, winning all four matchups in the regular season. 

Even beyond the Blues' record against the Sharks this year, though, the Sharks are one of the less threatening teams coming into the playoffs just in general. A team like the Los Angeles Kings, despite being a lower seed than the Sharks and being severely challenged offensively, are much more frightening, simply because of the presence of a goalie like Jonathan Quick. The Sharks have plenty of still-potent offensive talent, but when it comes to the playoffs, goaltending is king. 

You want proof, just ask the Blues' current starting goalie. The Montreal Canadiens weren't good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs back in 2010, but that didn't stop Jaroslav Halak from putting them on his back and carrying them past the hugely favored Washington Capitals all the same. 

Speaking of Jaro, he just might be featured in one of our three keys to victory for the Blues over the Sharks. You'll have to wait until after the break to find out for sure, though. 

The Blues cruised into the playoffs, having ridden the strength of unbelievable play in January and February to the top of the NHL standings and then coasting the last couple weeks. The Sharks had to fight to the very end just to make it in. What kind of intensity that translates to on each side will be perhaps the single biggest thing to watch. If the Blues come out looking like the team they were for most of the season under Ken Hitchcock, they should have a very good chance of beating the Sharks without a terrible struggle. If they look like the team that seemingly sleepwalked their way into the playoffs, losing their chance at both the President's Trophy and number one seed in the Western Conference, I fear we'll see yet another early exit by our boys in blue. 

Key #1 -- Slowing Down the Sharks 
San Jose wasn't a great team this year. They were a good team, but not a great one. But what they do still have is great talent on the offensive side of the puck. Joe Thornton is getting up there in age, to be sure, and he's no longer the 100-point player he was for a couple of years there, but Jumbo Joe can still have a major effect on a hockey game anytime he laces up his skates. Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are both still premium offensive talents. The Sharks don't play great defense by any means, but they can still light up the scoreboard if you aren't very careful. Hitchcock's defense should be on full display in this series, clogging the lanes, hassling the San Jose forwards, and just generally taking away the open looks offenses need to operate. If that doesn't happen, though, and the Sharks get the room they need to create, things could turn against the Blues in a hurry. 

Key #2 -- Keeping the Lines Straight 
Ken Hitchcock has been experimenting with his lines lately. It's the sort of thing plenty of coaches do whenever their team is already in the playoffs, of course; fiddling around with different combinations of players can lead to a better understanding of what works. (And what doesn't.) Now that the games have such elevated meaning, though, it's time for Hitch to set his lines and keep with them. I won't go so far as to say what those lines should be; I assume the coach knows better than I whether David Backes should be flanked by T.J. Oshie and David Perron or if some other combination would be better. But the time has come to stop fiddling, no matter what exact construction they decide to go with. 

Key #3 -- Jaro's Time to Shine 
Jaroslav Halak last played in the postseason in 2010, when he took his Canadiens on that magical run to the Eastern Conference finals, beating the President's Trophy-winning Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins -- who just so happened to be the defending Stanley Cup champions -- along the way. It was that performance, in fact, that got Halak shipped out of Montreal, as he raised his value so high the Canadiens couldn't pass up the chance to capitalize and move him. 

The Blues are built on limiting defense, forcing teams into taking bad shots and keeping them off the scoreboard. The defensemen have their part to play, of course; the quality of shots they allow opponents is perhaps the single biggest factor in the team's success or failure on a given night. However, when it comes to postseason hockey, goalies are the wild card. A goalie on a great run can take a team deep almost single-handedly; the examples are too numerous to list. Conversely, a soft goal or two can also spell the difference between victory and defeat all too easily in a playoff series, where everything takes on such magnified importance. 

There may be no single more important player for the Blues than Jaroslav Halak right now; not only is he the number one goalie, but the number two may still be dealing with a physical issue. Brian Elliott has been cleared to play and is said to 100% healthy, but only time will tell on that front. I'm not panicking, but I'm still a little nervous about Elliott. 

The good news is Halak has done nothing but kick ass against the Sharks this year, with a .977 save percentage number that is almost hard to believe. If he plays anything like he has the rest of the season in his series, Jaro could mean the difference between victory and defeat all by himself. He has a record in the postseason that's tough to argue with, a brilliant regular season just behind him, and has dominated the Blues' opponent this year in a pretty ridiculous way. Jaroslav Halak in this series is almost enough to make me feel good about the Blues' chances. 

Almost. 

It is still the playoffs, after all, and these are still the Blues. We've seen this story before. 

The Blues should win this series. They're a much better team than the Sharks. They dominated the Sharks in the regular season. So that's what I'm predicting. The Blues will take the series four games to one. 

Now I'm going to go crawl into a bottle of something and wait for it to be over. 
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