One word sums up the St. Louis Blues rather neatly: defense.
And that’s why the Sharks need to play clean, tight-lipped hockey to pull off an upset over the Blues in their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, which kicks off in St. Louis today at 4:30 p.m.
“They’re arguably the best defensive team in the league,” defenseman Dan Boyle said. “It’s going to be hard.”
The Blues were not only the top defensive team this year, they put together one of the stingiest seasons in NHL history. The team allowed only 1.89 goals per game, a fraction above the NHL record of 1.87 set by the 1953-54 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1955-56 Montreal Canadians. In between the pipes, the Blues’ spectacular goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott set two modern NHL records: total shutouts (15) and fewest goals allowed (148).
But the Blues weren’t always a defensive juggernaut, the screws tightened after Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench just 13 games into the season. Hitchcock is a system-oriented perfectionist, who likes to clog up the neutral zone and pounce on opponents’ mistakes. If the Blues score first, they’re deadly. They’ll slow the game down like football in the mud, forcing opponents to dump, chase and earn every single shot. And they like to hit.
“They’re not fancy,” Sharks assistant captain Ryane Clowe said. “They play a real strong-man’s game.”
The Blues put together a 43-15-11 record under Hitchcock without having a single player score more than 55 points this season. They also won all four matchups with the Sharks by a combined score of 11-3, while recording two shutouts in the process.
“They had our number a little bit this year,” Clowe said.
He said the keys to breaking the Blues’ trap are matching their patience, discipline and willingness to grind it out along the wall. No passes through the middle, no sloppy turnovers, no odd-man rushes going the other way.
“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” Clowe said. “We can punt the puck a few times and go chase it down.”
To win the series, the Sharks will need to take at least one game in St. Louis, where the Blues hold a 30-6-5 record this season.
The Sharks struggled on the road this year, posting a 17-17-7 record; but they managed to pull off clutch wins in Dallas and Los Angeles last week when it mattered most.
“We know we can do it,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “It has to happen at some point.”
Game 1: Today at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.
Game 3: Monday at Sharks, 7 p.m.
Game 4: April 19 at Sharks, 7:30 p.m.
Game 5: April 21 at St. Louis, 4:30 p.m.*
Game 6: April 23 at Sharks, TBD*
Game 7: April 26 at Sharks, TBD*
(All games televised on Comcast SportsNet California, radio broadcast on 98.5 FM, 102.1 FM)