ST. LOUIS -- After a few days of waiting, the Western Conference finals kick off between two franchises, the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, that are each enjoying a playoff breakthrough. Here’s what to watch for in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, beginning at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday.
• This series might hinge on how successful the Sharks' power play is against a good Blues penalty kill. The Blues' penalty kill had more success in Round 2 against the Dallas Stars than it did in the first round against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that trend needs to continue for St. Louis to get off to a strong start in this series.
The Sharks have the best power play of the four teams remaining in the postseason; they're clicking at a rate of 30.9 percent. Joe Thornton has been a force this postseason whenever he sets up on the half-wall -- as he has been for most of his career from that spot. The key, says Blues penalty killer Kyle Brodziak, is to prevent the Sharks from getting to that point.
"Faceoffs are going to be a big emphasis for us. We’re going to want the first opportunity to get the clear," Brodziak said on Sunday. "[San Jose is] a team that finds ways to spend a lot of time in the zone."
A big reason for that is Thornton’s patience and vision. There might not be a more patient player in the league when the puck is on his stick.
"When he’s holding on to the puck on the half-wall, you have to be aware of what’s going on behind you," Brodziak said. "We just want to make it difficult for them to get in that position."
• Not only do the Sharks have the postseason’s best power play, they’re facing a team, in the Blues, that is not afraid to commit a penalty. St. Louis is averaging 11:12 penalty minutes per game, compared with just seven minutes for the Sharks. That’s a gap the Blues need to cut down.
"We have to be very disciplined, force them to take penalties," said Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. "They’re very good at making them count."
As good as the Sharks' power play is, the Blues' has been keeping pace. They enter this game with a 27.5 percent success rate on the power play, trailing only the Sharks among the final four playoff teams.
Part of it, as St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock pointed out on Sunday, is because of two distinct units that have two distinct styles of play. It’s something the Sharks are very well aware of.
“Their first unit with [Alexander] Steen and [Kevin] Shattenkirk is all about shooting. Their second unit, they like their low plays,” said Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “Both units have their tendencies.”
• Hitchcock has as much flexibility in his fourth line as any coach left in the postseason. He has rotated guys like Ryan Reaves, Steve Ott and Dmitrij Jaskin into that last slot to play with Brodziak and Scottie Upshall depending on the style of play he wants.
Hitchcock indicated that he’s going to stick with the fourth line that was successful in eliminating the Stars, which means Ott remains in the lineup. But there will be a short leash for the Blues depth players with guys waiting to jump into the lineup.
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer has confidence in his fourth line against anyone, so one area to watch is to see who gets more zone time and production from the last line.
He agreed that the games might come down to who gets better play from the bottom of the lineup.
“That’s going to be the story of the series. When you write down the two teams on paper, both are deep, both are capable of running four lines and six D out there,” DeBoer said. “When we’re on our game, our depth guys have been better than the other team’s depth guys. That’s the big challenge.”