The St. Louis Blues have done the unthinkable, coming back from being one of the worst teams in the entire league, to pushing all the way into the Western Conference Final. Now, they have a date with the San Jose Sharks, with Game 1 coming on Saturday night in California.
For the first two series, we wrote a guide to understanding the Blues for the opposing teams’ fans. Now that the Blues have reached a new plateau, it felt appropriate to do it again. Without further delay, here’s your guide to understanding your new opponent.
Season Series: Sharks 2, Blues 1
The Blues and Sharks met three times this season, with three very different results. The first meeting, on Nov. 9, was a 4-0 Blues’ victory, one of their first convincing wins of the season. Tyler Bozak, Jaden Schwartz, and Alexander Steen all had two points, and goaltender Chad Johnson (no longer with the team) had his one and only shutout with St. Louis.
Just over a week later, on Nov. 17, the tables were turned, as the Sharks beat the Blues 4-0 in San Jose. In that game, Erik Karlsson scored his very first goal in a Sharks’ uniform, and also recorded an assist. Joe Pavelski had two goals, and Evander Kane, Timo Meier, and Logan Couture all had two points. This time, the goaltender recording the shutout was Sharks’ backup Aaron Dell.
The third and final game of the season is the most significant, as both teams had finally started to resemble the contenders they were expected to be. The Sharks won that one 3-2 in overtime, thanks to two goals by Timo Meier and an overtime winner from Kevin Labanc. The goaltenders that night were Jake Allen and Martin Jones, meaning that the Sharks have yet to face Blues’ rookie goaltender and Calder Trophy finalist Jordan Binnington.
Western Conference Final 2016
It has not been very long since the Blues and Sharks last met in the postseason. In fact, they met on the same stage, the Western Conference Final, just three years ago, in 2016. The result went in the Sharks’ favor, with the series finishing 4-2.
Game 1 was really the only close game of the series. It was 1-1 through the first period, until Jori Lehtera scored a second for the Blues midway through the second period. That goal would be the last goal scored in the game, and would stand as the winner. Jones would take over the series then, recording back-to-back shutouts in a 4-0 victory in Game 2 and a 3-0 victory in San Jose in Game 3.
The Blues battled back in Game 4, taking a 6-3 victory and evening the series at 2-2. Troy Brouwer and Kyle Brodziak each had two goals, with the latter scoring the game winner. From there, though, the series was entirely in San Jose’s favor. they won Game 5 by the same score, 6-3.
The game was tied at three entering the third, but the Sharks scored three unanswered goals (two on empty nets) to seal the victory. Pavelski and Joel Ward had two goals apiece in that matchup. The final game was a dominant 5-2 performance. The Sharks led 4-0 before Vladimir Tarasenko scored his only two games of the series in the final ten minutes, but San Jose would hold on for the victory and move on to the Stanley Cup Final.
A Very Different Blues Team
Unfortunately for San Jose fans, the Blues team that you will face in 2019 is an entirely different squad than the one from 2016. Only four of the eight goal scorers from that series are still with the Blues, and one of those (Robby Fabbri) could well be a healthy scratch the entire series. The Blues are different in a number of key ways, let’s take a look at them.
Overhauled Forward Group
The summer following the Blues’ WCF failure was the beginning of a mini-rebuilding period for St. Louis. Captain David Backes left in free agency, as did veteran leader Troy Brouwer, and the team traded longtime goaltender Brian Elliott, choosing to believe that Jake Allen was their netminder of the future.
In the following years, they would make more changes. Kyle Brodziak would leave, as would Jori Lehtera. They would bring in top-six forwards via trade, such as Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly. They would also bring up young players in expanded roles, like Ivan Barbashev and Robert Thomas.
All told, only four of the 14 forwards the Blues deployed in that 2016 series are still with the team (Schwartz, Tarasenko, Fabbri, and Steen), and two of those four (Steen and Fabbri) serve primarily in fourth line roles. Now, the team’s top forwards include Schwartz, Tarasenko, O’Reilly, Schenn, Thomas, St. Louis native Patrick Maroon, and Oskar Sundqvist. It’s an entirely overhauled forward core.
Bench Boss Berube
When the Sharks and Blues last met, legendary head coach Ken Hitchcock was behind the St. Louis bench. Taking nothing away from his skills as a tactician, the team’s current interim head coach, Craig Berube (who replaced Hitchcock’s replacement, Mike Yeo) has shown an incredible ability to motivate his team.
In just the last series against the Dallas Stars, Berube motivated the Blues to accomplish something they haven’t done in five consecutive postseasons: win a Game 6 win facing elimination. Historically, the Blues have not had a lot of perseverance when their backs were against the wall, but unfortunately for the Sharks, that looks to have changed in a big way.
The arrival of Binnington has absolutely changed the look of the Blues. Four days before his Jan. 7 debut, the team was in the league’s basement, dead last in either conference. He shut out the Philadelphia Flyers on Day 1, and the rest was history.
He finished the season with a streak of incredible success, going 24-5-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and five shutouts in 32 games, and he has stayed just as hot during the postseason. Beating the Blues means beating Binnington, and no one has yet cracked that puzzle.
A Razor Thin Margin
There is genuinely no predicting this series. The Sharks have survived two Game 7s, the Blues have survived one, and neither team seems interested in leaving the playoffs anytime soon. Moneypuck has given the Blues a slight edge in winning the Stanley Cup, but that could change easily with a Sharks’ Game 1 victory.
One thing is for certain: the exhausted Blues whom the Sharks eliminated in 2016 are decidedly a thing of the past. Binnington, Thomas, and Berube are leading this team into a new future, but only time will tell if that future includes their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 50 years.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.