The St. Louis Blues have faced some pretty good offensive players on their journey to the Western Conference Final.
In the first round, it was Hart Trophy favorite Patrick Kane and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews on the other side. They combined for one goal in the seven-game series.
Next up was the Dallas Stars, who were missing Tyler Seguin, but still finished as the NHL’s top offensive team in the regular season. Jamie Benn, second in the league in scoring, managed just one goal, as did second line center Jason Spezza in seven games.
Now come the Sharks’ top offensive threats in Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Brent Burns. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock indicated playing a hard, tight-checking game against them will be the focus.
“I think for any team that plays against good players, you just don't want to give up any easy ice,” Hitchcock told reporters on Saturday. “For us, whether it was Toews' line, whether it was Benn, we just didn't want to give them any easy ice. That's going to be the same formula moving forward.
“I think it's like anything else. If you don't give them the puck as much, then they can't do as much damage as they normally do. I think from our standpoint, we've done a reasonably good job at keeping the puck away from key players.
“But if you think you're just going to go out and check good players and negate them, that's a big mistake. They're patient, competitive, and they'll wait for their opportunities.”
Slowing down the Sharks’ power play will be paramount for the Blues, as San Jose is operating at a 31.0 percent clip in the playoffs. According to Hitchcock, the Sharks had 19 scoring chances in three regular season meetings with the Blues, and “that’s too many.” San Jose was 2-for-13 with a man advantage over those three games, going 2-1-0.
“The motor response is just so automatic because these guys have been together for five, six years, the same group of guys,” Hitchcock said, obviously referring to the Sharks’ top power play unit of Thornton, Couture, Pavelski, Burns and Patrick Marleau.
“First thing is to stay out of the box. Second thing is to make them work harder than they want to work. They're going to get their licks [and] their chances.”
Hitchcock made one change to the Blues’ lines for practice on Saturday, putting Jori Lehtera on the top line between Vladimir Tarasnko and Jaden Schwartz, while Alex Steen centered David Backes and Patrik Berglund.
“We just feel that from a chemistry standpoint, Lehtera and Tarasenko and Schwartz have had good chemistry,” Hitchcock said. “Because of the way Dallas' lines were formulated, we needed a different mix with their first two lines and we found it. … I think going back to this line combination makes us more comfortable.”
Here’s a look at St. Louis’ lines and defense pairs headed into Sunday’s Game 1:
Jaden Schwartz – Jori Lehtera – Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri – Paul Stastny – Troy Brouwer
Patrik Berglund – Alex Steen – David Backes
Scottie Upshall – Kyle Brodziak – Steve Ott
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson – Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson – Colton Parayko
Brian Elliott (starter)