In the series between San Jose and St. Louis, each team has had chances to score. Two specific chances act as a metaphor for how this series has played out through the first three games.
The Sharks Score
The first chance I’ll examine is a goal scored by the Sharks’ Tomas Hertl in Game 3. It not only gave San Jose the lead but also marked a distinct change in momentum.
The goal happened quickly. The Blues attempted to exit their own zone. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko’s attempt to push the puck quickly up the ice was rejected by Brent Burns and the puck wound up on the stick of Joe Thornton near center ice. Thornton quickly bumped the puck forward in the direction Joe Pavelski was heading. The Blues defenders went to the puck, but Pavelski won the race. While people think of Pavelski as a scorer these days, he is an accomplished passer. With the Blues entire defense collapsing towards him, Pavelski slides the puck cross-ice to a streaking Tomas Hertl. Hertl has plenty of time and space open to him in the middle of the ice as he charges towards the net. While the play resembles an odd man rush, the Sharks do not have the numbers on the play. When Hertl enters the zone, the Blues have three defenders inside their zone, the Sharks only have two attackers. All three defenders, however, are on Pavelski’s side of the ice.
Goalie Brian Elliott already near the top of his crease comes further out of his crease while also moving laterally, a very challenging move. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk attempts to gain coverage on Hertl, but Hertl is able to shoot from near the face-off dot. The goalie’s lateral movement means he can not get set. In turn, this gives Hertl more shooting options. Hertl chooses wisely, netting the Sharks first goal past Elliott’s glove hand.
The goal was a key turning point. The Blues had dominated a good part of the period prior to the goal, but they fell behind on Hertl’s goal. The ice was tilted in San Jose’s direction for the rest of the game.
The Blues Hit the Post
In Game 2, St. Louis trailed by two goals in the final minute of the second period. The Sharks were dominating play, but with a bit over a period to go, Troy Brouwer had a chance to bring his team within a goal. Importantly, Brouwer had the opportunity to change the momentum in the game.
On this play, the Blues had a numbers advantage, four attackers against three defenders, entering the zone. Patrik Berglund carries the puck into the Sharks zone, attracting the attention of Joel Ward. Robby Fabbri and Joel Edmundson go to the far side of the play. The Sharks defenders, Paul Martin, and Brent Burns get their assignments crossed momentarily, as they both go to cover the wide players, opening up the middle of the ice. Bergland drops a crafty pass to Brouwer, allowing him plenty of time and space to charge towards the net. However, the defensive mistake has a silver lining, the cross-ice pass is not available to Brouwer. And while Brouwer is a fine player, there is no fear of him pulling a Datsyukian move as he streaks towards the net. This allows Martin Jones to line up with the attacker. Jones eases out past the top of the blue paint area to cut down the shooting angles available to Brouwer, not having to worry about a cross-ice pass. Unlike the situation Brian Elliott faced against Hertl, Jones did not need to scramble as he faced Brouwer. As Brouwer gets inside the face-off dot, Burns moves to challenge him. Brouwer releases his shot. Jones’ positioning leaves Brouwer a tight shooting window and he just misses, hitting the post instead.
The Series In Two Plays
These two scoring chances are a microcosm of the series to date. The Sharks did more with less, the Blues did less with more. The Sharks get a pretty good chance, make top-end plays and capitalize. The Blues get a very good chance and miss by a whisker. The Sharks defense makes a mistake, but it is brief and one that gives the goalie a chance. The Blues make a bigger mistake and their goalie is hung out to dry.
San Jose has carried the play since the second period of Game 1. They have had the higher quality chances and have buried enough of them to have a 2-1 lead in the series. For the Blues, the opportunities are fewer and their margin for error is smaller. Therein lies the difference in the series.
For a game, each playoff team dresses 18 skaters, a starting goalie, and a backup goalie. Nineteen players (all 18 skaters and the starting goalie) are essentially guaranteed to get ice time in any given game. In the playoffs so far, San Jose has used just 20 different players in their 15 games. St. Louis and Pittsburgh have used 24 players, Tampa Bay has used 26. Seventeen Sharks have played every game. Matt Nieto, Dainius Zubrus, and Tommy Wingels are the three players who have divided up the remaining games. They are also the lowest three players in average ice time per game for San Jose.
Chris Tierney, one of the lesser known Sharks, played one of his best games in Game 3. His work in the penalty kill was especially noticeable.
Goalie save-percentage is one of the most popular metrics for NHL goalies. In the postseason, the current starting goalies are Andrei Vasilevskiy (.932), Martin Jones (.927), Brian Elliott (.925) and Matt Murray (.923). In the NHL regular season, only three goalies topped .925. One of the three was Brian Elliott, who led the league at .930. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock announced he plans to start Jake Allen in goal for the first time in the playoffs in Game 4 against the Sharks.
In the series between San Jose and St. Louis, the team with fewer shots on goal has won each game.