Once the Phoenix Coyotes defeated the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night to keep the San Jose Sharks from claiming a fifth consecutive Pacific Division title, the result gave San Jose, which clinched a playoff spot two nights earlier, the seventh seed in the Western Conference quarterfinals beginning Thursday in St. Louis against the second-seeded Blues.
Seeding for the Western Conference came down to the final day of the regular season, and that one Blues win turned the Sharks, who needed a late-season rally to earn the franchise’s 15 postseason berth, into visitors to open the initial best-of-seven series this spring. Even a series win against St. Louis will not be enough to earn home ice for the second series.
Coach Todd McLellan’s Sharks have more to worry about than home-ice advantage when looking toward the series with St. Louis. The Blues, despite losing seven of their final 11 games, fell one victory short of taking home the President’s Trophy, which is awarded to the team with the best record. Vancouver, the No. 1 seed, took home that accolade.
San Jose, playing the Blues for the fourth time in postseason history, closed strongly to earn a ticket to the playoffs. Seven wins in the last nine games, including consecutive two-game sweeps of the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings, gave San Jose enough points to outlast both Dallas and Colorado for the final playoff berth.
The Blues gave up a league-low 1.89 goals per game between goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. While Halak played in more games, Elliott had nine shutouts, as the Blues produced a modern NHL-record with 15.
“They are both elite goaltenders,” San Jose captain Joe Thornton said. “Some 2-1, 1-0 games, that’s what we’re going to be expecting.
“It’s going to be a great matchup. Staying out of the penalty box, that’s number one. We weren’t very disciplined in their building.”
McLellan turned to the need for resilience for his club to shake off the 4-0 season-series drubbing the Blues handed to San Jose.
“It’s not going to go our way all of the time,” McLellan said. “The long trip (nine games) took a lot out of us.”
Referring to the strong final weeks of the season, McLellan added that although “We didn’t play perfect, we played well enough against some very good hockey teams in pressure situations that prepared us.”
The Blues have been to the postseason twice in the previous seven seasons, while the Sharks are in the playoffs for the eighth straight year.
“At some point, I do believe that (playoff) experience comes into play,” McLellan said. “I believe we’ll need that.”
Only Detroit, with five series, has been a more frequent playoff adversary than St. Louis. San Jose has a 2-1 record in past showdowns, winning in seven games in 2000 and in five in 2004. The one Blues series win was in six games in 2001.
“Everybody plays their system,” Patrick Marleau said of the Blues’ strong suit. “They don’t make too many mistakes.”
“We’ll have to match their grit, their speed,” Thornton added.
St. Louis allowed three goals in four outings against the Sharks this season.
“We were at a different level than we were in the past,” Ryane Clowe added about the difference in the teams for the playoffs compared to the four prior games this year. “We didn’t really play well, to be honest. (By the end of the season) we played with a lot of emotion. (In past years) we’d be waiting to see who we play, rather than if you are going to make it (this year).”
“It doesn’t matter if a team’s number one or number eight,” Thornton cautioned about referring to one team as an underdog. “Our goal’s to win the Stanley Cup, and St. Louis is in our way right now.”